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Company bets big on cleaner diesel

Corning Inc., a company more associated with fiber optics, is betting $200 million on diesel, inaugurating a factory to churn out filters that trap pollutants.
Corning Inc. employee Daniel Ricoult holds a diesel particulate filter that is to be attached to the exhaust of a diesel truck engine for testing in Corning, N.Y.David Duprey / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Corning Inc., humbled by the fiber-optic cable industry’s vanishing act in 2001, is betting heavily on adapting a 30-year-old magic trick for vaporizing the pollution spewed out by gasoline-powered cars.

Its new target: the long-maligned diesel engine.

On Wednesday, Corning dedicated a $200 million factory to churn out diesel filters that trap pollutants. By 2007, all new diesel vehicles on U.S. highways will need to be equipped with the smog-busting devices.

The worldwide market could exceed $1 billion by 2008 and, just as it dominates the gasoline emission-control business, Corning expects to remain ahead of Japanese rivals.

“It’s ours to win. We’re leveraging our 30 years of experience,” said Tom Hinman, general manager of Corning’s diesel technologies business. “Do we come in with some advantages? Absolutely. But we will take nothing for granted.”

Role in catalytic converters
A generation ago, Corning invented a honeycomb substrate with paper-thin walls coated with precious-metal catalysts that react with pollutants. The soda can-sized device, first fitted in 1975-model cars, made air pollution control practicable for the first time.

Used in 95 percent of the world’s autos with catalytic converters, the technology has neutralized more than 3 billion tons of pollutants. Corning produces more than half of the 100 million honeycombs made each year, generating almost $400 million in annual sales.

Veering in a different direction in the late 1990s, Corning invested $2 billion to meet surging demand for fiber-optic cable and swelled its work force from 15,000 to 43,000 employees. The telecommunications industry’s sudden slowdown into a deep recession almost spelled ruin.

The company now sees huge potential for its diesel-filter technology, which has been waiting in the wings since the late 1970s. The impetus: Government strictures now being imposed on trucks and buses — and potentially millions more tractors, bulldozers, locomotives and other off-road vehicles.

“It’s not a major growth engine over the next couple of years,” said analyst Gabriel Lowy of Blaylock & Partners. “But hopefully in the long term it will become a significant contributor.”

Corning’s new clean-air products plant in Erwin, on the outskirts of this town of 11,000 in rural western New York, employs about 100 people. The work force will grow to 250 by January, Hinman said.

Diesel's evolution
To keep pace with ever-tightening emissions standards, diesel manufacturers developed a flurry of engine refinements in the 1990s, such as electronic fuel-injection systems, and fitted oxidation catalysts that limit carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons.

The clean-air mandates being pushed in the United States, Japan, Europe and beyond over the next half-dozen years require much more stringent steps: filters that dispose of at least 90 percent of soot and 95 percent of nitrous oxides, a prime ingredient in urban smog.

In 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency opted to press ahead with tough, 2007-model diesel standards that were approved in the waning days of the Clinton presidency.

The new rules will prevent as many as 8,300 premature deaths and 17,600 cases of acute bronchitis in children each year, the agency projected. They’ll also raise the costs of new diesel vehicles by $1,200 to $1,900 and fuel costs by as much as five cents a gallon, it said.