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[Image above] Credit: Mike Roberts; Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Although ceramic and glass materials are often unrecognized in the world around us, automobiles are one place where they shine—as materials in spark plugs, brakes, suspensions, and much more.

Catalytic converters are one of the most recognizable technologies that are made possible with ceramics. Back in the 1970s, Corning scientists invented cellular ceramic substrates that are now standard in automobiles’ catalytic converters. (For a full history of the catalytic converter, click here.)

The surface area-rich cordierite substrates house catalysts that convert harmful emissions (carbon monoxide) into less-harmful emissions (carbon dioxide). Modern catalytic converters, or three-way converters, also reduce unburned hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides emissions.

Although catalytic converters significantly reduce vehicle emissions, they cannot remove all vehicle pollution. That’s because catalytic converters only work efficiently when warm. So when a cold engine first hums to life, there’s not a lot happening in the catalytic converter to clean exhaust spewing from the tailpipe.

The time required to heat up catalytic converter substrates is called the “light-off” period, and it’s estimated that this time period (which lasts for ~30 seconds and up to several minutes) accounts for ~70% of total automobile emissions.

Reducing these cold-start emissions is a top priority in the face of tighter emission standards.

Corning’s innovators have developed a new product, Flora, with an “optimized material microstructure” that is designed to decrease cold-start emissions.

“The novel material reaches operating temperature quicker than standard substrates, so catalytic converters can clean exhaust emissions earlier without increased fuel or additional precious metal,” according to a Corning press release.

The material heats up considerably faster than existent substrates, reducing the light-off period and thus also reducing the amount of emissions that can escape from the cold substrate.

Credit: Corning Incorporated; YouTube

According to Corning, the new Flora material reduces the mass of the substrate so that it warms up 20% faster than regular ceramic substrates. 

According to the release, “The substrates provide the flexibility to lower non-methane organic compound emissions, reduce precious metal use, and improve fuel efficiency. Both light-duty gasoline and diesel applications can benefit from FLORA substrates.”

Corning says they will begin producing the substrates this year at its Environmental Technologies facility in Erwin, N.Y. The company has partnered with Honda, which will install the new substrates on select model year 2016 vehicles.

UPDATE (March 17, 2015):

Yesterday I spoke with Ken Twiggs, innovation program manager for substrates at Corning Inc. Although Twiggs couldn’t provide complete details about the new Flora substrates due to proprietary restrictions, he was able to provide us with a little more information.

According to Twiggs, Flora contains the same cordierite material that the company has modified to improve thermal performance by increasing the material’s porosity. Although that usually means consequently decreasing strength, the experts at Corning were able to maintain strength and performance even with increased substrate porosity.

Since Corning has extensive experience with catalyst substrates and many other materials, Twiggs says Corning’s scientists were able to leverage current technologies to improve the Flora substrates.

He adds that the new substrates are marketed as “value-added products,” as they offer automobile manufacturers benefits in terms of providing the ability to decrease precious metal use, reduce emissions, and gain design flexibility. Considering his answer was in response to my question about how the new substrates compare price-wise with existent technologies, something tells me Flora is not cheap.

Twiggs also comments that Corning is offering the substrates to other manufacturers besides Honda, and that several companies worldwide are currently evaluating the substrates. He says that Corning expects to expand product offerings in the next few months.