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Alternative fuels are under scrutiny, but they're not new. After all, some of the first trucks were electrically powered, and the fuel cell was first proposed in 1838. But the spiraling price of crude...

Alternative fuels are under scrutiny, but they’re not new. After all, some of the first trucks were electrically powered, and the fuel cell was first proposed in 1838. But the spiraling price of crude oil and ever-more stringent EPA standards mean that all options are again on the table. Most likely, some of the fuel types listed below will drop off the screen, and others will become more prominent. Ethanol is already added to every tankful of gas.

Biodiesel is among the most promising alternative fuels because it can run in any diesel engine. It’s presently being used by numerous fleets and transit companies. The fuel is blended with regular diesel fuel in a ratio varying from 2-30%. Many fleet operators are wary of biodiesel because of perceived difficulties with engine warranties and blending standards. The fuel also has to be kept warm, especially in winter, because of problems with gelling. The great advantage is that it is not a fossil fuel and can be produced domestically from canola, soy beans, switch grass, animal tallow or recycled cooking oils. The first comprehensive study on biodiesel usage, sponsored by Climate Change Central in Edmonton, Alberta, will collect data until late summer 2008. The test will involve about 60 trucks and should provide some answers regarding the handling, distribution and consumption of the product in varying conditions.

Propane is less popular than it once was, but some taxi fleets continue running on it and UPS has some 600 propane step vans. The problems are conversion and accessibility. Although the fuel is cheaper, it contains less energy than gasoline and the cost of converting a vehicle is daunting. Another issue is finding a fueling station in remote areas.

Clean-burning natural gas (NG) is a fossil fuel but Canada has lots of it. It can also be produced from landfills and animal waste. NG growth has been flat in recent years except where aided by government support (i.e. urban bus fleets like Vancouver, Hamilton, London). The price of converting trucks to run on the fuel is quite expensive, but NG has been traditionally 30% cheaper than gasoline and remains so today. Many large municipal fleets operate on the fuel, although highway availability is spotty. NG is a popular technology in California because of its low NOx and other emissions. UPS runs 11 tractor trucks running on liquid natural gas in that state.

Electrical vehicles (EVs) are gaining momentum although it may still be a few years before we see much commercial use. EVs return to base each night and have a limited operating radius without being recharged. Still, battery technology is advancing rapidly and the mode is looking increasingly promising. The National Research Council in Ottawa is currently looking at a batch of them.

Hydrogen is the lightest and simplest of fuels. It’s being studied in light- and heavy- duty applications for use in both IC engines and fuel cell electrics. Its clean-burning properties make it a desirable fuel alternative. Purolator experimented with a prototype hydrogen-electric delivery van but had difficulty operating the vehicle in the winter months because of icing – its waste product is water. The project is currently shelved, but national fleet manager Serge Viola thinks valuable lessons have been learned. “Fuel cell is definitely where you want to be in the future,” he says.

Transport Canada’s eco-FREIGHT initiative is looking for motor carriers to get involved in its Freight Technology Demonstration Fund and the Freight Technology Incentive Fund. Both programs promote the development of freight transportation technologies that have the potential to reduce the amount of fuel consumed and the emission of air pollutants and greenhouse gases. The first deadline for proposals is Nov 1, 2007.

Harry Rudolfs is the rare combination of a journalist and trucker. He has logged more than a million miles, and this insight allows him to tackle the issues truckers love to talk about-and, occasionally, a few they don’t.

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