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Volvo Ahead of its Time 15 May 1998

THE EARTH TIMES

MAY 1 – 15, 1998

VOLVO: A Bio-Gas Entry in the Automotive Sweepstakes

A Car of the Future: Volvo introduces a model using natural gas and fuel to power their latest series.

By Ashali Varma

PHOENIX, Arizona-Parked side by side, 20 new silver gray sedans gleamed in the bright Phoenix sun while journalists from all over the US and Sweden were briefed on what Volvo calls the car of the future—-its newest line of bi-fuel cars—the S70 and V70. The bi-fuels have two fuel tanks, one for gasoline and one for compressed natural gas (CNG) which produces far lower levels of  pollution and “greenhouse gases” such as carbon dioxide.

A crucial test for the bi-fuel cars came when the journalists were invited to test drive the cars. The drive was the ultimate in comfort on highways that wound around the spectacular landscape of the Arizona desert with its ravines, red rocks and tall cacti.

Somewhere along the way, without attracting any notice, the natural gas fuel gauge went to empty—the tank holds enough to  power the car for 150 to 180 miles—and the gasoline supply kicked in. There was no noticeable difference in the car’s performance when fueled by the natural gas, and quite a few of the test drivers felt that if saving the environment could be achieved in such luxury, it was definitely worth it.

The cars come with 2.5 liter engines and automatic transmissions. And although they look like conventional cars a part of their trunks is occupied by the additional CNG tank.

The ordinary S70 prices start at $27,900; for bio-fuel add $4,000. These cars are not for sale in the US and only about 300 have been sold so far in Sweden, Australia, Japan, Norway, the United  Kingdom, Switzerland and Germany. But Volvo, already known for producing one of the safest cars in the world, is now ready to spread the word that it also produces one of the cleanest cars on the market. This applies not only to the car’s exhaust emissions but to the production process and recycling of parts at the end of each car’s useful life.

“Care for the environment is inherent in the Volvo corporate psyche because of its Scandinavian background,” said Jeannine Fallon, Volvo’s manager of media relations.

There is nothing new about using CNG as a vehicle fuel; CNG powered vehicles have been in use since the beginning of this century. At present there are more than one million such vehicles in more than 40 countries. But with the increasing focus on environmental problems in cities, there is a growing interest in the latest generation of environmentally optimized vehicles, which combine CNG and state-of-the-art catalytic converter technology.

Twenty years ago Volvo invented and introduced the three way catalytic converter to clean up car emissions, and the company sees the Volvo S70 and V70 as a further step in this direction.

The cars are powered principally by methane (natural gas or biogas) and have a gasoline tank in reserve.  Compared with gasoline, natural gas results in significantly lower total emissions per mile of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons. It also produces 20 percent lower emissions of carbon dioxide. And, according to Volvo engineers, Volvo’s emission control systems last; they are just as effective after 50,000 miles as when  the car is new.

Car manufacturers are looking to the future and trying to find alternative fuels that are also less polluting—-electricity, alcohol, natural gas or biogas produced by waste. Volvo has chosen to concentrate on natural gas.

“We believe that gas is the most realistic alternative, at least during the next few years,” said Bo Ramberg, project manger for bi- fuel Volvo cars. “There is a tremendous interest, especially in .those countries which already have a natural gas network, like Australia.”

A bi-fuel car driven on methane complies with California’s stringent Ultra Low Emissions

Vehicle requirements when it comes to hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide.

Natural gas is also far cheaper than gasoline.

However in most countries the infrastructure for refueling stations is not yet developed. “In 1972, we started considering the environment as a core value along with safety and quality,” said Fallon. “We have a research joint venture in the field of car recycling which aims to comply withenvironmental, technical and financial requirements. “Fallon said that since 1994 Volvo has been one of the partners in a pilot project designed to ensure that end-of-life.  Swedish cars are scrapped in a manner which results in increased recycling and a reduction in the environmental load.  About 75 percent of the car can be recycled (in the pilot program the figure is 85 percent).

Fallon is very proud of another first that Volvo has created.  “We have a database called MOTIV—it is a database of chemicals that Volvo has created and consists of about 4,000 chemicals commonly used in cars.  This database gives details on a chemical’s effect on the environment, workers’ health and customers’ health.”

The database has three categories of chemicals: the “black list” consists of chemicals that are dangerous and never used by Volvo; the “gray list” contains chemicals that are not so harmful but Volvo still tries not to use them, and the “white list” has chemicals that are safe.

Manufacturing processes that cause pollution are also being eliminated, said Jose L Diaz de la Vega, Volvo’s chief designer for Interior, Color and Trim. “Our exterior paints are created by water—based solvents so we have one of the cleanest processes in the world.  Normally you have thinner and alcohol-based solvents—these fumes escape into atmosphere,” In addition, he said that the woods used in the interior trim of the cars come from farms that cultivate trees. “We are also investigating the use of more natural fibers in our upholstery or synthetic material that can be recycled,” he said.