All That's Trucking

Fuel choices will make dollar sense, says DOE's Chu

March 6, 2012

Dr. Steven Chu, the thoughtful and studious Secretary of Energy, went from Climate Change to oil supplies to small, powerful engines in his presentation to the Green Truck Summit yesterday, and showed how they're all linked.


Chu was the keynote speaker at the meeting that preceded the National Truck Equipment Association's annual convention and Work Truck Show in Indianapolis, and showed himself to be something of gearhead in addition to a Nobel-Prize-winning researcher.

He noted Ford's work on a 1-liter turbocharged gasoline engine that makes 150 horsepower and remarked, "I had a car with a 2-liter engine that didn't make that much."

He knows something about heavy trucks, too. He showed a Class 8 trailer aerodynamic device, the UnderTray from SmartTruck, and marveled at its claim of cutting drag by 12% for a fuel efficiency increase of 5.5% to 10%, which means an owner could save $3,400 to $10,000 a year from fuel bills.

"At that rate it pays for itself in just a few months," he said.

Oil is the dominant source of energy, he reminded the audience of more than 500, and demand in western countries is down because of more efficient cars and trucks. Yet increasing use by developing countries will cause growth in demand.

Natural gas and other alternative fuels will "diversify the sources and give choices" to the transportation industry here. DOE meanwhile has decided to switch its focus from stationary fuel users to transportation.

The current boom in drilling for gas and oil was preceded by DOE supporting research into horizontal drilling "when no one else was interested," back in the 1970s, he said.

"Today we are reaping the benefits. The price of natural gas is down. It may not stay that way, but for now it is a benefit to industry."

Because of low prices, natural gas-fueled heavy duty trucks can pay for themselves in four years, and maybe soon in two years, he said. Hundreds more gas fueling stations are being installed, which will help solve the infrastructure problem.

On-board gas tanks are still expensive, however. CNG tanks can be heavy steel or lightweight composites, but they're very expensive -- $5,000 in a Honda Civic Gas car, Chu said. So DOE is funding $30 million for research into NG technologies, which will include composite materials that could be used to make far cheaper tanks.

Batteries have been an expensive barrier for hybrid and all-electric vehicles, but DOE-supported work has led to the doubling of energy density and will bring the cost from $650 per kilowatt-hour to $150 in a few years.

"It's going faster than expected and we're halfway there," Chu said.

Fuels from biomass fuels are another alternative to diesel, and microbial factories can convert plant material into chemicals and biofuels, he said. One project is four years old and the work is promising. The goal is to produce fuels without subsidies in 10 or so years.

The temperature outside was in the low 30s as Chu spoke, and air conditioning in the room had people donning sweaters and coats. But climate change is nonetheless on the march, he said.

Temperatures have been slowly rising since the start of the Industrial Age, though plateaus from 1940 to 1980 and in the last 10 years are also occurring, "and we don't understand why." It might be extreme rainstorms in last five years. The warming might be due to CO2 in the air, to volcano eruptions or other causes, but it will continue.

Localizing the news, Chu said that in Indiana the number of days exceeding 100 degrees was only 10 in the years 1961-79. But many more are predicted for latter part of this century. Don't turn down the A/C yet.