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MIT Plasmatron Wins Discover Award

June 10, 1999

The Tenth Annual Awards for Technological Innovation, sponsored by Discover Magazine and the Christopher Columbus Foundation, were announced June 5 at a ceremony at Epcot Center, Florida. MIT's Microplasmatron Fuel Convertor was the winner in the transportation category, beating out two other finalists: a hybrid electric vehicle developed by Toyota and NASA's intelligent flight control system. In all, there were 27 categories and winners out of an original field of 4000 entries.

The award was presented to Dr. Daniel Cohn, senior research scientist and head of the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center's (PSFC) Technology Division. Dan said, "This work is a spin-off from the PSFC's fusion activities." The specific project was funded by DOE's Office of Heavy Vehicle Technologies. The device, about the size of a large soup can, takes in a small amount of gas from the stream heading for a vehicle's engine and, by ionizing it, creates a hydrogen rich mixture that, when mixed back with the gasoline stream and burned, reduces smog-producing nitrous oxide pollutant emissions by about 90%.

The microplasmatron has been shown to be effective with a wide variety of fuels, including ordinary gasoline, natural gas, diesel oil and oils derived from biomass. Similar devices have been used previously to produce hydrogen-rich gas in large industrial applications, like metallurgical processing. "Our key step was the development of a compact, efficient, high-throughput, plasma generator," said Dr. Cohn. "You can hold the device in your hands, operate it at low power (around one kilowatt) and can process difficult-to-use fuels."

"This device could greatly reduce air pollution from cars, trucks and buses, using present internal combustion engine technology, without a major increase in costs and without any inconvenience to the driver," said Dr. Cohn. "Thus it could be possible to have a significant effect on the environment within the next decade."

Dr. Cohn's colleagues on the work at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center were Leslie Bromberg and Alexander Rabinovich. Collaborating on the work also were Jeffrey Surma and Jud Virden at Battelle Northwest National Laboratory and Charles Titus of T&R Associates.

For more information, contact Dan Cohn (cohn@psfc.mit.edu).