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Published on June 8th, 2016 | by Tina Casey

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Energy Dept. Hedges EV Bet With $$ For New Propane Engine

June 8th, 2016 by  


Propane!?! Nope, it’s not a joke. The US Department of Energy is determined to reduce petroleum use in the transportation sector, and it is throwing everything up against the wall to see what will stick. In a new $22 million round of funding announced earlier this week, the agency is seeking proposals for direct injection propane technologies, as well as plug-in EV tech for medium and heavy duty vehicles, and funding for local alternative fuel initiatives.

The primary source of propane is fossil mass — crude oil or natural gas — but the potential for biomass sourcing puts a bit more of a green tinge on the propane aspect of the new funding round. Still… propane?!?

EV $22 million alternative transportation

More $$ For EV Tech

Before we get to the propane thing, let’s see what the Energy Department has in mind for new EV technology in the new round of funding.

Specifically, the agency is looking for technologies that push the market for plug-in EVs in the classifications 3 through 7.

In the US, vehicle classifications are based on weight, so 3 through 7 includes medium and heavy duty vehicles weighing between 10,000 and 33,000 pounds.

Compared to passenger cars and other light duty vehicles, EV batteries for the heavier classes are going to be quite big, and the new funding round is focused on EVs that would draw “significant” amounts of grid electricity.

The Energy Department intends to take full advantage of the size factor as it relates to energy storage. Competitive proposals for this part of the funding round will need to demonstrate either vehicle-to-grid capability or other forms of connectivity that emphasize electrification.

That emphasis on energy storage matches up nicely with the surge in wind and solar energy production in the US, which is certain to continue if presumptive (and historic) Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton wins the Oval Office this fall.

Integrated Community Transportation

Another piece of the $22 million pie is going to something called Alternative Fuel Vehicle Community Partner Projects
:

The objective of this area of interest is to fund projects that would accelerate the use of commercially available electric drive and alternative fuel vehicles, and supporting infrastructure technologies, through community‐based partnerships among state and local governments and the private sector.

Here in the US, access to renewable energy varies significantly from one region to another, so solutions that work great for one community don’t necessarily travel well. This initiative is aimed squarely at ramping up fuel diversification in the context of local resources and needs.

To cite just one example, San Francisco is already known for its friendliness toward alternative transportation, and it has even staked out a claim as the hydrogen fuel cell EV capital of the US.

Smart mobility is one area of interest for this initiative, so we’re guessing that our friends over at the Ford Mobility Company will be taking a look at this funding opportunity.

Propane Could Live In A Low Carbon World

So, propane. Our friends over at Biomass Magazine highlighted the case for propane last year, citing a new study from the University of Manchester:

Propane has very good physicochemical properties which allow it to be stored and transported in a compressed liquid form. While under ambient conditions it is a clean-burning gas, with existing global markets and infrastructure for storage, distribution and utilization in a wide range of applications ranging from heating to transport fuel.

The study describes a new synthetic pathway for deploying microbes in a fermentation process to produce renewable, non-fossil propane from biomass.

Apparently there is no natural pathway for propane, so the researchers modded out a proven pathway for producing butanol. You can read more about that in the journal Biotechnology for Biofuels under the title “A microbial platform for renewable propane synthesis based on a fermentative butanol pathway.

In the study, the researchers note that:

…Propane is the third most widely used motor fuel and about 20 million tonnes of propane gas are used per year to fuel motor vehicles…

And:

…Easy separation from liquid biotechnological processes as a gas and less energy requirements for liquefaction and storage offers potential advantages to propane over other gaseous fuels.

So far, so good, right?

More And Better Propane Vehicles

As far as propane vehicles go, the availability of renewable fuel is just one challenge. Coming up with a commercial propane-driven engine that can qualify for highway use in the US is a whole ‘nother can of worms.

The Energy Department is anticipating that the R&D is already part of the way there, and it is looking for proposals that can piggyback on existing engine technology.

To sweeten the deal, the Energy Department is offering its Argonne National Laboratory Autonomic Vehicle Modeling & Simulation Platform (or its equivalent) as a test bed.

Even without biomass sources, according to the Energy Department propane fuel offers an improvement over conventional transportation fuels:

Propane has a lower carbon content. When used as a vehicle fuel, propane can offer life cycle greenhouse (GHG) emissions benefits over conventional fuels, depending on vehicle type, age, and drive cycle. In addition, using propane in place of petroleum-based fuels may reduce some tailpipe emissions.

File this one in the category of not letting the perfect being the enemy of the good.

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Photo: via US Department of Energy. 
 

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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