ATLANTAWith gasoline prices continuing to rise, finding alternative fuelslike natural gas (NG)is an investment some companies are looking into to save money, especially in the commercial delivery industry.
United Parcel Service of America Inc. (UPS) could be considered a trendsetter as the company explores greater use of both fully electric and natural gas vehicles in its massive global fleet.
UPS has one of the largest private alternative fuel fleets in the nation, with more than 3,150 alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicles, a spokesperson for the company told Tire Business.
This includes all-electric, hybrid electric, hydraulic hybrid, compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), propane, biomethane and light-weight fuel-saving composite body vehicles.
Of those, UPS said 965 are CNG vehicles and 249 are LNG vehicles. In 2013, the company succeeded in its goal to have 100 fully electric commercial vehicles.
Additionally, UPS said it plans to invest approximately $50 million to build an additional nine LNG fueling stations, which would bring its number of stations to 13. All should be operational by year-end 2014.
The enhanced LNG fueling infrastructure will support the operation of approximately 1,000 LNG tractors UPS plans to add to its fleet. That will displace more than 24 million gallons of diesel fuel annually.
Atlanta-based UPS has used LNG vehicles for more than a decade and has benefited from lower fuel prices compared with imported petroleum.
The company said it takes a rolling laboratory approach, meaning it's always testing different technologies to find the best sources of energy for its vehicles.
Between 2000 and year-end 2012, UPS said its alternative fuel and advanced technology fleet logged 295 million miles. In 2012, that fleet covered 49 million miles, a 43-percent increase compared with 2011.
For the future, UPS said it plans to continue to expand in this area. We continue to evaluate technology improvement, the spokesperson said, to determine if new technologies can fit into the company's systems.
UPS also takes an active approach to working with the U.S. Department of Energy's Clean Cities program to advance LNGs in the marketplace. The UPS spokesperson said the program will be announcing new projects as they are awarded in September.
As far as maintenance, UPS follows the vehicle manufacturers' recommendations, but would recommend automotive service providers put a focus on these types of vehicles.
The worldwide boom in the hydraulic fracturingor frackingtechnique to extract oil and natural gas from shale deposits has created a boom in the energy industry and especially made natural gas cheaper and more plentiful.
Meanwhile, there are companies in the automotive aftermarket that have become well-versed in equipment needed for poweringand servicingnatural gas and other alternative fuel vehicles.
Pulstar is the aftermarket brand for Enerpulse Technologies Inc., which employs pulsed power technology in spark plug design to increase the precision of fuel ignition.
Enerpulse also is active in the natural gas industry, producing plugs for both stationary and mobile applications, working with manufacturers that produce engines or companies that convert diesel or gasoline engines using either CNG or LNG systems.
The Enerpulse NaPI technology is currently available in five mobile natural gas models, and the company plans to expand to 10 models covering most of the market within the next couple years, said Lou Camilli, founder, president and CEO of Albuquerque, N.M.-based Enerpulse.
The company plans to introduce a line of replacement natural gas Pulstar plugs available for purchase through retailers sometime in 2015, he added.
These fuels have come into great interest due to the latest techniques of extracting natural gas dramatically increasing production volume and reducing the equivalent pump price to 25-30 percent of gasoline, Mr. Camilli told Tire Business.
He acknowledged that natural gas as a vehicle fuel does have some issues, namely engine power is reduced 20-30 percent, it is difficult to ignite, refueling opportunities are limited and driving range is reduced due to limited onboard storage.
However, the industry is developing solutions to some of these issues, such as products like Enerpulse's PlasmaCore spark plugsalternatives to conventional spark plugsof which the company recently unveiled the fourth generation.
Enerpulse's NaPI technology employs a patented integrated capacitor that stores and compresses electrical energy to intensify the ignition spark, Mr. Camilli said.
When the stored energy is released in a quick and powerful burst it forms a 5 million-watt pulse. This 'pulse discharge,' which occurs during the first few nano-seconds of the spark event, saturates the resident fuel mixture with an energy-rich plasma field.
This plasma field interacts with the fuel mixture and creates highly charged radicals, ions and fractured HC chains, he said. This ionization process conditions the fuel mixture into a highly reactive state, sensitizing the fuel and causing it to ignite immediately upon spark creation and burn more quickly and completely, the company claims.
Mr. Camilli said this process results in precise combustion initiation and a faster more robust burn that improves starting, soothes the idle and increases engine power.
ASE technicians can learn how to service these vehicles relatively easily, he added.
The difference between servicing gasoline, or diesel engines converted to use (natural gas), lies primarily in the fuel system itself, Mr. Camilli explained.
Already trained ASE technicians would need familiarization and training only on the fuel system to be able to service these vehicles.
The only difference between CNG and LNG is in the storage system, he added.
CNG is stored on the vehicle in high-pressure tanksat 3,000 to 3,600 psi. LNG is natural gas stored as a super-cooled (cryogenic) liquid. The temperature required to condense natural gas depends on its precise composition, but it is typically between -120 C and -170 C. The advantage of LNG is that it offers an energy density comparable with gasoline and diesel fuels, extending range and reducing re-fuelling frequency.
As innovative technologies continue to improve the use of natural gas and other alternatives to fuel standard vehicles, industry observers say the automotive aftermarket needs to become acclimated to servicing these vehicles since an increasing number of companies are adding fleets powered by fuels other than gasoline.
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