Taking the bling out of your engine

Company producing platinum alloy that substitutes more effectively for expensive pure material used in catalytic converters to curb pollution.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
2 min read
How much platinum there is in a Volkswagen Passat diesel? If you guessed $238 dollars worth, you'd be right.

Nanostellar is trying to reduce it. The company has produced a platinum alloy that can substitute for the pure material inside catalytic converters, according to CEO Pankaj Dhingra.

The company recently began regular production of 250 kilograms of the alloy a week. Although that's not enough to serve large car manufacturers, consistent production could help convince auto makers to adopt the material.

Platinum sprinkled in the catalytic converter captures gases like carbon monoxide and turns them into less dangerous compounds, such as carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, the high temperatures generated in engine causes the platinum to separate from the substrate of the converter and clump together. That causes the performance of the converter to degrade over time.

Thus, car manufacturers have to put in excess platinum. The presence of platinum has also made catalytic converters a target for thieves.

Nanostellar's alloys adhere better to the converter, so particles can't clump together, which in the end results in lower costs. Platinum currently costs around $1,100 an ounce, down from $1,300 in the recent past, he said. Substituting one of the company's alloys for pure platinum can reduce the platinum budget in a Passat by $56 to $107 dollars. (A Jeep Liberty has about $170 worth of platinum.).

That won't make an appreciable dent in the sticker price of a Passat, but for a car manufacturer it adds up.

"Last year, $2 billion in platinum was used in diesel engines," Dhingra said.

Additionally, the alloy reduces diesel emissions without fuel additives. The company's first alloys targeted reducing carbon monoxide; these compounds can reduce carbon monoxide emissions by 50 percent or more, depending on how much is used. In the future, it will work to reduce nitrogen gases. The company employs computational models to attempt to figure out what combination of precious metal atoms and other elements will result in a property with desired properties.

Japan, Europe and the U.S. have passed, or are in the process of passing, tighter regulations on diesel emissions, which expand the market for these type of materials.

The company has signed deals with manufacturers of aftermarket catalytic converters, and is negotiating with car manufacturers to have its material integrated into production cars.

Getting the material onto production lines will also require expanding production facilities. The company will need about ten times its current 250 kilograms grams a week to produce enough alloy for 4,000 to 5,000 engines a year, he said.

Nanostellar was founded by William Miller, a Stanford University professor who also has served as CEO of SRI International; Jonathan Woo, a expert on quantum mechanics and molecular modeling, and K.J. Cho, a nanotechnology expert. Investors include 3i, which put money in the company in 2004.