Another heavy duty alternative hits the road

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We are convinced that liquefied gas is one of the most important future alternatives to today’s vehicle fuels.” –Lars Mårtensson, director-environmental affairs, Volvo Trucks.

The effort to make natural gas a more efficient fuel for powering long-haul freight trucks increased this week as Volvo Trucks – a division of Sweden’s AB Volvo – officially revealed a production-line ready heavy duty model that runs on a mixture of 75% liquefied natural gas (LNG) and 25% diesel fuel. This is a truck that Volvo’s been working on in the prototype stage for some time.

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The interesting twists to Volvo’s new FM MethaneDiesel model is that is can use either LNG or “biogas” refined from, say, the methane vapors generated from landfill decomposition as the main ingredient in its fuel cocktail, the company said. That’s because both natural gas and biogas share methane as the “base stock” in their composition, noted Lars Mårtensson, director-environmental affairs for Volvo Trucks.

He noted that Volvo uses a conventional 13-liter diesel engine generating 460 horsepower and roughly 1,696 ft-lbs. of torque. It’s equipped with gas injectors, a special Thermos-like fuel tank that keeps the gas liquefied and chilled to minus140 degrees Celsius (roughly minus 284 degrees Fahrenheit), plus a specially modified catalytic converter so it can operate on blended methane/diesel fuel.

Now, if the natural gas tank runs dry, Volvo said the system automatically switches over to diesel, with the driver alerted via a control lamp that comes on in the instrument panel. That should certainly allay fears in some quarters of having trucks stranded on the road due to an inability to find natural gas refilling locations.

“By using liquefied gas, more fuel can be stored in the tanks compared to if the fuel is compressed. This gives the methane-diesel truck a far greater range than that of traditional gas-powered trucks that utilize spark-plug technology,” he said.

Thus, in a truck with a gross weight of 40 tonnes, the fuel tank holds enough gas for a range of up to 500 kilometres (some 310.6 miles) in normal driving.

[Below is a video you can watch explaining all of this in more detail.]

Now, getting a hair over 310 miles in operating range on one tank of fuel doesn’t sound like a lot on this side of the pond, where the average length of haul is still some 400 to 500 miles, but in Europe it’s a big deal – to the point where it makes natural gas a more efficient option than before, noted Claes Nilsson, president of the European division within Volvo Trucks.

“The sales start of our methane-diesel model creates new conditions for the gas truck market. By using liquefied gas in an efficient diesel engine, we make it possible to use gas-powered trucks in heavier and longer-distance transport operations,” he said.

Compared with conventional natural gas-powered spark-plug engines, Volvo’s natural gas technology offers 30% to 40% higher efficiency, which in turn cuts fuel consumption by 25%, according to Nilsson.

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Since the price of natural gas is often significantly lower than that of diesel, financial savings are also possible, he added – and such savings are in his words a “necessary precondition” for widespread acceptance of new technology.

“Natural gas is attracting considerable interest in many countries and regions the world over. This interest is being largely driven by environmental considerations as well as by concerns over the secure supply of energy,” explained Mårtensson.

“In the U.S. and parts of Asia, Europe and South America, [natural] gas power is either already in use or decisions have been taken to invest in this power source,” he noted. “Thailand, for instance, is well to the fore with an established infrastructure and good availability.”

Initially, Volvo plans to sell the FM MethaneDiesel just in Europe, starting in the Netherlands, Great Britain and Sweden, where natural gas infrastructure is best established, Nilsson said, with other parts of the world will follow, as well as sales on additional European markets

At present there are plans to build about 100 trucks in 2011, with production slated to get under way this August, he added.

“If things go as planned, we expect sales to take off in 6-8 European countries within the next two years, with about 400 Volvo FM MethaneDiesel trucks sold a year,” Nilsson stated. “Future sales will naturally depend largely on expansion of liquefied gas filling stations for commercial vehicles.”

It’ll also depend on how the price of oil fares, too. Yet the addition of a production-ready heavy truck powered by natural gas from Volvo – joining similar options available from Kenworth, Peterbilt, and others – gives fleets more options to consider as the prices for oil and diesel remain high.

And having options in this day and age of escalating energy costs is always a good thing.

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