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It seems only natural

VANCOUVER, B.C. - Most of Canada endured a particularly harsh winter this year, with many Canadians gathering around their natural gas fireplace to seek refuge from the cold.

NATURAL FIT?: Will natural gas-powered trucks like this one be common on Canadian highways in the future? They will if Westport has its way.

NATURAL FIT?: Will natural gas-powered trucks like this one be common on Canadian highways in the future? They will if Westport has its way.

VANCOUVER, B.C. – Most of Canada endured a particularly harsh winter this year, with many Canadians gathering around their natural gas fireplace to seek refuge from the cold.

Although the increasing frequency of natural gas fireplaces may have saved a number of logs from a fiery demise last winter, a B.C.-based company is working to see natural gas put to use on a more consistent basis and in more varied capacities.

For a little more than a decade, Westport Innovations has been engaged in the research, development and marketing of engines and fuel systems, which use fuels such as compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), hydrogen and hydrogen-enriched compressed natural gas (HCNG).

A natural idea

Westport was established in 1995 and the company’s technologies were originally developed through research at the University of British Columbia.

The goal of the product developments are to significantly reduce the most common sources of urban pollution: nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM). At the same time, the technology aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) while preserving the power, torque and fuel efficiency of diesel engines.

“The reason we’ve developed natural gas is you get much less emissions, but the second thing is because there’s less carbon, you have a reduction of CO2. We get cleaner tailpipe emissions,” said David Demers, CEO of Westport.

The products being developed and manufactured by Westport are not to be confused with other aftermarket natural gas and hydrogen products currently available. Add-on products offer an additional way to power an engine in combination with diesel fuel, while Westport has developed engines to offer an alternative to diesel fuel.

“This is a completely ground up combustion system that gets low emissions and good fuel economy,” said Demers. “We want to build it on new vehicles.”

Urban renewal

Once developed, getting the natural gas technology on the road was the next step for Westport. The company turned to the bus market and municipal fleets to take up the cause.

“The advantage of the bus market is it’s a well-defined cycle and you’re close to home,” Demers explained.

“The transit fleet has tough emission regulations and it’s really easy to talk someone into natural gas. It’s gone quite well, but it has taken five years.”

Westport has also made inroads in the refuse industry and is now a leading supplier of natural gas and propane engines in a number of continents for transit bus, shuttle bus, medium-duty truck and refuse applications.

“We got started primarily in buses and now we are the biggest supplier of natural gas bus engines through our partnership with Cummins,” he added.

The long road

Westport teamed up with Cummins for a 50/50 joint venture – Westport Cummins, Inc. – in 2001, to manufacture and supply dedicated natural gas engines to the truck and bus markets.

“We started to make noise about why you would want to use natural gas and we talked to a bunch of the major engine manufacturers; and Cummins was the first that bit,” Demers told Truck News.

“It’s a much smaller business than their diesel business. But they’re interested in getting to know the alternative fuel business better and I think we’ve met all of their expectations and more.”

Westport however, is not just working exclusively with Cummins.

The Vancouver-based company has another joint venture, BTIC Westport, with Beijing Tianhai Industry of Beijing, China. As well, Westport has three cooperative technology agreements with Isuzu Motors, Ford Motor Company and BMW AG.

The joint venture with Cummins has more than 13,000 engines on the road today, and Westport is now moving to bring its natural gas technology to heavy-duty trucks. The Cummins ISX engine is the base for a high-pressure direct injection (HPDI) application, to utilize LNG fuel.

“We’re just getting started. Well we’ve been developing this product since 1999 and have been on the road since 2001,” said Demers. “We’d like to go in with a fleet and find out what their business is and how to manage the fuel infrastructure. Each fleet has different expectations for its vehicles and differently spec’d vehicles so we have to work with them.”

Westport found a willing participant in Challenger Motor Freight and five LNG trucks underwent a year-long test run from May 2005 to May 2006. Dubbed the Clean Air Corridor project, the trucks ran primarily along Hwy. 401 in Ontario, hauling alcohol and refuse.

“Basically it was a demonstration on how a Class 8 LNG truck would compare to a diesel Class 8 in regular driving conditions,” said Jonathan Burke, director of investor relations with Westport. “The feedback we got was terrific. We had comparable fuel economy and the drivers and mechanics noticed no difference.”

Natural progression

With a successful test project under its belt, Westport is now looking to expand its operations further into the trucking sector.

“Our biggest market in the near future will probably be in California and the southwest States,” said Demers. “In California and some other States they have huge tax credits and emission credits for natural gas engines, and then the fuel is cheaper.”

With the volatility of fuel prices and increasing global concern over the price of oil, it may not be long before a more stable supply of fuel is sought.

“Natural gas is getting cleaner and oil is getting more expensive, so that would create opportunity,” he added.

“We have lots of natural gas and it’s cheap, which will allow people to switch. The side benefit is the environmental benefit.”

The increasing concern for the environmental footprint currently being left by the trucking industry, may also play favourably for Westport and its natural gas engines.

“The big private fleets have made up their minds that they have to do something about climate change,” noted Burke. “A lot of initiatives are being done by companies themselves and not necessarily waiting for government regulations. Whether it’s making changes to the way they insulate their buildings or changing the fuel for their trucks, they’re always surprised how much money they actually save.”

Filling the gap

But like many technological advances, there are still a few obstacles before natural gas could potentially be the primary source of fuelling highway trucks.

Westport does not envision the cost of natural gas engines to be a factor in its development. As Demers pointed out, natural gas bus engines are about the same price as diesel bus engines. On the truck side, Demers noted the price of natural gas truck engines would depend on the manufacturer, but should be about the same price as diesel truck engines.

“We’re not expecting truckers to jump wholesale into natural gas overnight,” added Demers. “We’ll probably just start with the larger fleets.”

The biggest challenge for Westport and natural gas in the on-highway market is fuel infrastructure.

But the progressive company has already taken its own steps to address the infrastructure issue.

“We started a fuel company a few years ago with B.C. Gas called Clean Energy Fuel and now it’s the largest distributor of natural gas in California,” explained Demers.

“But that’s still the challenge, getting the infrastructure built and delivering the fuel to the scale that a fleet would require.”

The other challenge Westport could face, is scaling up the operation if demand increases.

“The economics are powerful enough that people will want to do this,” commented Demers. “It’s high performance and high quality and I expect customers will jump on as fast as we can deliver.” n

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