The diesel engine is one of the most efficient energy converters we have available to us today, delivering an overall efficiency of about 35%. Compare that to energy sources such as hydrogen or biogas which deliver only about 17-19% of their energy to the vehicle’s driven wheels and you quickly see the advantages of trucking’s main energy source.
Where diesel fuel runs into considerable problems, however, is with its sizeable contribution to greenhouse gas. Yet, as was eloquently pointed out at a Volvo seminar on climate change policy I recently attended in Boston, that does not have to spell the end of the diesel engine. In fact, one of the major advantages of the diesel engine is that it does not have to use conventional diesel fuel or other fossil-based fuels. Through the introduction of some sophisticated technology and minor modifications the diesel engine we’ve come to rely on can be adapted to run on a wide range of renewable fuels that would give our industry a shiny new image because they emit no excess carbon dioxide in powering a vehicle.
Volvo believes that CO2 neutral transport is not a utopian dream but rather a realistic and achievable goal. In recent years Volvo has sought to examine the viability of 7 different alternative fuel sources – biodiesel, synthetic diesel, dimethylether(DME), methanol/ethanol, biogas, biogas-biodiesel and hydrogen-biogas. It has compared and contrasted the benefits and drawbacks of these seven alternative fuels in a variety of critical areas such as climate impact, energy efficiency, land use efficiency, fuel potential, vehicle adaptation, fuel cost and fuel infrastructure.
It has made for a great deal of ground breaking work from an industry supplier that has clearly chosen to neither deny the threat of global warming and our industry’s contribution to it (as some carriers and media personalities shamefully are doing) nor to ignore it or to simply pay lip service to the need for more sustainable energy alternatives. It has instead opted to roll up its sleeves and work to meet the challenge head on.
Sometimes very large companies with a specific and worthy goal in mind can change an industry, creating a market for new technologies. But the challenge of moving towards more sustainable fuel sources is not a challenge that any one company – even one the size of Volvo with its global connections – can successfully tackle on its own.
To make the switch to alternative fuels also requires a leap of faith from government, the transport industry, and the companies that serve transportation’s energy needs. Yet as Leif Johansson, the CEO of Volvo Group, acknowledged, the headway being made towards the production and distribution of renewable fuels on a major scale has so far proved disappointing. In his own words, there seems to be “lots of very good talk, very little investment.”
I think that’s a tragic reality that runs counter to our entrepreneurial business culture. To borrow from Johansson’s insight once again, when we consider the environment, and what we have to do to maintain it, we often get it wrong. We think it’s going to cost too much when, in fact, environmental initiatives such as seeking alternative fuel sources are about reducing long term costs, improving the sustainability of our practices and reaping the rewards.
With more than 25 years of experience reporting on transportation issues, Lou is one of the more recognizable personalities in the industry. An award-winning writer well known for his insightful writing and meticulous market analysis, he is a leading authority on industry trends and statistics. All posts by Lou Smyrlis