A ‘Hamburger Helper’ for Diesel Fuel

 

In the never ending search for substitutes for oil in cars and trucks, a Nevada company has found an unusual partial replacement: natural gas.

Natural gas, of course, is already used in thousands of buses, in compressed form. But building a compression station for fueling, and converting the buses, is expensive. The Nevada company, Advanced Refining Concepts, of Reno, has developed a fuel that runs through conventional fuel pumps, truck fuel tanks and diesel engines.

That is crucial, said Peter W. Gunnerman, who co-founded the company with his father, Rudolf. “You can have the best fuel in the world, but the second you tell mechanics you have to change this or change that, it just doesn’t get done,’’ he said. 

His company produces something called GDiesel, which starts with ordinary ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel and with natural gas, which is primarily methane.

In its refinery, Advanced Refining Concepts bubbles the gas through the diesel fuel. In the presence of a proprietary catalyst, the methane and the diesel fuel react chemically, with the diesel fuel pulling apart the methane and absorbing its component atoms, hydrogen and carbon.

As the molecules of diesel fuel absorb the natural gas, they get bigger. Mr. Gunnerman said that the liquid grows by more than 10 percent.

Diesel fuel is sold by volume (gallons refers to size, not energy content) so anything that expands the product becomes a sort of Hamburger Helper, an inexpensive filler. Natural gas is considerably cheaper than diesel.

As the fuel’s density declines, the amount of energy declines very slightly. But that seems fine with the company’s customers, said Mr. Gunnerman. They report going more miles on a tank and needing fewer oil changes. Users include a construction company and truck fleet operators.

None of the benefits have been confirmed by a lab, but sales are growing, through a distributor that serves northern Nevada and northern California.

Mr. Gunnerman’s company has produced the fuel at a single processing unit. The unit could make 10,000 gallons a day but has been limited to 4,000 because there is not much natural gas available at the spot where it is installed, in Sparks, he said. In October, the company broke ground at an industrial park nine miles east of Reno, where it is installing 10 such units. Start-up is scheduled to begin next month.

Substituting natural gas for diesel fuel may be profitable and make sense from an energy security standpoint, even if it has no environmental benefit.

But Mr. Gunnerman said that the next step would be to find sources for methane other than natural gas.

Landfill gas, methane from sewage processing plants and similar sources are all potential pollutants and should be available for fuel instead, he said, and he is shopping for such sources.

By MATTHEW L. WALD/The New York Times

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