Truck Topics

Your Truck Eats Vegetable Oil: A Look at Alternative Fuels

By Jason McGlone
Posted Dec 10th 2009 4:37AM

Electric.  Hydrogen.  Hybrid.  E85.  Ethanol.  Natural gas.  Biodiesel.  Good ol' gasoline.  The list goes on.  There's an ever-growing list of things we've been using as fuel over the last few years, and the market's still trying to shake out just what the standard is going to be in the future.  There's a lot to it, and if you're planning to make a switch to something other than gasoline, there's quite a bit to consider. 

Why Alternative fuels?

The phrase itself brings to mind lots of things, and most of those things are pretty nebulous and not particularly well-defined, unless you do your homework--which is pretty important, especially if you're contemplating making a switch to alternative fuels, regardless of whether you're an owner/operator or if you're in charge of a large fleet. 

There are many reasons to consider switching to alternative fuels.  Petroleum-based fuel is the 2nd largest cost for trucking companies.  The possibility of being able to re-use that fuel in some way (or in any way, for that matter) means that you're cutting costs somewhere, or at least helping someone cut costs somewhere. 

Alternative fuels also may reduce our dependence on foreign oil--and oil in general, for that matter.  This is something that's come up a lot in the world of politics, of course--and it's a shame that the trucking industry doesn't come up in these conversations more, especially since commercial trucks account for about 20 percent of highway fuel consumption in the U.S.

it's certainly important to consider the environment and to "be green," so to speak, but if you're not staying conscious about your costs and benefits, you're cutting into your bottom line.  And nobody wants that. 

What's out there for the trucking/shipping industry?

So what's out there and plausible for the trucking industry?  If you want to get into pipe dreams and "possibilities," we could be here all day.  In terms of plausibility, though, we're looking at a limited number of alternative fuels. 

Natural gas: With a little bit of infrastructure change, namely a move to increase the number of stations and with a stronger commitment from truck manufacturers to make more Natural Gas Vehicles (NGVs), this is something we could see. 

E85/Ethanol/Flex Fuel: There are vans available that run on E85, but as far as I'm aware, there isn't anything currently out there for larger commercial trucks--surely because E85 and ethanol tends to be an alternate solution for standard fuels as opposed to diesels.  Also, the number of gas stations carrying e85 can be limited from state to state. 

Biodiesel: Biodiesel is plausible and fairly easy to convert for a standard diesel engine.  Of all the alternative fuel options being talked about over the last few years, this seems like the most plausible and useful for the trucking industry, biodiesel seems to be the most promising.

Electric and Electric Hybrids: There are designs for commercial vehicles, but there's not much beyond ideas.  Implementation seems to be quite a way away, especially with the state of batteries at this point--which is to say, they're reasonable for passenger vehicles, but big rigs?  Not so much. 

So, in looking at these options, we can see that Natural gas vehicles and trucks that can run on biodiesel are among the most promising horizons for alternative fuels in the trucking industry.  Let's take a quick glance at the advantages and disadvantages they offer. 

Natural gas vehicles

Their engines burn methane/propane gas, and are thusly generally similar to a standard internal combustion engine. 93% reduction in CO emissions. 
NGV's are lots safer (gas dissipates into the air as opposed to flammable liquid pools in the event of a tank rupture, for example). Natural gas is 33% cheaper, and the costs are stable as opposed to oil prices, which seem to wildly fluctuate.  Less wear and tear on engines, since natural gas burns much cleaner.
NGV's have much less cargo space b/c the cylinders take up a lot of room. Limited driving range; the averages I've seen seem to be slightly more than half that of typical gas vehicles.  This means gassing up more often. 
Limited target audience; current infrastructures seem to be best for companies w/ fleets as opposed to owner/operators.

Renewable Environmentally friendly, biodegradable, lower overall emissions than regular gasoline. Helps to lubricate the engine, which means less wear & tear. Can be used in most diesel engines w/ little to no modifications. Safer--it's nontoxic and burns at a higher temperature, which means that it's less likely to combust where you don't want it to. If you're feeling crafty, you can make your own biodiesel.

Increase in NOx emissions, which can contribute to smog. Possibility for clogging in the fuel line, especially w/ higher bio concentrations Decrease in mpg and power. Higher in cost than standard diesel. Availability can be spotty in certain areas.
What are my needs?

In the end, answering the alternative fuel questions comes down to determining what your needs are.  Since the infrastructure of the alternative fuel market is still somewhat in development, especially in terms of the trucking industry, now would be the time to start thinking about implementing such fuels.  That way, when the market settles and availability widens, which it inevitably will, you'll be ready to adopt the technology with open arms. 

That said, if you're ready to hop on now, biodiesel might be the way to go--especially since it's particularly easy to convert a straight diesel engine (which is to say, you might not have to change anything at all) to run on it (or even Waste Vegetable Oil, for that matter).  Couple that with the fact that you can make your own biodiesel, and you're pretty much instantly an early adopter of the technology. 


Of course, all this is about as brief an overview as can be.  For more information about alternative fuels, the following links could prove to be a huge help