The flex fuel system was developed entirely in the Brazilian laboratories of German multinational company Bosch and Italian multinational company Magneti Marelli. This technology, which enables an automobile to run on ethanol, gasoline or any blend of the two, was created by Brazilian engineers with the support of the head offices in Germany and Italy. Brazil, known for its pioneering large-scale use of biofuels, mainly sugarcane ethanol, is also attempting to establish itself as a hub for innovation in the area of automotive components. It therefore relies on the support of several auto parts industry research and development centers in Brazil. In addition to Bosch and Magneti Marelli, the German company Mahle is also working on several solutions, many of which target alternative fuels.
These centers, together with the vehicle industries located in Brazil, will develop the technology required to comply with the new vehicle industry regulations announced by the federal government in early October 2012. According to the agreement, vehicle manufacturers will be exempt from payment of Tax on Manufactured Products (IPI) if they invest in research and development of such aspects as improved fuel efficiency. This improvement will certainly have an impact on the future of the flex system.
“Flex fuel is a very positive example,” says Celso Eduardo Fávero, head of product development engineering at Bosch in Brazil. “I get at least one call a week from people from other countries, asking me about biofuels. The standards and ethanol products out there come from Brazil. This means that we are transferring technology,” he says. The involvement of Brazilian engineering from Bosch with technologies for ethanol fuels began in 1985, and by the mid 1990s the company had provided the world’s first flex system on an automobile (an Omega car from General Motors of Brazil) that was able to run on any mixture of ethanol or gasoline. The flex automobiles were placed on the Brazilian market in 2003, and four years later Bosch began exporting similar flex fuel systems that went on to equip models made by automobile manufacturer Peugeot sold in Sweden and France. Gasoline in those countries receives an addition of 5 to 85% ethanol.
The company’s investment in research recently resulted in a new fuel pump for flex engines. The device is responsible for moving the fuel in the car’s tank to the engine’s feed system. The challenge for the company was to develop a more durable component that performed better than the conventional one – Bosch has a market share of nearly 80% for this product in Brazil. “The pumps that work on flex engines have serious degradation problems. Ethanol is a very aggressive fuel that causes corrosion in some of the engine components. In order to make the pumps more resistant, our team decided to apply a surface treatment that protects the components that are susceptible to attack by ethanol,” explains Ederson Conti, manager of software development engineering at Bosch. Just like the flex system, the new pump was made by the Brazilian engineers with the help of others at the head office in Germany. “The project was multidisciplinary as well as multicultural,” says Conti. The product, already in large-scale use by manufacturers in Brazil, is being exported to other countries such as the United Sates, Sweden and Thailand.
Laura da ViñaEngineers from the muffler division of Magneti Marelli in Brazil also work together with their Italian colleagues to develop new products. One of the most recent of these is a leading-edge electronically controlled semi-active muffler, which, since 2009, has been used to equip two high-end cars from the Fiat group, the Alfa Mito and the Lancia Delta. What is new about the semi-active muffler is that it provides more stability to the vehicle because it has a processing center and sensors that are located at strategic points all over the car.
Development of the product began in 2003 and the mechanical design of the part was assigned to the muffler division in Brazil. The head office in Italy coordinated the work and designed the electronic systems and the logic control. A supplier from Sweden developed the electronic valve, a component that operates the system, and the Magneti unit in Poland did the assembly and final product testing. “The technical center for mufflers in Mauá, the state of São Paulo, is one of Magneti’s nine global centers of competence. This is because our unit has specialized in mufflers for a long time, even before Cofap was purchased by Magneti Marelli,” says Luiz Bloem Junior, muffler innovation engineering manager at Magneti Marelli. “We interact with teams from other countries on simultaneous engineering projects,” says Bloem. The Italian company purchased the Brazilian manufacturer Cofap in 1997. The multinational company holds a 72% share of the original-muffler market in Brazil and manufactured 29.6 million parts in 2011.
Early in the last decade, the Italian multinational company also developed a system for flex engines in Brazil that is different than the one developed by Bosch. While the German company uses a physical sensor to read fuel levels and determine the parameters for operating the engine, Magneti’s system, called a Software Flexfuel Sensor, measures the oxygen present in the exhaust fumes and thus calibrates the system to work with the various combinations of alcohol and gasoline. “The studies began in 1997 and the product, made entirely in Brazil, was launched in 2003. From then on, the Brazilian unit of Magneti Marelli was defined as the center of reference for the development of alternative fuel systems. We receive numerous requests from the head office and if any unit of the company, anywhere in the world, wants to develop something in this area, we are consulted,” says Eduardo Campos, commercial manager of the company’s powertrain division. Magneti has a 43% share of the Brazilian biofuel systems market.
Located in the city of Jundiaí, 50 km from the city of São Paulo, the Mahle technology center is considered to be the company’s global center of competence in the development of alternative fuel filters. The company’s R&D unit, one of the automotive industry’s 30 largest in the world, is part of a network made up of eight similar centers scattered around the world and is staffed by 230 technicians and engineers. “Brazil is Mahle’s second largest technology center in terms of budget, personnel and products,” says Brazilian Ricardo Abreu, global vice-president of R&D at Mahle. “The need to develop solutions for the Brazilian biofuels market makes the Brazilian unit even more important in global terms,” he says.
Laura da ViñaOne of these solutions, in its final development stage, is a next generation fuel filter for use in flex fuel engines. The job of these filters is to trap the impurities in the fuel that may negatively affect the engine’s operation. The first generation of flex filters was completed in 2003. The second is designed to double or triple the useful life of the equipment, currently close to 10,000 km – half the durability of filters for engines that run exclusively on gasoline. “There are three reasons why the useful life of filters on cars that run on ethanol or flex fuel is so low,” explains Fabio Moreira, R&D manager of the engine filtration and peripherals division of Mahle. “The first is related to the amount of contaminants present in Brazilian ethanol, which is nearly 40% more than what’s found in gasoline. The second reason is due to the flex vehicle’s consumption, which is up to 30% more than vehicles that run on gasoline alone. And the third reason is related to the formation of a gelatinous substance in the filter that occurs as a result of certain conditions. This gel clogs the surface of the filter and reduces its durability,” says Moreira. In order to deal with the problem, the company developed two models – the Double-Flex and the Flexible Packing filters. The two were well-accepted, but there was a preference for the Flexible Packing model. It has a larger filtering area and a longer useful life, estimated at 30,000 km, and the driver only needs to change the filter element cartridge – made out of a type of cardboard –, keeping the filter’s plastic body. Durability tests on the new part are expected to begin in the second half of 2013, and if everything goes well, it will be on the market by 2015.
Despite recognizing the importance of the work at R&D centers of some multinational companies in the auto parts sector, Prof. Eduardo Vasconcellos of the School of Economics, Business Administration and Accounting of the University of São Paulo (FEA/USP) believes that it will still take some time for Brazil to be recognized as a center of reference in developing solutions for the automobile industry. “The automotive components companies have various opinions with regard to the role of their subsidiaries in terms of R&D. I believe Brazil is able to do much more than the head offices generally allow.” Prof. Francisco Nigro of the Politechnical School of USP agrees with his FEA colleague. “We’re not establishing ourselves as a center that generates biofuel technology. We’re trying to improve the energy efficiency of ethanol engines, but when we compare them to gasoline engines made outside Brazil, we see that we still have a long way to go,” says Nigro. He is referring to the example of the direct injection engines where fuel is injected at a high pressure into the engine combustion chamber. This type of technology appears to be a successor to the current engines because it economizes fuel and reduces the emission of pollutants.Republish