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Could Natural Gas Fuel a Trucking Revolution?

Natural Gas Trucking 

  • Natural gas occupies a tiny niche in transportation energy, dwarfed by oil. Conditions are now right for that disparity to begin to change.
  • Heavy-duty trucking looks like the logical beachhead for gas, with higher usage intensity and more manageable infrastructure needs than light-duty vehicles.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) released its latest Medium-Term Gas Market Report in St. Petersburg, Russia last month.  Although the IEA sees the growth of gas in the power sector slowing, they also cite its emergence as “a significant transportation fuel.”  What really caught my eye was their projection that gas over the next five years would have “a bigger impact on oil demand than biofuels and electric cars combined,” in light of the US shale gas revolution and tougher pollution rules in China.

That’s quite an assertion, considering oil’s longstanding dominance in transportation energy.  As I noted in March, Italy, Pakistan and several other countries already have well-established demand for compressed natural gas (CNG) for passenger cars.  Despite these hot spots only 3% of gas is currently used in transportation, globally, based on analysis from Citigroup.  The IEA is forecasting that transportation growth will consume 10% of the projected global gas production increase of roughly 20 trillion cubic feet (TCF) per year by 2018.  That’s 2 TCF per year of additional natural gas demand in the transport sector, equivalent to 1 million barrels per day of diesel fuel.

I’d be more skeptical about that figure if I hadn’t seen a presentation from Dr. Michael Gallagher of Westport Innovations at the Energy Information Administration’s annual energy conference in Washington, DC last Monday.  Westport specializes in natural gas engine technology for heavy-duty trucks and played a major role in implementing the LNG vision of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, CA a few years ago. 

Dr. Gallagher made a strong case for gas in heavy-duty trucking, starting with the low cost of US natural gas compared to oil and its products. Initial growth rates in several segments look encouraging, including transit buses and new trash trucks, for which natural gas now has around half the market.  Growth in China has apparently been even faster, with LNG vehicles increasing at over 100% per year (from a small base) and natural gas refueling stations growing at 33% per year since 2003.

In the US, trucking companies can save $1-2 per diesel-equivalent-gallon in fuel costs, while new heavy-duty trucks equipped with natural-gas-compatible engines and fuel tanks cost from $50-75,000 more than conventional diesel trucks. A successful transition to gas for trucking will require  a combination of fuel availability, including retail infrastructure, along with high utilization to defray those up-front costs.

Gas supply looks ample for the purpose. The IEA’s forecast includes an increase in US dry natural gas production (gas with the liquids removed) from 24 TCF last year to 28 TCF by 2018.  That’s an increase of a little more than 11 billion cubic feet per day (BCFD.) Based on the latest assessment from the US Energy Information Administration, US gas resources equate to 87 years of production at that higher rate. 

From my perspective achieving this scenario depends less on the availability of the gas than on the ability of new transport-sector users to compete with other segments that are equally eager to use more gas.  In the last 4 years gas demand for power generation has grown by 6.8 BCFD, mainly at the expense of coal, and there are many who would like to see that trend continue.  The IEA report also cited US LNG export projects totaling more than 5 BCFD that already have either Department of Energy approval or signed contracts.  New gas supplies won’t wait around for transportation demand to emerge.

The biggest advantage that gas’s new transportation customers have is the value they stand to gain, compared to other gas users.  US LNG projects are selling into increasingly competitive global markets paying up to three times the US wellhead price of gas of around $4 per million BTUs (MMBTU).  However, exporters must cover the cost of liquefaction and shipping, so their netback over wellhead prices might not be that large. Meanwhile gas’s encroachment on coal in the utility sector has been driven mainly by its low price.  As the IEA notes, we’ve already seen this trend slow and reverse somewhat as US natural gas prices recovered from last year’s lows. 

Against that, the US retail price of diesel fuel through mid-June of this year has averaged $3.96 per gallon, equivalent to $31/MMBTU.  With retail LNG currently available at a small but growing number of locations for under $3 per gallon, the incentive for truckers to switch fuels looks substantial.  And with a typical heavy-duty truck burning more than 10,000 gallons per year of fuel, each gas conversion is equivalent to the consumption of several dozen automobiles.

Fuel transitions take time.  One of Dr. Gallagher’s charts showed that it took more than 40 years for diesel to displace gasoline from heavy-duty trucks in the mid-20th century.  A lot could happen along the way to a multi-decade shift from diesel to LNG and CNG, including new cellulosic biofuels or battery breakthroughs.  For now, though, gas looks like a strong contender to provide a cleaner, cheaper fuel with sufficient energy density to be practical for long-distance trucking.  This is a trend worth watching.

A slightly different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.

Photo Credit: Trucking with Natural Gas?/shutterstock

Geoffrey Styles's picture

Thank Geoffrey for the Post!

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Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on July 27, 2013

The same features (high usage, limited infrastructure, and professional operators) that make heavy duty trucking a great beachhead for natural gas also make it a good fit for ammonia fuel.  Either transition will require a large and sustained investment by society, and would be facilitated by government incentives.

However, when measured by ease of transitioning to sustainable energy, ammonia wins.  Sustainable natural gas (mostly methane) can be made from biomass, but like other biofuels, is dependent on the Earth’s plant yield, which like the hydro-power resource, is limited.  The Earth’s largest energy resources (which dwarf biomass and hydro) are solar, wind, and nuclear power; and the cheapest fuel that can be made from these is ammonia (H2 is also cheap at the factory, but it is very expensive to deliver to end users).  Importantly, off-peak ammonia fuel synthesis also facilitates use of variable renewables for electricity by helping to match supply and demand in a way that biofuels cannot.

Ammonia, when made from natural gas, is not as cheap as CNG or LNG, but it is still much cheaper than diesel or gasoline.  And the infrastructure barrier is easier than for natural gas, since though ammonia can utilize pipelines, none are required as it is much more suited to truck or rail transport than natural gas.

The arguments against Carbon Capture and Sequestration fall apart when applied to the limited case of fuel for heavy trucks.  The captured CO2 from production of fuel for this entire market segment could clearly fit in the same formations which provide oil for the light duty vehicle fleet.  Because this segment is so much smaller than light duty vehicles, this will remain true even if fuel use in the latter drops by 2 or 3x due to efficiency improvements and electrification.  

The CO2 repository monitoring and leakage argument is not applicable to CO2 injected to depleted oil and gas formations, since these formations have already been breached by oil exploration, and will always contain non-recoverable residual fossil fuel (which is presurized by overburden).  They will always need to be monitored, and have roughly the same chance of leaking, regardless of whether they contain only residual fossil fuel or a combination of fossil fuel and CO2.

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on July 29, 2013


My biggest concerns about ammonia as a fuel relate to its potential use in passenger cars by consumers.  Truck drivers and the fuel infrastructure that serves them present a situation closer to the industrial and farm applications where ammonia use is common, so the hazards would be reduced.  Still, if you haven’t already Googled on ‘ammonia accidents”, you might find it instructive. Unlike gasoline (unless ingested) and natural gas, anhydrous ammonia is both flammable and acutely toxic.

Another big challenge is that while ammonia can be produced from electrolytic hydrogen based on nuclear or renewable electricity generation, the vast majority of both hydrogen and ammonia production today is from natural gas. Nor does there seem to be an appreciable shift towards electrolytic hydrogen, except for localized H2 production for small industrial and fleet applications.

I’m also not sure I follow your argument about the infrastructure advantages of ammonia vs. gas, since both CNG and LNG are routinely produced locally from pipeline gas.  Building a new network of ammonia pipelines would seem to be both prohibitively expensive and likely to encounter strong local opposition.

I K's picture
I K on July 29, 2013

Ammonia for transportation is a veey very absurd idea. For a start the 25,000TWh of oil we currenrly use for transport would need to become somewhere on the order of about 50,000 TWh of eletricity would need to be dedicated to this ammonia infrastructure.  Considering all the wind all the solar all the nuclear and all the hydro combined produces only about one tenth of that figure you should quickly conclude its an absurd fantasy. 

Its far more logical to use electrify most roads.  We woild only beed 10,000TWh of eletricity if the roads were rectified rather than 50,000TWh of eletricory to make the ammonia 

So anyone who thinks ammonia or hydrogen via electrolysis is the answer why wouldn’t we just use the electricity directly sweing how its 500% more efficient to do ot tjat way? 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on July 30, 2013

Any major energy system change takes 40 years.  So certainly we could ramp up sustainable energy production sufficiently in that time.

Road electrification is very unlikely for several reasons.  There is a chicken and egg problem: the vehicles don’t make sense until the infra-structure is in place and vice versa.  The infra structure is very visually ugly (with overhead cables), or very dangerous with conductors on the ground, or very very expensive with magnetic power transfer.

With ammonia fuel, deployment requires incentives to reach critical mass on infrastructure (around 5% of fuel pumps), but beyond that infra-structure growth can be demand-driven.

Compared with batteries: I have seen no serious claims that heavy duty long haul trucks will ever be powered by batteries; it’s just a bad technology fit.  For personal cars, batteries will have a market pentration between 5-50%, definitely not 100%.  (Maybe computerized taxis will replace some personal cars, but probably not all of them).

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on July 30, 2013


Your criticism of fuel synthesis from sustainable electricity implies that you do not value sustainable energy (the Earth’s biofuel resource is tiny compared to the available sun, wind, and nuclear resource).  Fossil fuels are easier and cheaper than sustainable energy; please evaluate ammonia in the context of other sustainable energy carriers.  Admittedly, electrolysis only makes sense if the goal is to stop burning fossil fuels.

Also, you don’t seem to value Carbon Capture and Sequestration (which can only be applied to tank-fuelled vehicles via one of the two carbon-free fuels: ammonia or H2; I don’t consider the mono-propellant rocket fuel hydrazine plausible for cars).  I don’ t see CC&S as a long term/large scale ammonia solution, but only as a means to lower the initial cost barrier (to bring ammonia fuel to around a 5% market share, by offering a fuel cost lower than gasoline), while we decide whether we wish to stop emitting CO2 and/or stop burning fossil fuel.

For pipelines, I had assumed that there would be many locations where a refueling station was not near an existing natural gas pipeline (or existing pipelines were of inadequate capacity).  In this case, it would be easier to haul ammonia by truck to the station, than build a new pipeline. 

The safety of any fuel in the real world is a combination of the inherent safety of the fuel, and the safety that is engineered into its systems.  I heard a lecture 30 years ago on hydrogen safety, and it had the same core issue: neither H2 nor gasoline has very good inherent safety, but we’ve learned to get along with gasoline, and we can learn new fuels too.  I don’t think it’s fair to discard ammonia based on safety without first describing a straw man refueling system; assuming the system will spill as much fuel as a gas pump is clearly wrong, we can do much better.

I looked at the link you provided expounding on the dangers of ammonia (mostly in the context of refrigerants); it didn’t compare ammonia to gasoline or other fuels (which are all much more explosive and much more flammable).  Also, it did not speculate as to achievable safety via engineered enhancements (though it did say 96% of the studied accidents were preventable).  

Here is a presentation on ammonia safety; it describes a comparative risk assessment which finds ammonia as safe as gasoline, and safer than propane.

I K's picture
I K on July 30, 2013

Nathan do you agree at least that electricity used directly via overhead lines woud use a lot less electricity than the electricity to hydrogen to ammonia to internal ammonia combtion?

We are talking maybe 10.000 TWh vs 50.000 TWh so your ammonia idea requires an electricity infrastructure that can generate 40.000TWh more eletricity than simply using eletricity directly. 

How do you propose to generate this 40.000 extra TWH? Before you even consider the ammonia production plants.


With regards to overhead lines being ugly the don’t 

have to be they can be good looking.  As for the cost do yoy really think some Aluminium

 Cable is going to be more costly tthan the $20T in nukes to power the $30T in ammonia synthesisers? 



Finally the chicken and egg problem it can easily be overcome by having a period of hybrids.  So your ice cae has an eletric motor and when driving on electrified roads you use eletricity from overhead when not you use your normal ice. The food paet of tjis is that you can put eletricity onto the most used roads first so the cost per car mile to electrify will be lower.



Think of it as hybrid cars but instead of using an ice to power an eletric motor the vast majority of the tome tjey just draw eletricity directly


BTW don’t propose or support this idea im just noting that using eletricity directly is far far far more sane in every way than converting to hydrogen or ammonia and using that 


In my view computer cars powered by oil or nat gas will solve all land and most air transport issues

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on July 30, 2013


We could debate the merits and risks of ammonia as a fuel as long as we wanted, and you might convince me that the safety concerns are more manageable than I have concluded. However, I doubt you’d convince me that ammonia fuel at this point is anything more than an expensive detour on the path to emissions reduction and decarbonization. In any case, you’re wrong that I don’t value CCS or sustainability, though I do consider the manufacture of ammonia (from natural gas) for vehicle use to be both inherently inefficient from an energy perspective and a poor use of CCS capabilities, when we have better solutions to manage vehicle emissions and sustainability (including natural gas and some biofuels, hybridization, short-range plug-in capabilities, and non-efficiency conservation) and the larger need for stationary-source CCS is in the power sector. 

Part of our disagreement on this is likely due to a basic difference in assumptions: You seem to be suggesting the phaseout of fossil fuels as a primary end-goal in and of itself. I regard that as ancillary and not entirely necessary to the primary goal of reducing GHG emissions to a level that will halt and gradually reverse their accumulation in the atmosphere.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on July 30, 2013

Part of our disagreement on this is likely due to a basic difference in assumptions...”

Yes, I think this is correct.  

I agree that we (in the US) could make good improvements in our CO2 emissions thru reductions in energy use in the methods you’ve listed (efficiency, vehicle hybridization, and conservation).  I’m skeptical of biofuels (poor energy per unit area, about 0.5W/m^2=> 2000 per GW, according to D.MacKay).  But most importantly, I’m concerned about the other 6 billion people who now live in energy poverty (i.e. their energy use is way too low).

I’m uncomfortable with dependence on conservation, however.  I’d much rather tell people to use all the clean energy they want.  As long as we are dependent on fossil fuels or scarce renewables (e.g. hydro, geothermal, and biomass), we can never say that.

I agree that converting natural gas to ammonia has poor energy efficiency, and degraded economics.  As I said, I consider this path a toe hold.  I expect that the big market for ammonia fuel will be in developing countries, whose low labor cost allows them to produce cheap sustainable power which has the potential to make ammonia for a cost less than that of imported fossil fuel (Chinese nuclear plants are reported to cost only $2/W).

I don’t place much value in CCS for electricity production, since I view nuclear and renewables as adequate replacements for fossil fuel electricity, especially when used alongside fuel synthesis as a large dispatchable load. However, I acknowledge that without large scale dispatchable fuel synthesis and nuclear power, we would be forced to continue making electricity from fossil fuel, even with onerous renewable deployments.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on July 30, 2013

Yes, I agree that over-head cables would be 2-5x more efficient than electricity-to-ammonia-to-ICE.  However, I believe the extra freedom afforded by a fuel tank would be appreciated by vehicle owners.  Overhead cables have been used for buses for decades; if people liked them, we’d use them more.  I think maybe they are tolerable on one road thru town; on every road, they would be unacceptable.

Our vehicle fuel consumption is similar in size to our electricity consumption.  We could make the additional electricity with more power plants: renewables in regions that have good resources, nuclear in those that don’t.  As I mentioned up-thread, this will mainly be economical in developing nations with low labor cost and poor domestic fossil fuel resources.

I noticed that you keep saying “computer cars” when really you mean “computer taxis”.  One should not underestimate the importance of pride in ownership, and the flip-side, disregard for rentals.  In the US anyway, we buy cars that are easily double the cost they could be, because we enjoy the extra luxury and we have pride in ownership.  Computerized taxis will not change that.  It is likely that with computer driven car technology, we would continue to privately own cars, and put more miles on them because travel would be more relaxing (and we could send the car out to run errands or pickup lunch for us).

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on July 31, 2013


Most of the speculation I’ve seen so far concerning self-driving cars strikes me as superficial and naive. I think you’re much closer to the mark in recognizing that we can’t ignore basic consumer values, which will have at least as much influence on how these technologies are adopted than the engineering aspects.  Beyond that, a self-driving car is a fundamentally new device or set of capabilities, not unlike PC were in the early 1980s. I doubt anyone has a good handle on how they’d really be used once the functionality reached the mass-market stage, let alone what the implications would be for energy consumption patterns. Seems like an ideal application for scenario planning. 

Paul O's picture
Paul O on July 31, 2013

I have to very strongly agree with Geoffrey on this one.

I think that we are stuck with Gasoline vehicles for many years to come, for the most part because changing millions of cars to Natural Gas or to electric drive is going to be too expensive. Ammonia is less so, but the range is reduced and the infrastructure does not exists and may be hard to build.

Maybe the future of personal transportation should be electric and methanol. I think converting current cars to Methanol is not impossible, and adding a fuel cell to electric cars for methanol conversion ertainly works. However, Methanol produces CO2 and has less range than gasoline, Which of course brings us back to Ammonia which produces no CO2, but has its real (distribution) or perceived problems. There are no simple answers. 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on July 31, 2013

The destination we reach is strongly effected by the road we take.  Methanol is the cheapest fuel that can be made from coal.  Ammonia is the cheapest fuel that can be made from solar, wind, or nuclear power.

Methanol conversions of existing vehicles is pretty hopeless, due to the factor of 2 reduction in range.  The best we could hope for would probably be a 60/40 blend of gasoline/methanol (80% gasoline by energy content), which still requires dedicated refueling infrastructure.  Then we’re back to needing dedicated vehicle designs with extra large tanks, same as with ammonia.  And this would do nothing for CO2 emissions (ie. the hoped-for bio-methanol would be completely offset by the inevitable coal-methanol that would lobby its way into the system).

Also, note that the direct-methanol fuel cells is only about the same efficiency as an internal combustion engine (unlike H2 and NH3 fuel cells, which can have double the efficiency). 

Paul O's picture
Paul O on August 1, 2013

What do you say/think of a car that runs on a mixture of both Ammonia and Gasoline. It according to the website( reduces CO2 emmissions by 70pcnt.

We currently throw money away on Gasohol, would not that money be better put to blending Ammonia with Gas and having real CO2 emmissions reductions in the process?

This concept could allow current vehecles to remain on the road, while lowering CO2 emmissions and at the same time allow a nscent Ammonia for transportation industry to grow.

There are questions to answer such as whether current ICE’s could be tuned to run on this mixture, and whether the mixture is trully miscible, or would require some additional finagling to inject it into an engine inthe correct  proportions. Maybe an Ammonia, Alcohol and Gasoline combo could work…the whole point is to arrive at that 70% reduction in CO2.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on August 1, 2013

In the article below about the gasoline/ammonia vehicle from Korea, I think it actually has two tanks, like many cng/gasoline conversions.  This is a good strategy for the transition, since there is already space for a gas tank, usually under the rear seat, and the ammonia or cng tank takes up a much bigger space in the trunk or truck bed; so a scarcity of ammonia fuel stations will never leave the owner stranded (the down side of all flex fuel vehicles is that to run on gasoline means that the compressions must be limited to a value that is lower than would give optimal fuel efficiency on ammonia or alcohol)

Another thing about many ammonia prototypes is that they take a short cut, and omit the cracker.  For cars that run on pure ammonia, a device called a cracker is used to process about 10% of the fuel, by heating it to release the H2, which is used to promote combustion of the bulk of the NH3, which otherwise does not burn well.  The short cut in some prototypes is just to use gasoline as the combustion promoter, which is not as effective as H2, so that’s where the 30% gasoline comes in.  The cracker will not be a big challenge in a production car, much easier than a turbo charger or catalytic converter.

Ammonia is not soluble in gasoline, but I think it is somewhat in ethanol and gasohol (but I don’t think the ammonia concentration can be very high).  I’m not sure this is worth the complextity, since pure ammonia provides a better option for fuel cells, and better scalability.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on August 1, 2013

Paul, if you analyze the ‘full-lifecycle’ (NH3 is normally made from methane and requires separate/special handling) of ammonia or blends you might find the reduction in overall carbon emissions somewhat greater than the claimed 70% reduction.

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