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New opportunities abound, but diesels still the main player

Shell fuel scientist says diesel engines are likely to remain the engine of choice in Australia

Shell fuel scientist Dr Wolfgang Warnecke has pointed to a regionalised and multi-pronged approach to transport fuels in the future.

Speaking exclusively to ATN recently in the Philippines during the Shell Eco-Marathon, Warnecke said that while other technologies were likely to emerge for passenger transport and light vehicles, diesel engines were likely to remain the engine of choice for heavy duty long haul transport in countries like Australia.

Warnecke is the chief scientist for global oil giant Shell and specialises in the area of mobility. Mobility includes marine, rail, aviation, motorsport as well as on and off-road transport.

“Today we have multiple engine types, and multiple fuel types to come, and there’s no golden solution at the moment,” he says.

Indeed, the variety of engine and fuel types in the supply chain is increasing as major European cities such as London start to set low emission zones to reduce pollution.

But outside major cities Warnecke says there is no real option other than to stick with the diesel engine for heavy transport.

“The diesel engine itself is fantastic in overall efficiency. Its biggest problem is that it needs to be cleaned up in relation to smog emissions,” he says.

Warnecke also acknowledges that cleaning up the diesel engine can often come at the expense of fuel economy.

In an Australian context, Warnecke concedes that natural gas may play a big part in Australia’s transport future given the size of the country’s reserves. Currently compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) are possibilities in Australia.

On the most part, with the exception of local company InteliGas, CNG tends to be limited to light and medium duty applications while LNG is considered the gas of choice for heavy duty applications.

However, Warnecke raises another natural gas possibility that may have potential for the Australian market, that of gas to liquid (GTL) technology. GTL was developed in Germany during the Second World War when fuel shortages began to bite.

The GTL process, as the name may suggest, essentially turns hydrocarbon-based gases like natural gas into a liquid form using a method called the Fischer-Tropsch process.

The end result can be used as diesel fuel or even as jet fuel and high quality paraffin. The process can also be used to make high quality engine lubricants.

Shell has built GTL plants in Malaysia and Qatar.

One of the attractive elements of GTL diesel is that it is sulphur free, making it quite a clean burning fuel. The downside of GTL diesel is that its energy density is slightly lower than a conventional diesel fuel and the energy required to refine the fuel is slightly higher that used in the LNG liquefaction process.

“Ideally we would have one fuel for the world and that’s it, but that is not to be,” Warnecke says.

“As a fuel company we take care of the well to tank part of the equation, but it’s up to the vehicle manufacturers to take care of the tank to wheel part.

“From an environmental view you cannot have just one solution. There are so many options and no silver bullet.”

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