Researchers at the University of Warwick have developed an ecologically- friendly car engine by employing technology used in the Space Shuttle.
The team, headed by Ali Vershagh of the Warwick Manufacturing Group, has designed a carbon piston car engine which produces much-reduced hydrocarbon exhaust emissions - up to 30 per cent less than the conventional car engine.
The secret is the use of graphite, which North American Space Agency's design team exploited when developing the re-usable Space Shuttle's heat barrier.
Most cars are fitted with aluminium piston engines.
Dr Vershagh said: "A number of exotic materials which were previously not available because they were either classified or too expensive are coming on to the market, and it is inevitable that car designers will turn to them."
Very pure graphite, a form of carbon, can withstand very high temperatures.
By expanding much less than aluminium, graphite allows engine designers to reduce the so-called "crevice volumes" which store the wasteful unburned hydrocarbons.
This, added to the fact that oil consumption is also reduced by 50 per cent, has attracted environment-conscious motor companies.
Daimler Benz, which is co-sponsoring the project with the European Commission and a number of European research institutes, is hoping to eventually develop the prototype for the mass market.
Already, the piston is being constructed by French firm SMP and the engine has been tried out in a top-of-the-range Mercedes test car.
Dr Vershagh said the engine could be in production within five years, at least at the luxury car end of the market.
The major difficulty will be the price. At the moment, each carbon piston costs around Pounds 700, compared with just a few pounds for the standard aluminium component. This price is likely to fall if the pistons enter mass production.
Dr Vershagh said that mass production of the engine will require substantial investment, especially in the manufacturing process.
Formula One manufacturers are also interested in the engine because it produces greater engine performance, thus permitting higher speeds within the standard engine structure, and is significantly lighter than the aluminium engine.
But Dr Vershagh was not able to confirm whether racing drivers Damon Hill or Michael Schumacher would be offered the technology to boost their respective Formula One world championship bids.