Volvo chief: Fuel — not technology — limits green trucks

The development and availability of biofuels and standards to govern their quality are the key constraints on the adoption of more climate-friendly trucks, Volvo’s chief executive said Sept. 19. “The technology exists, but we need the fuels,” Leif Johansson, chief executive officer of the Volvo Group, told journalists and public policy experts in Brussels, Belgium.

To prove Johansson’s point, Volvo rolled out for its invited guests seven heavy-duty Volvo trucks, each powered by a different “carbon dioxide-free” substitute for petroleum-based diesel fuel. The seven Volvo FM trucks, first exhibited late last month in Stockholm, are equipped with Volvo’s own 9-liter diesel engines that have been modified specially by Volvo Group engineers.

But while the engines could be available immediately, the supply of biofuels is quite small, Johansson said, adding that there has been far more money spent in North America than in Europe toward developing certain alternative fuels. Indeed, availability is so tight that it threatened Volvo’s demonstration in Brussels. “We were concerned about the ability of one of the trucks to roll on the 3 liters of fuel we were able to get today,” Johansson said.

Johansson identified three principal reasons for adopting what it calls “CO2-free transport”: Climate change, oil production approaching its peak and the political uncertainty that is largely responsible for record crude oil prices. Any one of those factors could be a compelling reason to shift to fuels that don’t rely as much on petroleum-based diesel, Johansson said.

The seven fuels or combinations of fuels that power Volvo’s “CO2-free” trucks are:

  • Biodiesel;
  • Biogas, a gaseous fuel that is largely comprised of hydrocarboned methane obtained from garbage or sewage;
  • Biogas plus biodiesel;
  • Dimethyl ether, or DME, which is 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; and
  • Hydrogen gas plus biogas.
  • “The diesel engine is an extremely efficient energy converter that is perfectly suited to many different renewable fuels, liquid or gaseous,” said Jan-Eric Sundgren, senior vice president of public and environmental affairs for the Volvo Group.

    Volvo has analyzed each of the fuels and combinations on the basis of several criteria, including environmental impact, energy efficiency, land use and fuel availability cost and distribution, among others. The best fuel depends on the relative priority of those factors, but one clear finding is that so-called “second generation” biofuels — those produced from a gasification process — generally hold the greatest promise in achieving those goals.

    “The best thing would be if there were a globalized standard alternative fuel,” Johansson said, noting that a single fuel would introduce economies of scale that would minimize equipment and fuel cost. But political and economic realities are a hurdle to that best-case scenario. “We most likely will have to accept that there will be different applications and fuels around the world.”