Transport Theory

Will American cars run on propane fuel?

Will American cars run on propane fuel?

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What makes propane an attractive alternate fuel source? SmartPlanet spoke with Stuart Weidie, president of Alliance AutoGas, to find out more about propane fuel, known as autogas.

As the auto industry searches for alternate fuels to reduce carbon emissions as well as our dependence on foreign oil, a number of solutions have emerged, to varying degrees of success. Electric power allows cars to run emissions-free, but as most of our electricity comes from coal, charging an electric vehicle is not as environmentally friendly as it would seem. Solar power, while arguably the cleanest form of energy, could also be used to generate clean electricity, but it is currently unavailable in sufficient quantities to make a significant impact on the market.

Yet another option is propane fuel, also known as autogas. The natural gas derivative can be produced domestically, burns cleaner than gasoline, and on average costs $1.35 less per gallon at the pump.

Curious about autogas and its expansion as a fuel option, SmartPlanet spoke with Stuart Weidie, President and CEO of Blossman Gas and president of Alliance AutoGas, a company that focuses on the development of autogas - the propane that goes into vehicles.

SP: Let's start with the basics. What, exactly, is propane?
SW: Propane is derived from natural gas, which is plentiful in the U.S. thanks to sources such as natural gas shale. Sixty to seventy percent of the propane we use comes from natural gas. Another 35 to 40 percent comes as a by-product of the oil refining process. More than 90 percent of the propane that is consumed in this country is domestically produced. We are sitting on 200 years of domestic consumption of natural gas.

Propane is stored in its liquid state in sealed containers and sent through more than 70,000 miles of propane pipelines around the country. Once it reaches a designated storage facility, liquid propane is dispensed to a vehicle. It is never released into the atmosphere, and it is contained using a pressurized system.

SP: Is the U.S. the first country to use autogas as a fuel option?
SW: No - relative to other places in the world, we have been slow to adopt autogas. In some countries, like South Korea, Turkey, India, and Poland, more than 50 percent of vehicles run on autogas. This is because from the mid-1980s through 2005, we had very low gasoline and diesel costs relative to other parts of the world.

SP: Why is autogas a good alternative to gasoline?
SW: Tailpipe emissions from an autogas vehicle release 12-18 percent less CO2 than those of a gasoline-powered vehicle, and represent a 20% overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Also, autogas costs an average of $1.35 less per gallon than gasoline, a figure which includes a 50-cent-per-gallon tax credit.

SP: Propane is often associated with explosions. Should drivers be nervous about using autogas in their cars because of safety concerns?
SW: No. While that perception does exist, autogas has a better safety record than gasoline in accidents, as recorded in Europe and Asia (markets where autogas has been used for a longer period of time). The autogas is also stored in a puncture-resistant tank, and other safety systems are in place to ensure that no gas escapes. If there is no gas, there will be no explosion.

(Watch the video below to see a demonstration at a police station in Georgia where officers unsuccessfully tried to puncture a steel propane tank using a variety of handguns. A high-power weapon finally did the trick, but even then the tank did not explode, the gas just dissipated and had to be ignited with an additional shot.)

SP: Can ordinary cars run on autogas?
SW: Yes. A standard conversion to enable a car to run on autogas costs $5,000. If the vehicle logs 25,000 miles or more per year, the investment is recouped within 12 to 14 months (based on savings at the pump).

SP: How is Alliance AutoGas working to increase the use of autogas-powered cars?
SW: For now, Alliance AutoGas is focusing on light medium-duty fleets, such as taxis, state troopers, and emergency services. Vehicles are fitted with a bi-fuel system which allows them to start up on gasoline and switch to autogas. Cars can refuel at the fueling station installed at the fleet's site, but should they find themselves out of autogas, drivers can fill up on gasoline as well.

SP: Where do you hope to see the market for autogas over the next few years?
SW: We're focusing on fleets right now. If we penetrate the market over the next three to five years, there will be a general acceptance of autogas in the U.S., and in five to ten years, you'll see the construction of public refueling stations around the country (much as you see in Europe). This has been the model for other countries that have successfully deployed autogas.

Photos: Alliance AutoGas

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Channtal Fleischfresser

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Channtal Fleischfresser has worked for The Economist, WNET/Channel 13, Al Jazeera English, Wall Street Journal and Associated Press. She holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure