Natural gas pickup trucks

By Maureen Aylward

The Wall Street Journal reports GM is planning to offer bi-fuel pickups trucks by the end of this year by using a supplier that will retrofit the trucks to use compressed natural-gas tanks. We asked Zintro experts to tell us what they think the challenges and benefits are.

Jim Buchanan, an expert in trucking and fleet operations, says the idea of natural gas powered pickup trucks is an established and proven initiative. “The benefits include a cleaner burning carbon based fuel, cleaner internal combustion engines, and longer service life for the user vehicle,” he says. “The downside is that specialized compressors are needed, and sourcing for Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) is not on every corner. If a fleet is using them (as they already are) and can obtain a source for natural gas to compress (preferably from a wellhead) and do not rely on multiple sources to use compressed natural gas only, it seems to work out.”

Saurabh Gupta, an expert in the energy and utility industry, says that Compressed Natural Gas vehicles make a lot a sense for the US, and for that matter any other country. “The benefits are huge. US is rich in natural gas, so having an indigenous source of fuel for transportation needs makes a lot of sense. The benefits of not depending on foreign oil are well understood. Plus, it produces less pollution than liquid fuels. The engines are cheaper to maintain and the per mile cost of fuel is almost half that of gasoline,” says Gutpa.

Gutpa says that large scale use of CNG vehicles could also boost the US natural gas industry, which is currently down on extreme over supply, which will create more jobs. “The only downside to CNG is some loss in acceleration, but that’s something that can be corrected with proper technology,” he says. “Also, the range of the vehicle per tank full of fuel is reduced. But, if there is proper re-fueling infrastructure in place, that won’t be a problem. CNG is a practical and economical future transportation fuel.”

Rodney Ahlgrim, an expert in auto and truck emissions, says that one of the first issues to address is the supporting infrastructure for refueling of CNG vehicles in the geographic areas where they are used. “I have heard that truck stops are starting to install CNG refueling stations so this might not be an issue in urban areas. Second consideration is the amount of horsepower and performance that can be derived from such a dual fuel vehicle,” says Ahlgrim. “CNG and gasoline have different combustion characteristics and thus performance could potentially vary between the two fuel types. Back in the 80’s I worked for a farmer that had a gasoline/propane conversion in his work truck and spark advance had to be manually set in the middle where it would work the best for both fuels. This resulted in a little less performance on the gasoline side, and the LPG worked good for parts chasing, but if you loaded the truck down, the accelerator was pretty much at the floor any time the truck was moving.”

Ahlgrim says that with today’s computer controlled ignition systems; the retrofitter should have the ability to compensate with more timing advance on CNG, less on gasoline to produce same horsepower and torque. “This is an important factor to a fleet owner and for operator satisfaction of purchasing units that are capable of running off of both types of fuel,” he says.

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