Commentary: We Need to Look Past Fossil Fuels

December 2014, - Editorial

by Rolf Lockwood

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Rolf Lockwood, Executive Contributing Editor. 
Rolf Lockwood, Executive Contributing Editor.

Confession time. Not trying to be ornery, but I haven't been the world's biggest fan of natural gas as a truck fuel despite all the hoopla. As a journalist, I'm necessarily a skeptic, so maybe the better way to say it is that I simply haven't jumped on what sometimes seems like a bandwagon. If natural gas works for you, great, but as a society I think we should be taking a longer view than we are.

I want something different. I want a plan for the future, and I think we need to be thinking way ahead -- beyond fossil fuels like natural gas in the form we presently know it. Anything that keeps us from that search is not helpful in the very much larger scheme of things.

But hey, I understand. If you've got trucks rolling down the road in a hyper-competitive environment, you're not thinking years ahead, and certainly not decades. You're interested in saving a buck right now, as well you should be. Survival is the first priority, and profit would be nice too.

I think we need to be thinking way ahead — beyond fossil fuels like natural gas in the form we presently know it.

Conventional wisdom says there's a 100-year domestic supply of natural gas sitting underground in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. But what does that mean? A century's worth if we power what? And what about the social and environmental costs of fracking?

Nothing comes free. And I fear that one of the costs of seeing natural gas as the savior will be a serious shortage of interest in other options that demand investment, research, and a longer view. We've already seen a dramatic slowing of user interest in the diesel/electric hybrid, and Eaton's departure from that business is proof.

Our future cannot rest in fossil fuels, that's the bottom line. And that rules out electric vehicles in the long run if the juice they need comes via coal-fired power plants, for instance. In that case you just move toxic emissions from one source to another.

But wait, what if the vehicle could produce its own electric power and never need the electricity grid? We talking fuel cells here? Nope, but close.

A Liechtenstein company, nanoFlowCell AG, has produced a Tesla-like car that doesn't depend on imperfect lithium-ion batteries -- or batteries of any sort. Already approved for use on European roads but not yet for sale, the Quant eSportlimousine uses flow-cell technology -- with 80% efficiency. It's like a hydrogen fuel cell but uses a saltwater-based electrolyte to create electrical energy. When that liquid passes through a membrane between a pair of 52-gal tanks it creates energy that's stored and distributed by super capacitors and used by an electric motor at each wheel. That's good for a range of 375 miles, and the only limit on that distance is the size of the tanks.

The car can be filled as easily as you now fill a diesel tank, and once discharged, the electrolyte can be re-ionized and used again. It's a perfect circle.

Power? How about 920 hp and more than 2000 lb-ft of torque, with 0-60 mph in 2.8 seconds. Nice.

Is it useful in trucks? It's too early to say but the company does plan to tackle the marine and rail industries, so I'm guessing the answer is yes.

I mention this only as an example of the kind of research and development that we need to be doing to save ourselves from the finite nature and long-term perils of fossil fuels. And to repeat myself, anything that keeps us from that effort is not in our collective best interest.

Rolf Lockwood is vice president, editorial, at Newcom Business Media, which publishes Today’s Trucking. He writes for HDT each month on the making, maintaining and using of trucks. He can be reached at [email protected] or 416-315-1829.


  1. 1. Rudy Haverkamp [ December 23, 2014 @ 05:32AM ]

    Well spoken. Alternative fuel usage has always been cyclical, driven by price and demand of conventional fuels. As prices are presently low and dropping further interest has waned. True alternative fuel supplies and the inventive minds that introduce these alternatives will drive us into the future.

  2. 2. Jason Mathers [ December 23, 2014 @ 11:50AM ]

    Enjoyed the piece. To move beyond fossil fuels in trucking, we need to develop solutions for the short, medium and long-term. Short-term focus is reducing miles in distribution networks. Medium-term focus is building more fuel efficient trucks. Long –term is transitioning to renewable, low-carbon fuels.


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