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In the midst of 2020’s unprecedented global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s encouraging to see the U.S. has finally acknowledged what the EU has long known: Propane has a primary role in our clean energy future.

In the EU, we call propane LPG and its use as an alternative transport fuel has been growing for many years. From 2008 to 2018, consumption of LPG grew by 23% and between 2014 and 2020 the number of filling stations providing LPG for vehicles grew from about 29,000 to about 32,000 to meet increased demand.

So the recent award from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) of more than $9 million in research grants for development of propane as an alternative fuel is a welcome step forward in helping America catch up with the EU’s drive for cleaner transport.

The $9,017,921 in research funding is the largest ever given to propane development and has been awarded across six projects in the transportation sector, showing the U.S. energy science community has finally acknowledged the path to a low carbon future for transport isn’t going to be achieved by electric vehicles alone. The largest award of $3,450,085 went to Colorado State University for a project entitled “Development of Advanced Combustion Strategies for Direct Injection Heavy Duty Propane Engines to Achieve Near-Diesel Engine Efficiency.”

Other projects are looking at propane for use in mail delivery trucks, in cabin heating systems for buses, and in helping rural communities move to cleaner fuel systems. Plus, research into the potential costs for maintenance and repair of propane-fuelled vehicles is being funded.

Development of propane as a replacement for diesel in Class 7 and 8 vehicles — which includes school buses, delivery trucks and freight trucks — is also an important milestone in setting the U.S. on a path to catch up with Europe, where phase out of all diesel vehicles is already underway in the U.K., Italy, Spain, France, Germany and other countries. So far, only California has made the same commitment on the other side of the Atlantic.

So why is the U.S. making this investment in propane now?

A Clean, Renewable Fuel

Propane’s environmental credentials are excellent, especially when compared to diesel. The biggest problem with diesel vehicles is their emissions of carbon monoxide (CO2), hydrocarbons (HC), particulate matter (PM), sulfur oxide (SOx) and nitrogen oxide (NOx), which cause air pollution and harm human health. The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified PM as a carcinogen, and NOx and SOx are the main culprits in causing respiratory problems.

In contrast, propane is a low carbon intensity fuel that has been approved under the U.S. Clean Air Act of 1990. In Europe, we recognized how LPG could help us clean up the continent’s air pollution problems several years ago. A 2017 article from the European Parliament highlighted the importance of expanding its use from primarily agricultural vehicles into the wider transport sector. The 2019 report from the World LPG Association, The role of LPG and bioLPG in Europe, demonstrates how wider LPG use in the transport sector and beyond is going to be paramount in helping countries such as the U.K. and France achieve the legally binding emissions targets they have agreed to meet.

This effort is based on the fact that vehicles using propane fuel emit virtually no particulate matter and produce significantly fewer NOx and SOx emissions than those fueled by electricity, gasoline and diesel. Plus, buses running on propane autogas cut NOx emissions by 96% more than clean diesel buses.

In addition to being a cleaner fuel that doesn’t contribute to air pollution, propane is a renewable energy source because it can be created by converting plant and vegetable oils, waste greases and animal fat into fuel.  No new carbon is added to the atmosphere when it’s burned, and with the same chemical structure and physical properties as propane produced from fossil fuels, renewable propane can be used in exactly the same way.

When you look at all this good environmental news about propane, it seems obvious why the U.S is now investing in its development for transport fuel.

Power, Performance and Range

Power, performance and range are the three attributes that made diesel such an attractive option for the transport sector for so long. But propane offers the same benefits for Class 7 and Class 8 vehicles, with the DOE’s Alternative Fuels Data Center saying “propane models can cost on par with their diesel counterparts because of the diesel vehicle’s more expensive engine and emissions controls.”

Propane’s fuel economy and performance is, in general, just as good as its environmental credentials, and propane combustion engines typically last longer than diesel and gasoline versions. Because liquid propane has a higher energy density than ethanol, methanol and liquefied natural gas, vehicles running on it can also go farther on a tank of fuel than these other liquid alternative fuels.

Propane is not the only option for cleaner transport, and it’s important that research into other alternatives — such as ethanol, hydrogen and electricity — continues to develop. The path to a zero-carbon future will have to be one that includes propane but not at the exclusion of other alternative fuels that can help to make the transport sector cleaner and more sustainable.

About the Author

Amanda Saint has been writing about environmental sustainability for magazines, websites and businesses for almost 20 years and is passionate about sharing news of the solutions being invented to make life more sustainable. She also writes fiction and, inspired by what she’s learned, has written a novel in the emerging climate-fiction genre, Remember Tomorrow, which was published in 2019.