Betting on biomethane

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The main goal of this project is help the city of Flint, MI, basically get all the fuel for their vehicles for free.” –Brenda Lemke, Kettering University

So I’m reading about a project that Kettering University recently wrapped up, whereby they converted a 2500HD Chevy Silverado pickup to a dual-fuel system, capable of running on either gasoline or natural gas. Yet the goal of the project is NOT to run this pickup of natural gas, but rather on the “biomethane” byproduct given off by the city of Flint, MI’s wastewater treatment plant.

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Here’s the cool part: if this works right, Flint is basically going to power all of its buses and city vehicles (cars and trucks alike) on the biomethane produced from the waste leftover water treatment process. In effect, the city would get fuel for all of its vehicles for free, once it pays off the cost of installing technology used to capture and “clean” the biomethane given off from wastewater treatment.

“We got involved in this project about a year ago through a grant the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) received from the DOE (Department of Energy),” Brenda Lemke from Kettering told me by phone.

“The city of Flint had already formed a partnership to captures and process the gas given off by the wastewater treatment process,” she added. “So we got involved to help determine if that gas could be a practical source of fuel for all manner of vehicles.”

A few years back, Flint forged a partnership with Swedish Biogas International to work on a “biogas-to-energy” project. Sweden, as many might not know, does NOT have natural gas resources within its borders, so it relies on “biogas,” also known as “biomethane,” as an alternative fuel for vehicles.

Now, many such biogas projects in the U.S. aim to take the “clean” methane they produce and feed it into natural gas pipelines to earn some money.

[Here’s an example of one in California, which takes the manure produced from 2,600 dairy cows and turns it into natural gas used to produce electricity and heat homes.]

In Flint’s case, the city wants to tap into this “waste gas” for vehicle fuel. It just so happened that one of Kettering’s alumni, Rebecca Royer, is the owner and president of Baytech Corp., a California company that builds natural gas “conversion kits” for vehicles. Using one of Baytech’s kits, Kettering’s research team converted the aforementioned 2500 HD Silverado this April so it could operate on both natural gas and gasoline.

The natural gas is stored in a tank in the truck bed at 3,600 PSI (pounds per square inch), Lemke told me, and is piped into the engine bay, ending at the top of the engine. “Baytech’s kits also ‘reflashes’ the vehicle’s ECU [engine control module] so it ‘knows’ when it’s running on gasoline or natural gas,” she noted. “That way, if there’s a problem, the diagnostic program will know whether it’s issue occurring when running on gasoline or natural gas.”

Lemke also said the on-board computer switches automatically between gasoline and natural gas while driving. Because the composition of natural gas and biomethane are so similar, the truck should run well with biomethane in the tank instead of natural gas, she added.

Again, getting vehicles to run on biomethane isn’t a new endeavor by any means. For example, the city of Lille, France, converted most of its city bus fleet to run on biogas a few years ago (an effort detailed in the clip below.)

Sweden’s Volvo Trucks is also testing a biomethane gas-powered heavy truck right now in Sweden and Great Britain; one that provides the same power and driveability as a diesel vehicle.

“This unique technology allows us to combine the advantages of gas with the diesel engine’s high efficiency rating, which is about 30 to 40% superior to that of the spark plug engine,” commented Lars Martensson, environmental director for Volvo Trucks, in a story compiled by my editorial compatriot Brian Straight last year. “As a result, this truck consumes considerably less energy than traditional gas trucks do.”

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Volvo’s biomethane-powered trucks, which it said meet Euro 5 exhaust emissions standards, will be fuelled by a mixture of methane gas and diesel fuel, including biodiesel. Both natural gas and biogas consist of methane, but natural gas is a fossil fuel while biogas is produced from biodegradable material such as waste.

“Methane gas is by far the most accessible fuel as an alternative to diesel,” said Martensson. “There are larger reserves of natural gas than oil. But above all, production of climate-neutral biogas is gaining momentum in many countries, which solves the most urgent problem, reducing CO2 [carbon dioxide] emissions.”

Indeed, the potential to use biomethane as a vehicle fuel is the also going to be the subject of a one-day workshop being sponsored by the California-based group Clean Transportation Technologies and Solutions (CalStart) on November 18 this year.

One reason biomethane is getting so much attention all of the sudden is that many studies are discerning that it could be a huge potential source of energy – and an easily renewable source at that. For example, the Öko-Instituts and the Institut für Energetik in Leipzig carried out a study a couple of years ago and found, if current production trends continue, all of Europe’s natural gas imports from Russia could be covered by locally produced biogas/biomethane within 20 years.

The EU currently imports some 40% of all its natural gas from Russia, the study noted, and 2030, this dependency will have increased to 60% (all else being equal). Yet Europe’s potential for the sustainable production of biomethane is 17.7 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) per year – roughly the total amount of natural gas currently consumed by the entire European Union. The production of 17.7 Tcf of biomethane, fed into the EU’s power grid, could result in a reduction of 15% of Europe’s CO2 emissions.

That’s a pretty enticing prospect – and is one reason why I suspect we’ll be seeing more pilot tests of biomethane in a variety of applications, including vehicles, in the near future.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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