DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co. plans to use one of an auto plant's nastiest byproducts - paint fumes - to make electricity at its Michigan Truck plant in Wayne, Mich.
Starting this month, equipment at the plant will turn emissions from its painting operations into electricity for the plant.
Ford calls the technology Fumes-to-Fuel. Ford, which co-developed the process with power company Detroit Edison, has been experimenting with it for more than two years.
"Anybody who paints metal could use it," says Patrick Ryan, a Detroit Edison engineer who helped create the technology.
Ford would not say what it cost to develop the technology, nor would it provide a dollar estimate of what it expects to save with Fumes-to-Fuel.
But Ford did say that the process could save one-third to one-half the cost of the traditional means of getting rid of the volatile organic compounds in paint fumes: incineration.
It will take 10 years to recoup costs, though, according to Ford. That's the life cycle for conventional incineration equipment, which is not as efficient as Fumes-to-Fuel will be in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the automaker says.
Fumes-to-Fuel is a two-step process. Paint fumes, which contain hydrocarbons, are collected and concentrated. Then the fumes are fed into a combustion engine, which uses them to make electricity.
"It achieves the objective of destroying the volatile organic compounds," says Christopher Porter, Ford's manger of worldwide environmental support. "It requires less energy and, therefore, generates less carbon dioxide. We believe it's going to be more cost-effective."
Fumes-to-Fuel stems from a pilot program used in 2003 at Ford's Rouge truck assembly complex in Dearborn, Mich. Instead of a combustion engine, the Rouge program uses fuel cells to generate electricity. But Ford says it's not cost effective to create a significant source of power for a large auto plant with fuel cells.
At least, not yet, concedes Vikram Varma, director of corporate development at Fuel Cell Technologies Ltd. in Kingston, Ontario, which made the Rouge's fuel cells.
"The technology is new," Varma admits. "It needs to be proven in the field."
But, he says: "As we deploy more and more systems, it becomes proven. Within a few years, this (fuel cells) is going to be a cost-effective solution."