Alternative fuels 28 August 2014

Despite the lack of proven Euro 6 dual-fuel engine conversions to date, the alternative fuels industry continues to accelerate. Brian Tinham reports

Arguably the most impenetrable barrier preventing wider adoption of LNG (liquefied natural gas) and CNG (compressed natural gas) as a replacement fuel for heavy-duty diesels is one significant step closer to being dismantled. As predicted, National Grid has confirmed that a new road tanker loading facility will be built at its huge LNG terminal on the Isle of Grain, Kent, with the initial two-bay site opening within nine months and transforming security of supply.

In a parallel development, the GATE (Gas Access to Europe) terminal at the port of Rotterdam is to build a new 'break bulk' terminal for distributing LNG around North West Europe. That announcement follows a commitment by Shell to buy the new capacity specifically for freight fuelling. The terminal – located where LNG carrier ships dock from around the world – should be operational by the close of 2016. Shell will charter an LNG bunker vessel for ship-to-ship transfers and deliver the methane fuel to distribution terminals outside the port. Also, the terminal's existing truck-loading station will be used to distribute LNG to Shell's initial network of up to seven truck refuelling stations, with the first, in Rotterdam, opening later this year.

Clearly, reliable availability of LNG/CNG, which is critical to maximising payback on trucks converted for dual-fuel (even more so for dedicated gas trucks), is ramping up – with global energy businesses behind it. And there is nothing quite like increasing supply and big names to signal a moving market and, in turn, to stimulate interest in distribution and consumption. So, on the one hand, we can expect serious growth of the much-needed public LNG/CNG refuelling infrastructure across the UK (look at Howard Tenens' Swindon CNG station, which opened last month, for example), and, on the other, a sea-change in conclusions from operators' feasibility studies, which have hitherto labelled dual-fuel as niche.

So much for the drama on the supply side. What about the technologies underpinning dual-fuel and gas trucks, particularly in the ongoing absence of accredited Euro 6 engine conversions? Well, there's no doubt that the industry is seeing something of a hiatus where new trucks are concerned, while the main players – conversion specialists but also increasingly truck OEMs – catch up with the emissions legislation. Best estimates for most Euro 6-ready equipment are the end of this year, or early next.

However, a wealth of anecdotal evidence suggests that Euro 5 conversions are in growth mode, partly on derogated new vehicles, but mostly existing fleets, including second hand trucks. And it's not only larger operators, such as DHL and Muller Wiseman, taking the plunge with increasing numbers of dual-fuel prime movers. Smaller independents, such as KBC Logistics, are also getting in on the action – in its case, with a fast growing fleet of Mercedes-Benz Axors de-fleeted form Dawson Rentals and converted for dual-fuel LNG and diesel by Hardstaff.

Should you get on board? To answer that question, you need to look at data coming out of the Technology Strategy Board's two-year, £23 million Low Carbon Truck Demonstration trials. To recap, these involve operators including Argos, Brit European, DHL, Eddie Stobart, Howard Tenens, JB Wheaton, John Lewis, Lenham Storage, Muller Wiseman, Tesco, United Biscuits, Waitrose and Wincanton, running trucks from DAF, MAN, Mercedes-Benz, Scania and Volvo. Although the final reports from all 13 trial consortia are not due until December next year, interim information is being made available biannually ahead of that – with the next release scheduled for the CENEX Low Carbon Vehicle Event, in September at Millbrook Proving Ground.

Last January's review, which covered the first six months' findings (Transport Engineer, March 2014, page 23), was encouraging. Notable figures included: conversion costs ranging from £4,300—30,000, depending on type; and substitution rates of 40—80% (mean 46%) trending upwards for dual-fuel gas, but 87% for used cooking oil. And confidence in the numbers was good, with the trial trucks (175 of the 354, mostly dual-fuel, operational) by then covering a total of 1,000,000 km per month, and having consumed 900,000 litres of diesel, 527 tonnes of methane, 41 tonnes of bio-methane and 48 tonnes of cooking oil (see panel).

According to CENEX technical specialist Steve Carroll, the growing numbers of commissioned trial trucks are showing rising gas substitution performance, mostly in line with the improving refuelling infrastructure. "The fleets maximising substitution are those on regular journeys that allow regular refuelling," he explains. "Some running long-haul on more random journey patterns find they can't always get to the gas infrastructure, so they can't take full advantage... Although there are differences in performance between the [conversion] technologies, it's not really about that: it's about the journeys."

Nevertheless, Carroll believes the freight industry is now on its way to 'critical mass', with the likes of Gasrec, Chive and CNG Services building up their gas plants and refuelling networks, and security and reliability of supply underpinned by big LNG importers, such as Shell and National Grid. For him, the Low Carbon Truck trials have already made a difference – not only by focusing attention on the LNG/CNG infrastructure and helping to accelerate its growth, but also by building awareness and confidence in the truck technologies and payback.

"The infrastructure is being installed, and fleets are purchasing and using dual-fuel trucks, without government funding," states Carroll. "Yes, we're building the body of evidence through the trials, but the industry is already moving ahead, putting these trucks into the mainstream and now looking at increasing their adoption." And while the numbers of trucks are still small, that will soon change, he insists. "This will take off."

What matters next is twofold. First will be the arrival of Euro 6 retrofit conversions, from the likes of Clean Air Power, G-Volution, Hardstaff and Prins, and, just as important, the OEMs' own production line multi-fuel engines. The most eagerly awaited among the latter is Volvo's direct-injection Euro 6 dual-fuel system, said to offer much higher gas substitution, with unconfirmed rates beyond 90%.

While unwilling to release details – including on whether the technology stems from its partnership with Clean Air Power – Volvo fleet support manager Tony Owen says that engine is due for launch late in 2015 or early 2016. "We are taking this very seriously," he states. "We wouldn't be investing in Euro 6 if Euro 5 dual-fuel hadn't already proved itself. As diesel becomes less relevant, we see [methane] as a viable solution for the future of the truck industry."

Meanwhile, as numbers of Euro 5 conversions continue to grow and paths to Euro 6 become clearer, the market will establish itself, and the chicken and egg conundrum will become irrelevant.

But second, to spread LNG/CNG uptake further and achieve the low-carbon future to which this government has committed, we need high-capacity refuelling stations in urban areas, capable of supplying commercial fleets and the general public. These will open the methane market to lighter vehicles, all the way from urban trucks to panel vans and cars. "That's further down the line," concedes Carroll, "and requires financial support for vehicles and infrastructure."

Plainly, we're at the start of a journey likely to offer several options. But methane, with its sheer availability and ability to work with existing diesel engines, will certainly show greatest growth for commercial vehicles above 3.5 tonnes.

For information on the Low Carbon Truck trials, the consortia involved, performance data and case studies, as well as an up-to-date map of LNG/CNG refuelling stations, with access requirements, fuel types and contact numbers, go to:

Power of used cooking oil
Of course, there's more to alternative fuels than methane, from whatever source (fossil fuel or renewable bio-methane) and in whichever phase (cryogenic liquid or gas). If your interest is pure biofuel, then there is also used cooking oil (UCO), which is the focus of United Biscuits' TSB trial consortium, working with Biomotive Fuels and Leeds University.

This is nothing like as whacky as it might sound. Jim Ebner, director and founder of Biomotive, explains that his company used to produce 20,000 litres of UCO per week, for local bus companies, at its plant in Hampshire – taking feedstock of waste oil from the retail market and generating a diesel replacement with near identical calorific value. That all came to an end in 2012, when the government closed its 20p per litre duty derogation, increasing RTFO (Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation) credits but crippling the business case for anything but much greater scale UCO production.

"That's when we started working with Convert2Green, based in Middlewich, Cheshire, extending their biodiesel plant with our technology to process our UCO biofuel," explains Ebner.

However, Biomotive was already working with United Biscuits, having converted several of the firm's trucks to run on UCO processed from its own feedstock. With further development required, Ebner and his team won funding for the UB consortium under the TSB Low Carbon Truck trials. It has since commissioned new biofuel conversion kits from German company Bioltec on 10 Mercedes-Benz Euro 5 Axor 2543s, and installed a 30,000-litre heated refuelling station, from UK Bunded Fuel Tanks, at UB's Ashby depot.

How's it going? Data from the trucks' on-board telematics confirms an average 87% UCO substitution rate, with the trucks starting on diesel and the system progressively blending UCO, reaching close to 100% while trunking. One minute before re-entering the depot, UB's drivers simply switch back to diesel to flush the system through.

According to analysis by the Energy Institute at Leeds University, no detrimental effects have been attributable to the biofuel. Indeed, in some cases, injectors running with UCO are cleaner at scanning electron microscope level than those running diesel. Also, gravimetric analysis of the biofuel shows the kind of consistency we would all like from biodiesel, but don't always get. And, given that UCO starts with a zero carbon footprint as a waste product, and that transportation is zero and processing minimal, the 'well to wheel' carbon reduction is unbeatable.

As for fuel consumption, that's on average 1—2% down, compared to UB's reference vehicles, set against which the fuel is cheaper (particularly given UB's unique case) and the conversion kit is very cheap at £4,300. Ebner estimates that others taking the UCO biofuel could expect a payback within two years for trucks covering 80,000—100,000km per year.

What about the future? "We've been looking at Euro 6 Actros truck conversions for United Biscuits," answers Ebner, "and the first conversion kit is now imminent. In fact, we're preparing for our first UK Euro 6 conversions right now."

With support from the Technology Strategy Board and the transport community at the KTN, the Cenex-LCV 2014 show (10—11 September, Millbrook Proving Ground: will, for the first time, feature a heavy duty vehicle arena, displaying several of the trucks supported though the Low Carbon Truck trial. Visitors will be able to meet the trial fleet operators and consortiums and discuss progress to date.

Brian Tinham

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Related Companies
Alternatech Ltd
Argos Distribution Ltd
Brit European Transport Ltd
Chive Fuels
Clean Air Power
CNG Services Ltd
Convert2Green Ltd
DAF Trucks Ltd
Dawson Rentals Ltd
DHL Supply Chain
Eddie Stobart Ltd
G-Volution Ltd
Hardstaff Group Ltd
Howard Tenens Ltd
Innovate UK
JB Wheaton & Sons Ltd
John Lewis plc
KBC Logistics Ltd
Lenham Storage Ltd
MAN Truck & Bus UK Ltd
Mercedes-Benz UK Ltd
Muller Wiseman Dairies Ltd
National Grid Co Plc
Scania (Great Britain) Ltd
Shell International ltd
Tesco Distribution
United Biscuits UK Ltd
Volvo Group UK Ltd
Waitrose Ltd
Wincanton plc

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