Fueling the Growth of Green Manufacturing

May 30, 2008
Ford Motor Co. uses Ontario, Canada's incentive program to help develop green technologies.

The whole environmental engineering world is watching. And waiting... for a revolutionary technology that converts paint fumes to energy now being developed at Ford's Oakville Assembly Complex. "This is the greenest technology out there when it comes to air pollution control and power generation," says Kit Edgeworth, who is responsible for the Fumes to Fuel cell system project. "This is in a world of its own -- it's Star Trek stuff."

Edgeworth came to Oakville from Ford's Michigan headquarters last year to supervise the experimental process which was stimulated by $100 million in funding for the Oakville complex through the Ontario government's Automotive Investment Strategy. "That's real forward-looking thinking," he says. "If it weren't for the government money, Ford would have probably waited five years to embark on this project. And then it might have been located elsewhere."

Fumes to Fuel is exactly the type of project the Ontario government wants to see a lot more of, and it's putting up $1.15 billion through the Next Generation of Jobs Fund (NGoJF) to help make projects happen quickly.

Ontario's NGoJF is designed to accelerate the development of green technologies, biomaterials and other advanced products that global markets are hungry for and that will help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The fund will cover up to 15% of eligible costs for innovative projects that create at least 100 good jobs or involve investments of $25 million or more over five years.

Speed is of the essence. Companies have been guaranteed a response within 45 days of submitting a completed application package.

The Next Generation of Jobs Fund is modelled after the highly successful $500 million Ontario Automotive Investment Strategy, which leveraged more than $7 billion in total new automotive investments over four years, including Ford's innovative Fumes to Fuel project.

Ford's Fumes to Fuel project is the first initiative of the new fuel cell-focused research and development centre which is part of Ford's $1 billion upgrade and expansion of the Oakville flexible assembly plant.

Here's how the concept works. The painting process in any auto plant emits what are known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), or waste fumes. These VOCs are also produced in a wide range of manufacturing operations from furniture to adhesive labels. Indeed, any process that involves painting or solvents is likely to produce VOCs that pollute the air.

Up to now, auto plants have eliminated VOCs by burning them off in thermal oxidizers, a kind of incinerator for gases, at temperatures of up to 1,500 degrees. But such thermal oxidizers are expensive to build, use a lot of energy and themselves emit carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide, although in very small amounts.

Ford's better way is to capture the VOCs, move them through four filtration chambers, condense them and turn them into a hydrocarbon mixture that eventually is transformed into a hydrogen-rich liquid fuel that is fed to a fuel cell to produce electricity. If successful, the process will provide energy to help operate the plant while reducing greenhouse gases.

Even more significant, the Ford prototype lends itself to use in more than the auto industry. "We're getting calls from around the world," says Edgeworth as he shows a group of hard-hatted visitors around the 10,000 sq. ft. Fumes to Fuel conversion facility adjacent to the Oakville paint shop.

The state-of-the-art fuel cell is expected to be in operation by the end of 2008. By that time, the Oakville Auto Complex will be the "most modern facility in the world," according to Edgeworth. As far as he knows, no one else has taken the Fumes to Fuel concept to such an advanced stage. Engineering programs at several Ontario universities want to participate in the research. "People are lining up to get involved," says Edgeworth.

In the future, the Fumes to Fuel concept with its minimal greenhouse gases and lower energy consumption could replace existing air pollution systems. "It's so revolutionary that current systems could easily become dinosaurs," says Edgeworth, adding: "It's the best conversion system going-and it going to get even better."

The province's investment and Ford's response means the Oakville Assembly Complex's future looks secure, indeed. "Government vision is responsible for breathing decades of life into this plant," says Edgeworth. "It will become a showcase plant, a win-win for everyone and everything, including the environment."

The Next Generation of Jobs Fund -- more than double in size and scope of its predecessor -- hopes to boost innovation while spinning off multiple benefits for companies, consumers and communities.

And it wants to do it quickly. After all, the clock is ticking on climate change.

Ray Lancashire is the Marketing Consultant, for Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Trade. The Ministry of Economic Development and Trade's goal is to build a strong economy for all Ontarians. By supporting Ontario businesses innovate and compete we are able to attract new growth and investment to our province. http://www.ontario-canada.com/ontcan/en/home_en.jsp

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