Story and photos by Richard Russell
Uddevalla, Sweden – Hydrogen vehicles are widely held to be the ultimate solution as an alternate to fossil fuels. Not only will the availability of petroleum products decline, their use in vehicles around the world has created a massive environmental problem. But the production, distribution and use of hydrogen are at least 15 to 20 years off, as a myriad of problems are addressed.
An emerging technology in use in Europe, and especially in Sweden, could provide relief from these issues. It also promised to alleviate problems related to municipal landfills and serve as a bridge to the hydrogen age, by creating a suitable delivery and refuelling infrastructure. The product is biogas, methane produced from the treatment of organic waste diverted from landfills.
In addition to being a significantly cleaner-burning fuel, biogas has a wider environmental impact because it readily accepts a mixture of up to 10% hydrogen. By encouraging the production and distribution of hydrogen, biogas as a transportation fuel could provide the impetus to speed up the development of this future fuel.
Biogas is more expensive to produce than fossil fuel, but as the price of a barrel of crude continues to escalate, the gap is closing quickly. As opposed to a dwindling supply of a fossil fuel that took millions of years to produce, biogas comes from a constantly renewable resource that can be turned into fuel in two weeks or so. It can share distribution facilities with compressed natural gas – currently in use as a transportation fuel in more than four million vehicles around the world, 20,000 of them in Canada.
A typical Biogas pump. Click image to enlarge
Biogas vehicles have a range of 250 – 400 km. Volvo and many other manufacturers are producing vehicles than run on biogas or regular gasoline, extending that range even further. Volvo chose methane for its bi-fuel cars a decade ago because it allowed a 25% reduction in C02 emissions with no internal engine modifications. Like natural gas, biogas is compressed to about 200 – 250 bar and can share the same distribution systems and refuelling stations. Biogas uses the same injectors, pumps and other engine components as compressed natural gas. In Sweden, biogas now accounts for 45% of all compressed gas used in motor vehicles. Most municipal fleets, including busses and refuse collection vehicles, operate on biogas and studies show the switch from diesel to natural or biogas in these units results in a one cent a mile increase in maintenance costs, but an 11 cent decrease in operating costs, resulting in a 10% gain.
Volvo’s Gothenburg plant has engineered and is producing bi-fuel vehicles that run on either regular liquid gasoline or biogas. The issues of altering the intake system to use biogas are relatively simple – a second fuel delivery system and electronic tweaks. The primary concern of course is safety and who better than Volvo to tackle that issue? Like compressed natural gas, biogas requires special lines, storage tanks, injectors and refuelling systems.
The high pressure refueling attachment point at a public biogas refueling site – insert the nozzle, turn the lever to pock in place and the process begins. Click image to enlarge
Tanks are the big issue, not only do they have to withstand the pressure, they have to be securely mounted. Volvo’s safety team says that tens of thousands of vehicles using compressed natural gas and biogas from various manufacturers have been in use in Sweden for more than a decade – but there has not been a single incident where the pressurized gasses escaped or burned in a crash. The main concern is the secure attachment of the tanks to the vehicle. Volvo installs a trio of supplementary tanks within existing or lightly modified chassis. Refuelling is done through a separate receptacle adjacent to the gas tank filler. A simple switch on the centre console allows the driver to select liquid gas or bio-gas. The transfer is virtually indistinguishable. Performance is off slightly in biogas mode, but the 30% – 40% saving in fuel costs makes that perfectly acceptable!
Other manufacturers marketing biofuel vehicles include Citroen, DaimlerChrysler, Fiat, Ford, GM, Opal, Peugeot, Renault and VW.
On the infrastructure front, experience here suggests it costs about $3 million (Cdn) for a refuelling station to serve 100 busses and $500,000 for a single consumer refuelling station – exclusive of land costs – and that you need about 300 cars per refuelling station to make them economically viable. The Swedes have also discovered that the purchase and use of biogas vehicles increases sharply in areas where the refuelling stations and infrastructure are put in place first.
The face of a typical biogas pump. Click image to enlarge
Government grants cover up to 30% of the cost of the stations. Companies and municipalities apply for the grant – about 50% are approved, all on a regional basis. The goal is one natural gas filling station for every ten regular stations and the governments guarantee the biogas will be at least 30% less expensive than regular fuel, controlled by taxation levels. Because of the tax and other incentives, the cost per mile for biogas is 70% that of liquid fuels here where gasoline currently costs about $2 per litre and natural gas about $1.40 for an equivalent amount of energy. The additional cost of a new vehicle equipped to burn natural or biogas is $5,000, but tax credits, parking, income and city access incentives make up that difference very quickly.
Offsetting the costs to government of these tax and other incentives, are vastly cleaner air, reduced pollution and the diversion of waste from landfills. The reduced strain on the health system alone, brought about by cleaner air, is judged to make a significant contribution. There are now 3,000 methane-fuelled vehicles and 19 refuelling stations in West Sweden serving a population of about 1.5 million and 50 in the whole country of nine million, with 25 more coming on stream this year. Current biogas production replaces 5.1 million litres of petroleum-based fuels and the goal by 2020, is 150 stations, 200,000 vehicles and the replacement of 170 million litres of petroleum product.