The Lambda Revolution -
NEWS ON RADIO
Stephen Wallman was the engineer at Volvo Car Corporation
who invented the Lambda sensor system
with Next Car,
4th April, 2006
In 1976 Volvo Cars presented a world first in the environmental area - the three-way catalytic converter with Lambda sensor for exhaust emission control.
Today, 30 years later, virtually all petrol-engined cars built around the world are fitted with this ingenious component. The Lambda sensor is as indispensable to the environment as the three-point seat belt is to occupant protection.
"The most significant breakthrough ever made in the control of vehicle exhaust emissions". So said Tom Quinn, chairman of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), when the 1977 model of the Volvo 244 equipped with a Lambda sensor system was launched on the American market in the (northern) autumn of 1976, and his words remain true to this day.
The Lambda sensor was the first truly effective solution to the problem of cleaning vehicle exhaust emissions, principally nitrogen oxides. The principle employed in present-day cars is still the same.
Volvo's promise to take action
In 1972, Pehr G Gyllenhammar, CEO of AB Volvo at the time, made a bold statement at the global environmental conference in Stockholm. He conceded that motoring made a major contribution to the steadily increasing pollution of the environment.
outcome of that meeting was Volvo's environmental declaration, which still
applies to this day and which reads:
Around the same time, Volvo engineers discovered that the unregulated oxidising catalytic converter which was about to be launched could, under certain circumstances, be made to treat hydrocarbons (HC), carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen oxides (CO) infinitely more effectively than previously thought.
Development began on increasing this capability by regulating the fuel/air mixture ratio to a desirably narrow range in which the catalytic converter worked best.
The man behind Volvo's Lambda sensor system, Stephen Wallman, recalls: "The components we used in the technical solution already existed, but were used in a different way and in other areas. The trick was to link them together into a complete system and get them to work in a petrol-engined car."
In this range the conversion of the engine's exhaust emissions in the catalytic converter is so efficient that more than 90 percent of the harmful gases hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides formed in combustion are eliminated in the catalytic converter.
In 1977 California introduced new strict exhaust emission limits for the three harmful gases at the levels: hydrocarbons 0.41 g/mile; carbon monoxide 9.0 g/mile; nitrogen oxides 1.5 g/mile. Then, this was the world's strictest emission legislation. Ever since, California has pushed the exhaust emission requirements to lower and lower levels.
The Volvo cars with three-way catalytic converters and Lambda sensors were measured at hydrocarbons 0.2 g/mile; carbon monoxide 3.0 g/mile; nitrogen oxides 0.2 g/mile!
Remarkably low values and good margins, in other words. The low emissions of nitrogen oxides in particular were sensational and this work was duly awarded. Volvo received the environmental award from the environmental council of President Jimmy Carter's administration.
The original Lambda sensor system has been enhanced during the past 30 years to reduce exhaust emissions even further. As Tom Quinn rightly said, it is inventions of this kind that move industry and humanity forward. It has been possible to take many more small steps in the treatment of exhaust emissions since 1976.
A Volvo engine today eliminates more than 95 percent of the harmful emissions.
Today, the focus of the automotive industry is more concentrated on cutting the levels of carbon dioxide emissions.
"Although there were statutory requirements we had to meet, it was Volvo's ambition, and our own, to achieve a real breakthrough that drove us to this highly successful solution," concludes Wallman, the inventor of the Lambda sensor.
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