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tough sell

Despite constant pressure to reduce fuel costs and particulate emissions, many carriers ignore an innovation that could fix both problems.        

Despite constant pressure to reduce fuel costs and particulate emissions, many carriers ignore an innovation that could fix both problems.        

            Hydrogen-generating systems (HGS) have been retrofitted on a select group of trucks in Canada, the US and elsewhere for several years. However, recently re-engineered products from two major Canadian vendors, Hy-Drive Technologies Ltd. and Dynamic Fuel Systems (DFS) Inc. continue to face an uphill struggle to gain credibility and sales.

            Carriers do not believe there is enough of a business case for them to adopt the new technology. “They are not interested in reducing fuel consumption because they can pass on cost increases to shippers through fuel surcharges,” charges Andrew Lindsay, Mississauga-based vice-president engineering & technical development, Hy-Drive Technologies.

            As well, diesel engine makers remain on the sidelines. “If they can get four mpg out of their equipment which is close to what their competitors can do, that’s fine with them,” says Glenn Windrem, president, Glenn Windrem Trucking in Peterborough, Ont., and an early Hy-Drive convert. “They will only start doing something once others can get six mpg.”

            Ignorance also plays a role. “Many people do not understand how the technology works or appreciate its potential benefits,” says Grove Bennett, Pickering,Ont.-based vice- president, DFS. “It all boils down to reliability, repeatability and return on investment.”

            DFS recently announced the launch of its re-engineered flagship HydraGen product that is lighter, more compact and less expensive than previous systems. It expects to begin development and full-scale commercialization in early 2011.

            At the same time, its Management Discussion & Analysis (MD&A) filing with Ontario security regulators included the statement “We may not be able to generate sufficient cash flows to fund our operations and make adequate capital investments.”

            The science behind HGS is simple. In basic terms, the units — about the size of a large automotive battery    — are securely rack-mounted behind the tractor cab. A hose connects it to a tank of distilled water. An electric current passing through the water breaks it down into hydrogen and oxygen gas. These are then fed into the engine intake where they enhance the combustion of diesel fuel resulting in a cleaner, more complete burn. That creates more engine thrust that improves fuel efficiency as well as reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) and particulate (black smoke) emissions.

            Hy-Drive’s updated units will deliver overall fuel savings of 10.47 per cent and lower average particulate emissions by 39.53 per cent. An independent, third-party, Professional Services Industry (PSI) Inc. has verified these results. It used SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) standards to conduct Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC) of the American Trucking Associations to conduct the tests.

            PSI’s report concluded, “The Hy-Drive HGS Technology does consistently improve fuel economy while reducing dirty emissions.”

            In January 2011, Hy-Drive signed an agreement with GreenCell Technologies Inc. making it the exclusive distributor of its HGS series of hydrogen gas generators for the diesel truck market in Canada and the USA. “Our intent is to introduce a per-mile usage fee to replace our former outright purchase plan,” says John O’Bireck, Hy-Drive’s vice-president sales.

            In the absence of any viable government subsidies or incentives, the plan eliminates the upfront capital costs related to buying and implementing the system.

            However, winning over skeptical buyers remains a challenge. The prevailing attitude in the carrier community is “show me”. According to Bennett, the majority of fleet owners support the technology. “But for contract drivers, it’s about 50-50,” he says. “For fleet or salaried drivers, it’s 70-30 against.”

            The key stumbling block for vendors is how to demonstrate and measure consistent, real-world performance. That’s because of the huge number of variables involved.  O’Bireck quotes a Walmart executive who says that it monitors 43 factors related to engine performance.

            For example, Windrem’s results are all over the map. Sometimes, his trucks enjoy 20 per cent or better fuel efficiency. At other times it is zero. Every truck in his fleet racks up high annual mileage — about 100,000 miles — delivering aggregate in short regional trips of 30 miles each way to job sites. They make eight or nine trips per day. There is no standard trip; every one involves different variables — routes, weather conditions, drivers etc.  

            Then there are technical issues. Diesel engines operate on compression/combustion principles so their performance also varies greatly depending on the ambient temperature, humidity and pressure etc. To deliver more consistent performance, Hy-Drive introduced innovative software – an integrated management module (IMM). In response to data received wirelessly from the engine through Bluetooth technology, the IMM uses algorithms to calculate the proper amount and timing of hydrogen bursts injected into the combustion chamber to ensure the optimum burn under prevailing conditions.

            O’Bireck describes the hydrogen blast as an accelerant similar to a barbecue fire starter that helps get the charcoal to burn and create heat for cooking. He also states that the IMM has nothing to do with engine’s electronic control mechanism (ECM). In that way, there is no possibility of interfering with the engine itself which could result in voiding the manufacturer’s warranty.

            The re-engineered units have eliminated several shortcomings that plagued earlier models. For example, Hy-Drive solved the problem of water vapour freezing in the hoses and pumps during cold spells by introducing heat sensors that kick in only when the temperature drops. The addition of a vibration table provides greater unit stability and improved safety by preventing hydrogen leaks. As well, it “ruggedized” the casing, making it sturdier and preventing cracking with fusion rather than manual welding.

            Currently sold as a bolt-on, aftermarket product, HGS units may receive the ultimate market endorsement whenever original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) start installing them at the factory. But that day appears far away. “HGS is a specific product targeting North American diesel engines,” says O’Bireck. “To accommodate them all, we would need to change the unit shape and related software for each engine design.”

            (Hy-Drive units are currently suitable for pre-2007 Caterpillar C-12, C-13 and C-15 engines. Next on the list are Detroit Diesel and Cummins.)

            “We hope to widen the HGS market through our recent GreenCell agreement,” he says. “That includes proof-of-concept trials with OEMs in North America as well as exploring new opportunities in India and China.”

            HGS units are considered safe even though hydrogen and oxygen in certain ratios can be highly explosive. “Since none of the gas is stored, I believe they are much safer than LNG tanks,” says Bennett. “Hydrogen and oxygen are used immediately after they are produced. Otherwise, they are allowed to escape harmlessly into the atmosphere.”

             Although most of the attention is focused on HGS’s prowess in reducing fuel costs, it can also deliver major environmental advantages. But when it comes to reducing particulate emissions, Windrem puts more faith in HGS technology than in new EPA-approved engines.

            He contends that while such engines have reduced emissions, they have not necessarily increased fuel efficiency. In fact, he claims that they burn more fuel. Although the updated models have reduced carbon and other emissions, he attributes that to better particulate filters and electronic mufflers.

            Science supports Windrem’s point of view. Post-burn mitigation involve catalytic converters that use urea (ammonium) to break down the nitrogen oxide emissions or smog into less noxious nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide.  Filters trap the black smoke. But the particles are large enough to clog the filters so they are recycled through the combustion chamber for a second burn to make them small enough to pass through.

            “The particles become so small they can’t be seen,” says Lindsay. “But they remain in the atmosphere and can lead to breathing problems.

            “The new engines can cause other problems such as back pressure on engines that require higher maintenance. To eliminate the problems, some carriers are turning in their newer, post-2007 engines for older ones.”

            HGS units avoid the problem through more complete, initial fuel combustion that eliminates particulate formation and the need for complex and often incomplete post-combustion cleansing techniques.

            US and Canadian regulators take a neutral stand on HGS technology. In an e-mail response, Lynda Harvey, Ottawa-based senior manager – FleetSmart, Transportation Energy Use Division Natural Resources Canada wrote, “There have been many metamorphoses of these types of products over the years. As Government, we make neither recommendations on these products nor any specific brands.  Traditionally, if we are asked, we suggest the product developer engage in proper independent testing such as done by the Environment Canada testing labs, by FP Innovations – PIT project in Canada or the EPA Technology Labs in the US where all testing is done to SAE standards. 

            “Often many unproven products where drivers see ‘changes’ or ‘improvements’, they really come from the driver actually driving differently when they know the product is on the vehicle, in the tank, or in the fuel line. When questioned, the driver or fleet manager will admit that there is not significant baseline data over a long period to really measure properly, but the anecdotal stories become positive testimonials. 

            “In the end, it’s ‘buyer beware’.”

            Such confusion is not helpful.  “There are lots of vendors out there many with unsubstantiated claims of 30 per cent fuel savings and very low unit prices,” says Paul Irish. “Potential buyers are asking themselves ‘why pay five times more for a system that has validated claims of only 10 per cent fuel savings’?

            When asked what will it take to boost sales, he says, “Two things will drive wider acceptance. The first is higher emissions standards from regulators such as the US Environmental Protection Agency or the State of California. The second is higher diesel fuel prices.” (At press time [January 2011] US Diesel fuel prices were hovering around US$3.33 per US gallon, up 19 per cent from the year before.)

            What’s next? Hy-Drive is currently conducting a limited, demonstration impact study in which units will constantly run in 10-minutes-on, 10-minutes-off cycles. This will remove driver bias and other external factors that can affect the unit’s performance. “It will be similar to double-blind, medical trials set up to prove that it’s the pill not the placebo that creates the positive results,” says O’Bireck. “We need to show that the results are real so others can replicate them using the same procedures.”

            Such testing will eliminate a fault in current verification processes which Irish sums up as, “real-world engine performance may not duplicate laboratory test results”.   “Although results are valid and verification using SAE standards, they do not address other relevant issues such as the long-term impact of fuel efficiency,” he says.

            However, O’Bireck has high hopes for Hy-Drive’s current efforts. “After establishing the validity and credibility of the technology, we plan to spend a lot of money on marketing so our product will have the ability to go viral,” he says.

            That will go a long way to encouraging carriers to install HGS units on their fleets.

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