SPECIAL REPORT: Volvo’s Ready for Future Fuels

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Volvo is ready to build and sell, at 24 months’ notice, diesel-engined trucks that run on any of seven different renewable liquid and gaseous fuels that won’t produce a net gain of harmful carbon dioxide in the atmosphere after being manufactured, distributed, and burned.

“We are ready,” says Leif Johansson, CEO of the Volvo Group. “Let’s get going.”

He was speaking at the 2007 European Transport Forum in Brussels, a two-day conference organized jointly by Volvo and Forum Europe. The event’s theme was “Making Sense of the Great Debate on New Fuel Technologies,” though some sessions covered other issues like cargo security in a post-9/11 world.

As well as journalists, invited guests included carriers and an assortment of European Commission politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists — not to mention , improbably, one person from rival truck-maker Scania, who may or may not have been invited.

In his opening remarks, Johansson noted that by 2010 diesel engines will emit virtually no particulate matter or nitrous oxides. After that, the target will be CO2 and he estimated that cargo transport accounts for about 4-5 percent of total global carbon-dioxide emissions.

Each of the seven Volvo 380 trucks that rolled into view behind the outdoor podium as he spoke had a 9-liter diesel engine modified to operate on a renewable fuel or combinations of fuels. All of them are produced from renewable raw materials, and they provide no net carbon-dioxide contributions to the ecosystem. The fuels were:

Volvo CEO Leif Johansson says his company is
ready to go on alternative heavy duty fuels.

Biodiesel — produced by the esterification of vegetable oils such as rapeseed and sunflower. The European Union, incidentally, has a target of 10 percent biofuel for all road vehicles by 2020, 25 percent by 2030. The present number is 1 percent.

Biogas — a gaseous fuel that’s largely comprised of hydrocarboned methane. It can be extracted in sewage treatment works, at garbage dumps, and at other sites where biodegradable materials are found.

Biogas + biodiesel – these two fuels are combined in separate tanks and injection systems. A small percentage (10 percent) of biodiesel, or synthetic diesel, is used for achieving compression ignition. The biogas in this alternative is in a cooled and liquid form that increases its range.

DME (dimethyl ether) — a gas that’s handled in liquid form under low pressure, produced through the gasification of biomass.

Ethanol/methanol — methanol is produced through the gasification of biomass and ethanol through the fermentation of crops rich in sugar and starch.

Synthetic diesel — a mixture of synthetically manufactured hydrocarbon produced through the gasification of biomass. Synthetic diesel can be mixed with conventional diesel fuel without problem.

Hydrogen gas + biogas – in this combination, hydrogen gas is mixed in small volumes with compressed biogas (8 percent volume). Higher mixture levels are also possible. The hydrogen gas can be produced through the gasification of biomass or electrolysis of water with renewable electricity.

Some of these fuels are relatively exotic at this point, and in fact Johansson said he was worried that one of the trucks wouldn’t make it to the display because they could find only three liters of that particular fuel.

Johansson said Volvo chose the seven fuels from a list of 30 or more but would not say that any one of them was superior in every respect. “It depends on local conditions,” he said, “though second-generation biofuels are very promising.” Those include synthetic diesel and methanol.

“The ideal answer would be one fuel worldwide,” he said, “but that’s not going to happen… We have to accept that there will be different fuels in different parts of the world.”

Technology is not the challenge here, he said. The issue is availability of fuels, and he expressed some frustration that there are not yet any technical standards that fuels like those he discussed must meet. Future emissions standards will be tough to meet if those standards don’t exist, he said, and they must be international.

“What we are trying to say is, take away the uncertainty.”

Johansson also called for much more investment in future fuels, and in second-generation biofuels particularly. He noted that there is more fuel research and development going on in North America than in Europe, adding that he would support a rise in U.S. fuel taxes if the additional revenue were applied to such R&D.

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