We journalists by nature don't like to take things at face value. So when we were faced with a barrage of media announcements related to natural gas at the Mid-America Trucking Show earlier this year, many of my colleagues and I thought for sure there must be a "Great Oz" cowering behind a curtain somewhere behind all the hype.
So we embarked on a project to dig into the topic and find out the good, the bad and the ugly, and report about what fleets need to know about natural gas to make an informed decision on natural gas for their operations.
This month's cover story is the first installment in a series that also will include Web-only content on Truckinginfo.com.
I have an inch-thick file folder on my desk and notes from interviews totaling some 35,000 words. (For comparison's sake, this page bears about 700 words.) That's not counting additional research by Senior Editor Tom Berg, whose article about available engines and equipment will appear in a future installment.
During all this research, a number of "what's next" topics came up.
For instance, liquefied natural gas is currently viewed as the natural-gas fuel of choice for longer-haul operations, but some believe that could change. Daryl Gorup, senior vice president of dealership operations at mega-dealer Rush Enterprises, predicts that better technology for compressed natural gas will mean larger ranges, up to 500 miles, which could push more of the long-haul industry to gravitate toward CNG rather than LNG.
In fact, companies, such as 3M, are working on developing lighter-weight CNG tanks. And in Europe, one trailer maker has developed a system that puts extra CNG tanks on the trailer to help improve range.
In addition, some people think the best way to use natural gas is not compressing or super-cooling it.
Shell, for instance, has spent nearly 40 years researching technology to convert natural gas to liquid. It operates a commercial gas-to-liquids plant in Malaysia, is building one in Qatar and is exploring putting such a plant on the U.S. Gulf Coast. The end product is GTL Gasoil, an alternative to diesel that can be blended with conventional diesel and used in the existing diesel distribution system.
Meanwhile, at Mack and Volvo, they believe DME (dimethyl ether) is the future. In Sweden, where Volvo has done extensive testing, it's made from "black liquor" from waste products from the country's extensive logging industry. But it also can be made from natural gas.
Using natural gas to fuel trucks is an exciting development for the industry, but in the long run, it's still a non-renewable resource. It's abundant at the moment and probably for some time to come. But surely in the early days of the oil boom, oil seemed like a bottomless supply of "black gold" from the ground. Today, while there's still a lot of oil, it's becoming more expensive and more risky to get to. (And I won't even get into thorny environmental questions of global climate change or whether fracking is toxic to groundwater.)
In the future, we may see more "renewable" natural gas, or biomethane. Chemically identical to conventional natural gas, it's produced locally from organic waste such as animal manure or sewage. Waste Management already runs a number of trucks on liquefied biomethane from decomposing waste at landfills.
Diesel's not going away anytime soon, and neither is natural gas. Yet it's important to continue to look forward and develop ways to power vehicles that rely less on fossil fuels, such as biomethane, hydrogen fuel cells, biodiesel made from algae, diesel-electric hybrids or something we haven't even imagined yet.
Read our special web section on natural gas here.