Revving up greener, cleaner lawn mowers

The EPA has approved stricter air quality regulations for lawn care equipment and boats. One company is readying a catalytic filter to clean up small-motor air emissions.

If you've ever choked on a lung-full of exhaust from a lawn mower or motor boat, you might appreciate this product idea: a catalytic converter for small motors.

Filter company MemPro Ceramics has developed what it calls the NoxFox, a "catalytic filter" designed to neutralize air pollutants from lawn mower engines.

The company plans to produce the small devices--sized a few inches by a few inches--next year and is seeking to partner with small engine manufacturers, according to John M. Finley, CEO of MemPro Ceramics.

Cleaning up around the yard--a catalytic converter for gas mowers. MemPro Ceramics

Lawn-care products and boats contribute significantly to air pollution. An hour of operating a lawn mower pollutes as much as 34 hours of driving a car, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

After a number of delays, the Environmental Protection Agency last week passed more stringent regulations to curb smog-causing hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide, and other air pollutions.

The rules are set to take effect in 2010 and 2011, depending on the product category, and are expected to lead to the use of catalytic converters in lawn mowers and boats for the first time, according to the EPA.

When fully implemented, the rules will annually reduce 600,000 tons of hydrocarbons, 130,000 tons of nitrogen oxide, 5,500 tons of particulate matter, and 1.5 million tons of carbon monoxide, according to the EPA. It will cut gasoline consumption by 190 million gallons each year.

MemPro Ceramic's NoxFox device is designed to do exactly what car catalytic converters do: greatly reduce the carbon monoxide and nitric oxide pollutants from gasoline engines. It can also eliminate unburnt fuel in gaseous form.

The company has an exclusive license from the University of Akron to commercialize a method for manufacturing fibers made from nanoparticles.

"It's a little like cotton. It's a fibrous filter that a has a lot of surface area in it, which means it does a good job of exposing the catalyst to the bad gases," Finley explained.

The company chose to apply the technology to gas-powered small engines because that represents a clear addressable market worth about $140 million, he said.

"It fits very nicely on the muffler of a lawn mower, leaf blower, or power washer, which are just empty metal cavities," he said.

Longer term, MemPro Ceramics intends to target coal-fired power plant generators as well as power boats, motor cycles, and agricultural equipment.

The company may try to sell the device as an after-market attachment to lawn mowers, rather than fitted on by mower manufacturers, but it's unclear what the consumer demand for an add-on product is, Finley said.

Sen. Kit Bond, a Republican from Missouri, opposed the regulations, which led to a study as to whether catalytic converters on lawn mowers would create enough heat to start fires, according to an Associated Press article. The EPA concluded there is no safety concern.

Catalytic converters aren't the only way for manufacturers to comply with the EPA ruling. Some companies are developing fuel cells, which emit water vapor, for use on boats and forklifts.

Update on September 12, 2008 at 9:00 a.m. PT: corrected projected market size for lawn mower air filters.

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