Assessing Transportation Fuels

It’s possible to say the race is on, but perhaps it’s already finished.

Dividing vehicles into three segments and then comparing fuel types allows for some quick conclusions.

  • First, heavy-duty, long-haul highway trucks
  • Second, busses, local delivery trucks and other medium-size trucks
  • Third, light duty vehicles

The articles, published in April 2011, provide background details about fuels for these various vehicles. See NG for Transportation PI and PII.

With regards to heavy-duty trucks, LNG appears to be the most cost-effective fuel. The $70,000 premium for trucks using LNG and the lack of fueling stations stand in the way of wide scale use of LNG. However, slow progress is being made toward establishing LNG fueling stations along trucking corridors. The transition from diesel-fuel to LNG appears to be underway.

The second category, busses etc., also seems to be transitioning to natural gas, primarily compressed natural gas (CNG).

The third category accounts for the largest use of gasoline and these vehicles are currently caught up in a media, environmental and government driven frenzy; with EVs and PHEVs being widely touted by these three groups.

What are the alternative fuels for light vehicles, and which one will be the ultimate winner?

  • Gasoline
  • Electric Vehicles (EVs)
  • Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs)
  • Natural gas (CNG)
  • Ethanol
  • Hydrogen
  • Methanol

Gasolineis fairly inexpensive, has the highest energy content, and has a nationwide fueling station infrastructure already in place. Gasoline-fueled vehicles have a range of around 325 miles. There is sufficient oil in North America to provide the nation with gasoline for decades.

EVs and PHEVs cost about $10,000 more than comparable gasoline-powered vehicles and require a new nationwide infrastructure for quickly recharging batteries. A fast charging station costs around $25,000 each. There are over 100,000 gasoline stations in the United States, which provides some guidance as to the total cost of installing fast-charging stations nationwide. Some recharging stations, where charging can take several hours, cost $2,500. Electricity costs less than gasoline. EVs have a range of, at most, 100 miles, while PHEVs have a range similar to gasoline vehicles, but only travel 35 miles on electricity without recharging the battery.

CNG vehicles use natural gas, which is less expensive than gasoline, saving about $1.20 per gallon. They currently cost about $6,000 more than a gasoline-powered vehicle, and require a new nationwide fueling infrastructure. Each station, with sufficient capacity to fuel a few vehicles simultaneously, costs about one million dollars. CNG vehicles have a range of around 225 miles because of the space required for cylinders holding the compressed natural gas and, currently, the cylinders use much of the trunk space in a car.

Two recent announcements could help accelerate the development of CNG usage in vehicles.

  1. Manufacturers of pick-up trucks announced the introduction of pick-up trucks with CNG cylinders located in the bed of the truck.
  2. GE and Chesapeake Energy Corporations have announced their decision to provide prefabricated CNG fueling stations (CNG in a Box). Pricing for  CNG in a Box is not yet available.

Ethanol (from corn or sugarcane) has about 73% of the energy content of gasoline and therefore gets fewer miles per gallon. A vehicle using E85 (85% ethanol and 15% gasoline) will probably have the same, possibly greater, fuel cost as gasoline alone, because of ethanol’s lower energy content. Flex-fuel vehicles are required whenever the ethanol concentration is greater than 10%. When using E85, the range will be about 220 miles. For any concentration above 10%, the engine must be modified at a cost of around $100 due to ethanol’s corrosiveness. The current supply of ethanol from corn is essentially maxed out.

Hydrogen-powered vehicles use very expensive fuel cells (costing ten times more than a conventional gasoline engine), and require a new nationwide fueling infrastructure. Fueling stations capable of fueling a few vehicles simultaneously would cost about one million dollars each, assuming the hydrogen is trucked to the station from where it is produced centrally. Storage of hydrogen on a vehicle would be in cylinders rated 10,000 psi. In reality, vehicles need to be built around these cylinders. (See an earlier article for more on hydrogen vehicles.)

Methanol has only about half the energy content of gasoline, but costs considerably less to produce. Cost on a per-mile basis would be slightly less than gasoline alone. Range would be about 150 miles with the same sized “gas” tank. A nationwide fueling structure would need to be built. Each fueling station would cost about $60,000, assuming there is sufficient space in an existing service station for a new underground tank for storing methanol. It also requires a Flex-Fuel vehicle, the same as does E85. (See above.) Methanol has some serious safety issues in terms of inhaling vapors and getting liquid methanol on the skin. Whether these safety issues preclude the use of methanol in self-serve service stations needs to be determined.

Other Bio-fuels, such as from algae and cellulosic materials, are purely speculative and merely muddy the waters in any rational discussion of alternative transportation fuels. For example, ethanol from algae costs around $25 per gallon, with no foreseeable prospects for dramatically lowering its cost. Some producers of cellulosic ethanol have gone bankrupt. Algae is better for sound bites than for real solutions.

Given this information, which fuel system would you select?

Here are my thoughts.

Gasoline-powered vehicles seem to provide the lowest total cost, because of the existing fueling infrastructure. To me, even though we have all the oil we need for powering our light vehicles, the largest negative is the volatility associated with the worldwide oil market that drives prices. It’s hard to predict whether this volatility and our huge supply of low-cost natural gas will result in widespread adoption of CNG for light vehicles.

A steady increase in using LNG for long-haul trucks is cost effective, and reduces oil and refinery usage. Using natural gas (CNG) in fleets and busses, etc. has the same benefits. Natural gas for these applications will probably continue to grow, possibly faster than in the recent past.

Time will tell how consumers choose between the other transportation fuel alternatives, PHEVs etc.


Post script:

I don’t receive payment from anyone for writing these articles. You can be sure that the facts in the articles are the best available, and that my comments have not been influenced by payments of any kind.

I mention this because a recent WSJ op-ed touted methanol, but didn’t mention the safety issues, or the other negatives (listed above) surrounding its use. The author of the op-ed is a respected individual and member of an organization working to minimize the use of oil in transportation, but his organization lists on its website a group that is pushing methanol: It’s not clear how much influence the methanol organization had on the author.


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