Driving natural gas

Westport Innovations makes the case for natural gas powered vehicles.

October 10, 2012   by Matt Powell, Assistant Editor

Prospects for Canada’s natural gas industry haven’t been rosy as it struggles with low prices and growing competition from the US, its only export market. But it may get a boost from another industry sector that is recovering from its life and death struggle during the 2008-2009 recession. The automotive industry is heavily engaged in a quest for alternatives to gasoline power that will get consumer buy-in.

Westport Innovations is betting on natural gas. The Vancouver-based company has invested more than $300 million developing natural gas technologies for transportation applications since 1998, and is now partnering with some significant players, including General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and Volvo. Not to mention the strong stable of fleet customers who use the company’s natural gas conversion technologies and truck engines.

The company’s expertise is in developing heavy-duty natural gas engines, injectors, combustion chamber geometry and control strategies for fuel systems. It has an impressive patent portfolio of about 400 projects, 130 of which are active and another 115 pending, according to its website. Most importantly, it has patent applications in virtually all of the world’s automotive manufacturing hubs, including the US, China, Brazil, Mexico and Canada.

“We rely on partnerships to bring our products to market because we don’t invest in large scale manufacturing operations,” says Ian Scott, president of Westport LD, the company’s light-duty division. “We focus on developing IP and technology, so it’s important to partner with the OEMs and leverage their strengths in manufacturing.”

Partnerships have added to Westport’s worldwide presence. There are, to name a few, ventures with China’s Weichai (Westport will provide natural gas engine for heavy-duty trucks), Sweden’s Volvo (a bi-fuel turbo-charged engine for the Volvo V70), and Ford (the Westport Wing system, a bi-fuel system for Ford’s F-250 and F-350 pick-up trucks). In fact, Westport has a conversion facility next door to Ford’s pick-up truck assembly plant in Louisville, Ky.

The details of the technologies involved in the second part of a partnership with General Motors are mostly confidential, but Scott says Westport is working on light-duty innovations that will focus on advanced power-train development and combustion efficiencies.

The company estimates there was about 13 million natural gas vehicles on the world’s roads in 2011. That number is expected to jump to 50 million in 10 years, representing about 9% of the world’s transportation fleet.

The fact that the supply of natural gas is abundant, and that the Harper government is focused on natural resources to drive its economy gives credence to Westport’s vision.

But developing alternative fuel options for consumers comes down to the level of risk automakers are willing to accept, and the infrastructure necessary to bring options to the mainstream.

So what makes the most sense? Electric vehicles certainly address the emissions issue, but automakers are struggling with range, which has stunted sales. Bio-fuels are attracting a lot of attention, but widespread commercialization is a challenge.

Hybrids are struggling
Hybrids are more widespread, but they’re struggling in the Canadian market, a hint that customers are increasingly risk averse and show reluctance to change, according to Dennis DesRosiers, president of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants in Richmond Hill, Ont.

“Hybrids have been on Canadian roads for 13 years, and there’s still only 100,000 out there,” he says. “They have a place, but the vehicle companies are somewhat stuck because there’s so many options. No one wants to commit completely to one.”

Which brings us to natural gas. There is a lot of it and there are similarities to petroleum when it comes to engine performance and range. There’s also economic benefits. Natural gas conversion kits, which cost about $6,000, are a lot cheaper than fronting big money for an electric vehicle, such as the Chevrolet Volt with a price tag of more than $40,000.

“It’s important to have these technological developments because transport remains the only part of the economy that generally depends on one fuel source,” says Alicia Milner, president of the Canadian Natural Gas Alliance. “We need alternatives going forward. Advancements reduce risk and capture benefits, such as lower emissions and jobs in the supply chain. There’s lots of benefit in diversification.”

She says natural gas reduces vehicles emissions by up to 25%. Those reductions get even better when you consider the green natural gas options – such as bio-methanol – in development.

Natural gas already provides about a third of Canada’s energy. We’re also the world’s third largest producer of natural gas.

“There’s a dramatic increase in natural gas reserves in North America,” Scott says. “We have more than a 100 year supply in Canada alone, so from an energy security perspective, it makes sense. It’s cleaner and there’s quick pay backs.”

Natural gas vehicles have about a two-year pay back terms, he adds.

“Electric cars, in many duty cycles, don’t see anything even close to that,” he says.

So, why isn’t natural gas powering more passenger vehicles on Canada’s roadways?

It comes down to infrastructure development.

“You can’t talk about a new mainstream fuel without talking about the infrastructure,” says Peter Frise, CEO of Auto21, an automotive R&D think-tank based at the University of Windsor. “You have to figure out how you’re going to distribute it, store it and dispense it.”

Frise concedes that natural gas lends itself better to fleets because developing the infrastructure is a simpler task. Vehicles operate in a contained geographic area and return to base every night. He is, however, optimistic that widespread natural gas use isn’t far off.

“If there’s the infrastructure to support widespread use when it comes to consumers, it makes sense,” he says. “Performance wise, there’s virtually no difference compared to petroleum powered vehicles.”

Infrastructure development may be why many of Westport’s partnerships are targeted abroad, in countries that have sufficient resources to support the technologies it’s producing. And there are some opportunities the Canadian market could leverage. Fiat for instance, which acquired Chrysler in 2009, dominates the natural gas market in Europe, owning about 80% of the space’s market share. There’s a strong Canadian connection with Chrysler’s manufacturing facilities in Brampton and Windsor, Ont.

Fiat now offers its entire line-up of passenger vehicles with a bi-fuel option that allows them to run on both petroleum and natural gas in Europe. Chrysler also announced it will produce it’s uber-popular Dodge Ram 2500 pick-up truck in a compressed natural gas version, becoming the first North American OEM to do so.

That leaves the gas companies to join the mix. The fuel source is starting to take off in the US, thanks to major gas players such as Shell, which has invested more than $300 million in a refueling network that will see 200 natural gas pumps at 100 stations across the country. It also has a small liquid natural gas plant in Calgary that produces the equivalent of 300,000 gallons of diesel a day.

Milner says home refueling options would also boost consumer confidence in the fuel source. General Electric and Chesapeek Energy have released plans to jointly develop an affordable, in-home natural gas refueling station, similar to those available for plug-in electric vehicles.

“Demand for natural gas is declining for residential uses as homes get greener and tighter to boost energy efficiencies,” she says. “So the natural gas companies are looking to capitalize on new markets, and this is evident with the development of home refueling systems for natural gas vehicles.”

While she says the technology is too expensive for widespread use in its present format, it could be a game changer if natural gas vehicles catch on.
Westport Innovations hopes that’s the case.

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This article appears in the September/October 2012 edition of PLANT WEST

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