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Compressed natural gas.
Compressed natural gas.

The Green Highway

Keep on truckin’ with liquid natural gas Add to ...

As they’re not the least bit “green,” I rarely have anything to say about pickup trucks. However, lots of people need them and more than a quarter million pickups are sold in Canada every year.

I recently attended a session to test drive the 2014 Chevrolet Silverado pickup. Like other full size pickups, it weighs in at about 2,000 kilograms and pushing around two tonnes of steel requires plenty of power and burns plenty of fuel.

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I won’t even get into the “official” Transport Canada fuel economy numbers because they bear no resemblance to reality, but GM has improved its ratings by developing a new line of engines with direct fuel injection, cylinder deactivation and continuously variable valve timing.

GM has gone with normally aspirated V-6 and V-8 gasoline engines and has eschewed Ford’s choice of EcoBoost, which adds a turbocharger. GM claims that its small V-8 delivers better fuel economy than Ford’s EcoBoost V-6, but frankly I have no idea how that was calculated. However, as everyone who owns a pickup knows, you get used to pumping a hundred bucks worth into the gas tank every time you turn around.

Today’s full-size pickups, including the Silverado, are amazing vehicles to drive, especially if you are carrying or towing a heavy load. People who use them as single-occupant urban commuters really should find something more suitable. But one thing that surprised me about the Silverado was the FlexFuel badge on the back. That indicates the engine and fuel system has been upgraded to be able to burn E85 – the 85 per cent ethanol, 15 per cent gasoline mixture.

Well that’s fine, but where do you buy the stuff? As far as I know, there are only four E85 stations in Ontario. There are thousands of FlexFuel vehicles on our roads that have never tasted the stuff. Finally, I get to my point: pickups should burn alternate fuel, but not that one.

With their big, heavy, ladder frames, pickups would be perfect for attaching tanks for compressed (CNG) or liquid (LNG) natural gas. Natural gas is less expensive and burns cleaner than petroleum-based gasoline, both from environmental and health points of view; plus we’ve got a surplus of the stuff. We also have a huge potential for producing renewable natural gas (RNG).

The controversial extraction technique known as “fracking” has put some people off the large-scale use of natural gas as a transportation fuel. But RNG or bio-methane is made from a variety of organic waste sources including garbage dumps, waste-water facilities, farms, dairies and food processing plants. It requires no fracking or drilling of any kind. Compared to petroleum, it also reduces life-cycle (well-to-wheels) greenhouse gas emissions by close to 88 per cent, according to the California Air Resources Board.

Anaerobic digestion is the biological process through which organic materials are broken down naturally by micro-organisms in airless environments. The gaseous result is basically a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide, which can be purified and put right into the pipeline or fuel tanks.

RNG isn’t talked about much here, and Europe is way ahead of us on this, but it’s being worked on in a number of places in Canada and the United States. There’s a big dairy farm in Indiana, for example, where manure from more than 11,000 cows is converted into vehicle fuel to power the entire 42-truck milk delivery fleet.

So back to pickup trucks – a lot of people rely on them, but they are gas guzzlers in spite of the continual improvement we have seen in recent years. Wouldn’t they be outstanding candidates for conversion to renewable fuels? The FlexFuel label doesn’t impress me. When I see a pickup with CNG Equipped on the back, I’ll know we’re headed in the right direction.

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