New sponge for cleaning harbor oil leaks has a successful real world test

In March 2017, Ars wrote about a new material that could soak up oil like a sponge. The so-called Oleo Sponge could be wrung out, the oil could be collected, and the sponge could be used again. The material had just been developed at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) outside of Chicago, so it was still being tested in controlled environments.

Now, Argonne has announced a successful real-world test of the Oleo Sponge at an oil seep in a channel near Goleta, California.

The test, conducted in April, involved immersing the Oleo Sponge in the Coal Oil Point Seep Field in the Santa Barbara Channel. The oil seep field is natural and one of the largest in the known world (PDF). Not only does it release lots of methane every day, but it also releases oil into the channel water. A press release from ANL notes, “the seeps have been active for at least 500,000 years and release roughly 40 tons of methane, 19 tons of other organic gases, and more than 100 barrels of liquid petroleum daily.”

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Are diesel’s days numbered? A view from a trip to BYD’s electric bus factory

LANCASTER, CALIF.—One single diesel transit bus consumes the equivalent of 10,440 gallons of gasoline a year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Replacing that diesel-burning transit bus with an electric bus has some obvious benefits. Electric buses improve local air quality, because the particulates that come from burning diesel don’t exist. And, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an electric bus runs cleaner than a diesel bus no matter where you plug it in on the US grid, even if you’re plugging into a grid fed by fossil fuels.

In the desert north of Los Angeles, a Chinese company called BYD (short for “Build Your Dreams”) is banking on transit managers realizing this. BYD offered Ars a tour of its Lancaster facility in July, and we found a bustling factory floor filled with 900 workers who were building, welding, shaping, and painting about 90 buses in various stages of completion. The company’s workforce, recently unionized, is expected to grow to 1,200 in the near future.

So far, BYD has put more than 250 electric buses on US roads, and, as of mid-July, the company had more than 400 orders in the pipeline. That’s a significant number of buses in this nascent industry: last December, Reuters estimated that only 300 public buses on US roads were electric. Of course, BYD’s numbers include publicly and privately owned electric buses, while Reuters’ statistic only tallies public buses. Still, the numbers show just how aggressively the electric bus industry is growing, considering the size of the market just six months ago.

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Time is running out for dieselgate Volkswagen owners to get their money

If you own a diesel Volkswagen or Audi that was affected by the company’s 2015 diesel scandal, and if you haven’t submitted the proper paperwork to receive compensation, you only have one month left to do so.

Two years ago, Volkswagen proposed a settlement with a consumer’s class-action group: the automaker would put up more than $10 billion to fix or buy back roughly 475,000 diesel Volkswagens and Audis outfitted with illegal software. The software allowed the cars to pass emissions tests under pre-arranged testing conditions, but the cars suppressed the emissions control system while they were being driven on the road in the real world.

After news of the cheating was made public, the value of the affected vehicles dropped dramatically. Vehicle owners filed a class-action suit in district court, and VW Group proposed its settlement nearly a year later. Customers would have two years to file a claim for restitution. They also had a choice: allow VW Group to buy back their car at the value of the vehicle before the news of the cheating was made public, or allow VW Group to fix the vehicle to bring it into compliance with federal emissions rules. All owners and lessees would receive an additional cash payout as well.

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Audi CEO connected to diesel scandal arrested in Germany after phone taps

On Monday, Rupert Stadler, the head of Volkswagen Group’s Audi unit, was arrested in Germany, marking the first arrest of a VW Group high-ranking official in connection with the diesel scandal that became public in 2015.

Stadler, who took Audi’s helm in 2007, had his house raided by German investigators last week. The raid occurred around the same time that VW Group agreed to pay a €1 billion ($1.2 billion) fine for “inadequate oversight” in its powertrain department.

According to local paper Sueddeuschte Zeitung as reported by Bloomberg, the arrest was made after law enforcement tapped Stadler’s phone. The executive was taken into custody because prosecutors thought he might tamper with evidence. “Last week, authorities raided his house and named him a suspect in their probe of fraud and falsifying public documents in relation to selling diesel cars in Europe,” Bloomberg reported.

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Volkswagen Group will pay another $1.2 billion in Germany over diesel scandal

A German court fined Volkswagen Group €1 billion ($1.2 billion) this week for its role in the 2015 diesel scandal. The fine is among the largest imposed on a company in Germany’s history, according to the prosecutor in the case, and it shows that the German automaker is still dealing with the fallout from a persistent pattern of lying to regulators.

The diesel scandal first became public in the United States three years ago after regulators discovered that Volkswagen diesel vehicles were emitting significantly more nitrogen oxide (NOx) while on the road than the legal limit. Later, researchers were able to find the exact code that suppressed the emissions control system on 2007-2015 diesel Volkswagens, Audis, and Porsches from Volkswagen Group.

The new German fine is related to “inadequate oversight” in the powertrain department, according to CNN Money.

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Bosch might just have solved the problem of diesel NOx emissions

Is there still a future for the diesel engine? According to Bosch, the answer is yes—this week the German company announced it had made a breakthrough by combining a number of existing technologies, which means that modern turbodiesel engines can still make good power and deliver excellent fuel efficiencies. At the same time, Bosch says this combo will emit very low levels of dangerous nitrogen oxides (NOx)—in fact, the company says it can beat future European emissions regulations by 90 percent.

Diesel is a dirty word

For a while, it looked like the turbodiesel engine was an easy way to boost fuel efficiency and cut carbon emissions without sacrificing power or torque. But its dirty secret was that the modern turbodiesels that gained so much marketshare in Europe and were starting to gain popularity here in the US came with some serious baggage. Although they appeared to satisfy EPA and European emissions regulations, it turned out that in many cases that was only because of chicanery. So-called “defeat devices” could tell when a car was being tested, switching engine mapping to beat the test. Out on the open road, a different engine management map would be in charge, resulting in high levels of nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollutants coming out in the exhaust.

Volkswagen Group was the highest-profile offender, and Bosch itself had to cough up $328 million for its part in the scandal. But Fiat Chrysler has been in trouble with US regulators, and, in Europe, Renault, PSA Peugeot-Citroen, Daimler, and BMW have all received unscheduled visits from law enforcement over dodgy engines. The fallout has been far-reaching. In the US, diesel has once again fallen from grace. Volkswagen’s reputation suffered a beating, and the company was ordered to pay massive fines and spend even more money building a network of electric car charging stations. The EU even revised its emissions test procedures in an attempt to prevent them from being gamed. And some automakers have even decided to end development of diesel engines.

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Daimler included emissions-cheating software on diesels, German magazine says

US investigators are looking into whether Mercedes parent company Daimler used illegal software to cheat emissions tests on diesel vehicles in the US, according to German newspaper Bild am Sonntag, whose report was picked up by Reuters. Though the investigation itself is not new—it was reported as early as April 2016 that the Department of Justice was looking into Daimler’s actions around emissions testing its diesel vehicles—the new reports of emissions-cheating software draw parallels to Volkswagen’s notorious emissions scandal.

The German paper allegedly saw documents indicating that one software function on Daimler diesel vehicles turned off the car’s emissions control system after driving just 26 km (16 miles). Another program apparently “allowed the emissions cleaning system to recognize whether the car was being tested based on speed or acceleration patterns,” according to Reuters.

Software that turns an emissions control system on and off depending on whether the car is being tested in a lab or not is called a “defeat device,” and unless the automaker gets explicit permission to have one, a defeat device’s inclusion in an auto system is illegal in the US. In 2015, Volkswagen Group was discovered to have hidden defeat device software on its VW, Audi, and Porsche diesels. The automaker has since spent billions of dollars in buying back vehicles that were emitting up to 40 times the allowable amount of nitrogen oxide (NOx).

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Does a lower “total cost of ownership” boost electric car sales?

In 2015, battery-electric vehicles in Japan, the UK, California, and Texas were slightly cheaper than traditional gas or diesel vehicles—as long as you’re comparing all these vehicles using their total cost of ownership (TCO).

Although low-emissions vehicles are often more expensive by sticker price than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, low-emission vehicles become more cost-effective over time if you’re counting the fuel costs you’ve avoided along with any tax breaks and incentives. A group of researchers from the University of Leeds tracked the TCO of low-emissions vehicles between 1997 and 2015 in Japan, the UK, California, and Texas. In 2015 in particular, fuel costs and subsidies in all four regions were high enough that battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) were on the whole cheaper than internal combustion vehicles by a small margin.

The TCO for Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs) was still higher than that of traditional vehicles in all regions, because those cars receive fewer subsidies and still require fuel, unlike fully electric vehicles. Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) were more expensive than any kind of vehicle in all regions except Japan, where generous subsidies bring down the price significantly.

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