LNG is a fringe fuel – or it still is because we can see it becoming mainstream very fast. The old fuelling world is staging a fierce defense battle. And they will not shy back from making it real ugly to switch. But as Victor Hugo once famously said: “You can’t beat ideas when their time has come”.
Anyone looking into LNG as a vehicle fuel a little deeper for the first time comes back with one single question: how is it that this thing has not happened before? There sure must be something wrong with it as otherwise every sane human person would be rolling on it by now.
It’s indeed hard to understand why LNG is such a fringe fuel and it’s even harder to understand that even seasoned fuel professionals still treat LNG as something that’s from another realm and only the occult will be able to tackle it. Just like in Shakespeare’s Taming of the shrew, Petruchio had to use some real unorthodox methods to get Katharina recognize that her recalcitrance is not going to make her happier. He teased her in order to blow away the shell she has donned to keep anyone at bay.
And it is exactly this hard shell made of ignorance which is largely responsible for the very slow adoption of LNG as a fuel. Those who tried it once got hooked and never looked back. But let’s not forget that in spite of the LNG craze in the US at this very moment, those who started out on LNG as a fuel had different motivations than just cheaper fuel to go for it.
When the Dallas Authority for Regional Transit (DART) had gone for LNG as a fuel for their commuter vehicles about 25 years ago it was for its clean properties, not really for the money savings. Oil was a hell of a lot cheaper than it is today at the time and the Natural Gas markets in the US were just recently liberalized doing away with the nasty oil link. Same for the Philadelphia refuse haulers also about 25 years ago and they have been using bio Methane from their trash dump. Same goes for China that wants to rid itself from clogged skies by using LNG, among other things, to fuel their heavy vehicles. And it’s also true for India in their drive to methanify their transport system. Hell, even small trucks run on CNG there today.
They all craved for some better environmental protection and it’s really crazy that we are in a situation where Chinese cities do more for their environment today than Western European so-called green cities. China orders LNG fuelled buses and heavy vehicles by the thousands every year and Central European cities such as Vienna go back to the trashiest fuel after Residual Fuel Oil (RFO) – diesel.
LNG (or methane because that’s what it really is) is not only the cleanest hydrocarbon by any standard. It’s an insult to compare it with Middle Distillates and even to some degree with light distillates. I know I made this point countless times but it cannot be overstated and I will repeat it until the ears of those who don’t want to hear it will fall off. Methane does not even produce most of the nasty stuff giving us a plethora of bad diseases such as cancer. How can anyone compare this incredibly great fuel to diesel which I would like to call the excrement of the oil industry?
Let’s push this a little further. With a little technology applied (I am not talking about the insane level of technology in an EURO 6 compliant diesel engine), Methane could be almost emissions free.
How does that happen?
Particulate Matter – gone. Fine particles (yes even the nasty Nanoparticles) occur when liquid fuels are vaporized and then burned. Fuel vaporization is never perfect as this means some form of spraying the fuel into the combustion chamber and not really vaporizing it through heat. This, in turn, means that the fuel does not assume its gaseous form but is rather a kind of misty cloud of small droplets of fuel. Those droplets burn at the surface and produce dust kernels which in turn is known to us as cancer causing Particulate Matter. Methane, in turn, enters the combustion chamber as a gas in the first place. No droplets, no surfaces, no kernels – just a clean flash of energy.
Next – Sulfur Oxides (SOx). This is gone too. Sulfur is a solid compound which is commonly found in all kind of hydrocarbon mixtures. But as a solid, it freezes out in LNG (remember it’s a minus 161 degrees Celsius cold cryogen) and would clog pipes which is very expensive to remove. All liquefaction plants are hence equipped with facilities to purify the feed gas to the point where sulfur and other solids are not present anymore.
Let’s come to carbon. Methane still produces carbon even if it is less per mile than diesel or gasoline but there is a pretty easy way to even get rid of this. If one employs bioMethane instead of Natural Gas for LNG production, carbon can be forgotten about as bioMethane is carbon neutral. So, carbon is out as well.
PM is gone, SOx are gone and Carbon is gone. Remains Nitrogen Oxides (NOx). Even if it’s true that the simple use of Methane as a fuel reduces NOx levels already by a whopping 85%, there still is more than EURO6 would allow. But as NOx levels are already so low, to begin with, it’s relatively easy and straightforward to extract it. And it would not take technological flips and twists to bring it close to zero.
LNG (or bioMethane) could, therefore, be the first really emissions-free fuel.
But there is more.
The Methane engine is technologically much simpler than the diesel engine. Not only because all the after-treatment of the exhaust gas is not needed anymore but also because there is no need to spray fuel into the combustion chamber for example. Why is that important? Fewer moving parts mean less maintenance and hence a lower maintenance bill.
I had the pleasure to watch the results of a test performed by a producer of methane generators (the piston kind) who had run two identical generators side by side, one on diesel and one on methane. After 1000 hours of straight running, both brand new generators were disassembled to take a look at the parts. The diesel engines innards were black and sooty, full of diesel filth which required extensive maintenance to get back into operational shape. The methane generator, in turn, was almost spotless. Just a couple of orange and yellowish spots on the inside of the cylinder betrayed the generator as having been used.
Not hard to figure which maintenance bill would be higher. With EURO 6, repairmen have a lot of business coming up.
But let’s jump on the intangibles. Using sustainable and environmentally friendly methods to conduct your business today has a perceivable effect on your profits as customers shun those ignoring those trends. Supermarket chains such as Sainsbury in the UK or even Wal-Mart in the US exploit the fact that they are running on clean methane instead of diesel for publicity. Parcel services such as UPS pride themselves as green enterprises.
Engine makers go for methane only engine models now because the market has become big enough to pay for the technical developments. Cummins has just introduced the first methane only engines. All other methane engines were really diesel engines that have been converted to run on methane. They have diesel in their DNA. Those new models have methane only in their DNA. Diesel is firmly out.
With higher numbers and optimized engines, methane will get more efficient and cheaper. The journey has just begun – whereas diesel engines are at the very end of their technological development. As a German expert used to say recently – their time is up. Buy diesel for your fleet replacement today and you will find yourself with a fleet that’s going to give you nothing but headaches and high maintenance bills. Plus you will find yourself rather sooner than later to start thinking about scrapping your diesel fleet.
Even if you did not save money by adopting LNG as a fuel for your fleet right now (you will save money but let’s stay with the assumption for a second) there is plenty of reason to go for LNG now. The tides have turned in favor of LNG. There is no going back. You can sit back and wait it out at your own risk and cost or jump the train now. Your call.