LPG back on the agenda

The time may have fi­nally come for liq­ue­fied petroleum gas as a fuel


Pros and cons of the fuel

What­ever hap­pened to liq­ue­fied petroleum gas (LPG)? In the post-diesel­gate era, when many cities are pon­der­ing ban­ning diese­lengined ve­hi­cles and air qual­ity is be­com­ing a top-line po­lit­i­cal is­sue, surely a low-co2 fuel that is in­ex­pen­sive and ex­tremely low in tailpipe pol­lu­tion should be en­joy­ing a re­vival?

Yet that’s not prov­ing to be the case for a fuel that, de­spite many ad­van­tages, has long been an odd­ball choice and failed to gain trac­tion in the UK. With this in mind, Au­to­car re­cently ran a ‘bi-fuel’, left-hand-drive Da­cia San­dero Step­way equipped with a fac­tory-fit­ted LPG sys­tem to see if it was fea­si­ble to live with here (see story, op­po­site).

LPG spe­cial­ists say the UK mar­ket has never re­cov­ered from a govern­ment’s U-turn in the early 2000s, which, af­ter ini­tially sup­port­ing a push to­wards the adop­tion of LPG as a main­stream fuel, ef­fec­tively pulled the rug from under it. How­ever, the most re­cent UK govern­ment bud­get in Novem­ber last year an­nounced the re­moval of the fuel duty es­ca­la­tor for Lpg-fu­elled cars, one pos­i­tive sign for the fuel.

Across Europe to­day, LPG is still a mi­nor­ity fuel. It’s most pop­u­lar in Poland, fol­lowed by Italy, where some 5% of the coun­try’s cars and trucks are pow­ered by LPG, which equates to around 2.2 mil­lion ve­hi­cles in all. Air qual­ity con­cerns have en­cour­aged re­gional gov­ern­ments to in­cen­tivise the use of cars con­verted to run on LPG in Italy and Spain, which has had a no­table growth in the adop­tion of the fuel.

Ac­cord­ing to Holly Jago of Au­to­gas, a joint-ven­ture LPG sup­ply com­pany owned by Shell and Calor, around 120,000 ve­hi­cles are con­verted to run on LPG in the UK, and about 4000 are con­verted each year, but that amounts to just 0.2% of road fuel use.

As Jago points out, the new em­pha­sis on air qual­ity should make LPG rel­e­vant again. She cites “in­de­pen­dent tests” of a TX4 Lon­don cab con­verted to use LPG in which tailpipe pol­lu­tion was slashed, with par­tic­u­lates down by 99% and NOX down by 88%.

The UK is way be­hind the global curve for mov­ing ur­ban mass tran­sit to cheap and ef­fec­tive LPG and away from diesel. Hong Kong con­verted its 20,000-strong taxi fleet to LPG more than 15 years ago. And the new Toy­ota Ja­pan Taxi, which uses the com­pany’s hy­brid driv­e­train, is fu­elled by LPG rather than petrol.

So is LPG due for a re­vival? In the UK, it’s not look­ing good. At the mo­ment, there are no fac­tory-con­verted LPG cars on sale in this coun­try. World­wide, says Jago, around 15 car mak­ers of­fer around 100 dif­fer­ent bi­fuel mod­els, with LPG tanks in ad­di­tion to the petrol tank.

In the EU, there’s a rea­son­able choice, in­clud­ing a wide range of Da­cia and Opel mod­els, as well as un­ex­pected of­fers such as the Subaru range and the Alfa Romeo Mito. Th­ese bi-fuel cars are more ex­pen­sive than the stan­dard mod­els, and even with LPG prices at 64 pence per litre (com­pared with petrol at £1.21), it will still take around 10,000 miles of driv­ing to break even on the pur­chase price.

A Da­cia spokesman said: “Da­cia of­fers an LPG pow­er­train in some con­ti­nen­tal Europe mar­kets. In line with all other man­u­fac­tur­ers in the UK, this op­tion is not avail­able here due to the lack of sig­nif­i­cant LPG in­fra­struc­ture and cur­rent cus­tomer de­mand.”

Jago said Au­to­gas was frus­trated be­cause car mak­ers are re­luc­tant to build fac­to­ry­fit right-hand-drive bi-fuel cars with­out much more in the way of govern­ment guar­an­tees that a UK LPG mar­ket will be prop­erly en­cour­aged. How­ever, the UK’S Pcp-dom­i­nated new car mar­ket is a mas­sively tough nut to crack for some­thing as off-beat and un­friendly to short-term own­er­ship as LPG.

Nev­er­the­less, a new opening for LPG in the UK is look­ing ever more hope­ful in the com­mer­cial sec­tor. Calor says

it thinks range-ex­tended (REX) hy­brids are look­ing like a good bet for taxis and com­mer­cial de­liv­ery ve­hi­cles, which need to be as low pol­lu­tion as pos­si­ble.

In­deed, the new Lon­don TX black cab is a REX and it will soon spawn a de­liv­ery van. The Lon­don Routemas­ter bus also has a REX trans­mis­sion, as does Ford’s pro­to­type plug-in Tran­sit van.

Dutch truck maker Emoss, which pro­duces full-elec­tric de­liv­ery ve­hi­cles and REX semi-trucks, has de­vel­oped a new REX model that, it says, is the world’s first “range­ex­tended elec­tric LPG truck”.

It uses a 2.0-litre steadys­tate en­gine run­ning on LPG and driv­ing a gen­er­a­tor, which drives an elec­tric drive mo­tor. ‘Mil­i­tary-grade’ lithium ion bat­ter­ies are hung at each side of the chas­sis frame, of­fer­ing 40 miles of Ev-only range.

The claimed emis­sions fig­ures for the Emoss de­sign are re­mark­able. A stan­dard­is­sue truck run­ning on LPG emits “48 tonnes of CO2 per an­num”, but Calor claims the REX pro­to­type re­duces that to just 8.6 tonnes of CO2, a re­mark­able 82% drop.

Us­ing bi­olpg, that drops to 94% less CO2 than the stan­dard LPG truck. NOX pol­lu­tion is claimed to be 94% under the cur­rent EU6 lim­its and par­tic­u­late emis­sions are “vir­tu­ally elim­i­nated”.

Load-car­ry­ing ve­hi­cles will find it al­most im­pos­si­ble to move to bat­tery power, due to the sheer cost of the very large bat­tery packs needed, the re­duc­tion in load ca­pac­ity caused by heavy bat­ter­ies and the dif­fi­culty of charg­ing very large packs quickly. Most im­por­tant, the REX so­lu­tion is likely to be far cheaper.

LPG’S ex­tremely clean­burn­ing na­ture may yet have its day with the race to clean up com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles. In the longer run, it may even spark a re­vival of Lpg-driven REX pas­sen­ger cars if CO2 out­puts are as low as 40g/km and the EV revo­lu­tion fails to take hold.

Num­ber of LPG pumps varies greatly from coun­try to coun­try

Tis­shaw found that fill­ing up with LPG could be a chal­lenge

New REX Emoss truck uses LPG to run a gen­er­a­tor

Toy­ota Ja­pan Taxi: a hy­brid driv­e­train fu­elled by LPG, not petrol

New Lon­don cab has a range-ex­ten­der set-up and could use LPG

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