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  • Which Alternative Fuel Should You Use in Your Work Truck?

Which Alternative Fuel Should You Use in Your Work Truck?

GDiesel, biodiesel, Ethanol, and More

Steve Temple
Apr 1, 2015
Photographers: Steve Temple
Despite the predominance of petroleum-based fuels, a number of alternative fuels have been experimented with over the last century or so. Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the engine bearing his name, initially envisioned using peanut oil. Henry Ford felt ethanol would be the fuel of choice for his Model T, noting that fuel could be fermented from fruit, weeds, or sawdust. (And recent research indicates gasoline can also be made directly from sawdust.)
During WWII, German engineers ran military vehicles on a dirty coal oil. In recent years, biodiesel made from animal fat and vegetable oil has also caught on and is now accepted as a blending fuel in small percentages. We’ve even heard of fuel made from some really strange feedstocks, such as dirty diapers, pig manure, or dead cats (we’re not kidding here).
Photo 2/21   |   Gdiesel And Diesel
Obviously, work truck owners can’t tolerate a substandard quality of fuel from a suspect feedstock, since their livelihood depends on a reliable, clean-running vehicle with a minimum of downtime for maintenance and repairs. So it’s of practical value to take a look at some of the latest data on fuel research and direct experience with various types of fuels. We’ll focus on diesel alternatives in particular, since diesel engines are more commonly found in heavier-duty vehicles. We’ll start with a brief overview of the various alternative fuels available and then relate the experiences of a manager of a large fleet of municipal work vehicles.
Some might confuse biodiesel with straight vegetable oil (SVO), the same stuff Dr. Diesel proposed. While it is possible to burn SVO in some diesel engines, it typically requires using a heated, secondary tank to thin it out. Also, newer, high-pressure fuel injectors can’t handle the high viscosity of SVO. So that’s really not an option for late-model work trucks—and will void the engine warranty as well.
In contrast, biodiesel is extracted from vegetable oil through a proven chemical process (see sidebar) and requires no modifications to your vehicle. Without getting too technical, the manufacturing of biodiesel involves a chemical term called transesterification. In this process, the fat or oil is first purified and then reacted with an alcohol, usually methanol or ethanol, in the presence of a catalyst such as potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. When this happens, the triacylglycerol is transformed to form esters and glycerol. The esters that remain are what we call biodiesel.
Photo 3/21   |   Peter Gunnerman of Advanced Refining Concepts, pictured atop his refinery near Sparks, Nevada, says his firm is evaluating new ways to increase the output and distribution of GDiesel to keep up with increasing demand.
A number of refiners have gotten into the biodiesel field in recent years, with more than 1.1 billion gallons produced in 2012. So you can expect to see growing use and availability of biodiesel.
Even though biodiesel contains no petroleum, it can be blended at various levels with petroleum diesel. As little as 2 percent biodiesel provides additional lubrication (Scheid Diesel adds biodiesel to its race fuel for this reason), and a number of major diesel engine manufacturers approve of percentages ranging from 5 to 20 percent (referred to as B5 and B20). In some cases, biodiesel is used as the sole fuel (B100). (Note, however, that running pure biodiesel might void an engine warranty claim.)
Photo 4/21   |   Dr. Rudy Gunnerman, inventor of GDiesel, showing the computer controls at his refinery.
While biodiesel furnishes similar fuel economy, horsepower, and torque as regular diesel—along with significantly reduced emissions—not all fuel experts and work truck operators prefer it. We spoke at length with Dave Johnson, manager of the Automotive Services Division for Clark County, Nevada, who’s in charge of a fleet of 2,800 municipal vehicles—about 1,500 of them diesel (approximately 75 percent pickups). Since using alternative fuel is mandated by the State, Johnson has extensively tested and compared three different types: B5 biodiesel, oxydiesel (an ethanol/diesel blend), and GDiesel (see sidebar).
Johnson has used all of these fuels in a variety of vehicles and in various temperature extremes, from shuttle buses on the tarmac at McCarran airport in summer heat to snowplows at nearby Mt. Charleston in freezing weather. The bottom line? He favors GDiesel from ARC (Advanced Refining Concepts) over the other three types of fuel, for a variety of reasons. “It’s never gelled once at Mt. Charleston in cold weather,” he says. That’s not the case with B5 or #2 diesel, both of which require cold-weather additives during the winter. Even with the additives, he notes that his biodiesel-fueled rigs are typically harder to start in cold weather.
Photo 5/21   |   Producing GDiesel begins with heated and pressurized #2 diesel, which is catalyzed with natural gas to form a much cleaner, lighter, higher-quality fuel.
Oxydiesel is much more volatile, but in the summer heat of Las Vegas, its much lower flash point requires using spark arrestors, and other safety precautions, Johnson points out. He also found that some vehicles running oxydiesel wouldn’t restart at the airport until they cooled off for a few hours. Johnson notes other drawbacks of using B5: “It makes black smoke in back, and I have to clean the storage tanks twice a year.” (Instead of just once a year with GDiesel, as a precaution.) Filters need to be changed more often as well, usually every 30 days, both of which add to his operating expense and maintenance downtime. As the filters get clogged with particulates, the storage tank pump slows down, too. “It’s a real pain,” he adds.
Regarding repairs on vehicle engines, “I’ve lost fuel pumps and injectors with B5,” Johnson notes. “I’ve never had a [mechanical] issue with GDiesel.” That aspect is particularly a concern with the emergency vehicles (fire trucks and ambulances). “GDiesel is a premium fuel in my opinion,” he adds. “It’s worth every penny.”
Photo 6/21   |   GDiesel is available at a few retail stations in the Reno area.
At this stage, GDiesel has only limited availability. It’s sold mostly to construction and agricultural accounts, and a few retail stations in Reno. ARC is working on increasing the number of refineries and their output volume as well, along with other applications such as refining waste oil and producing jet fuel.
Since there are more choices than ever in the alternative fuel field, we want to know: What fuel do you prefer for your fleet, and why? Finally, as with any new technology, not everything works exactly as claimed. It’s wise to confirm any refiner’s promises of performance with actual users to keep your work truck running reliably and clean in all sorts of conditions.
Photo 7/21   |   Note the GDiesel sticker on Clark County’s pump and work trucks. Vehicle Manager Dave Johnson has found GDiesel to perform better in a variety of conditions and work trucks—and it requires less maintenance.
New Emissions Research on GDiesel
To make things clear (literally in this case), GDiesel is not a biofuel, but an EPA-approved alternative fuel made by further refining of #2 diesel with natural gas. It is produced by ARC (Advanced Refining Concepts) in northern Nevada, and the process starts by pressurizing and slightly heating diesel in a steel tank. Then natural gas is piped in and the resulting mixture swirls up and through a wheel-shaped filter wrapped with four different metal catalysts that cause the two fuels to bond together. After further filtration, the final GDiesel fuel has shorter-length hydrocarbon molecules that combust more completely than longer-chain molecules, akin to throwing smaller pieces of wood on a fire rather than a big log.
While ARC makes no claims about improvements in fuel efficiency, we’ve seen a number of independent reports from fleets using GDiesel that indicate improvements in mpg range from 10 to 35 percent, depending on the engine and vehicle. Veteran off-road competitor and instructor Rod Hall found that GDiesel greatly improved the fuel efficiency of his school’s HumVee trucks. And we’ve personally measured a 21 percent gain in a ’96 Dodge Ram with a 12-valve Cummins.
In addition, we also came across some recent emissions research by Dr. Eric A. Lutz, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene. This article compared the emissions of petroleum diesel with GDiesel and B75 biodiesel in an underground mining operation. Since diesel fuel is a known carcinogen and can also cause various respiratory ailments, finding cleaner alternatives is clearly needed for greater safety in the work environment.
More than 223,000 miners are actively employed in the U.S., and they rely on diesel-powered rigs, along with gensets and other heavy equipment. Despite ventilation and administrative controls, the standards for levels of underground diesel particulate matter are frequently exceeded.
Using an ’05 Wagner B10-203 LHD vehicle as a testbed, Dr. Lutz (who serves as assistant professor and director of mining safety and health programs at the University of Arizona), found that GDiesel has a significantly lower diesel particulate matter—66 percent—than low-sulfur #2 diesel. By comparison, biodiesel lowered particulates by 33 percent. His research further indicates that GDiesel resulted in a reduction in all other exposures (except CO, which is typically not at high levels for diesel fuel, ARC notes).
Photo 17/21   |   In Europe, where diesel is much more commonly used, GDiesel is gaining acceptance as a preferred form of fuel. These technicians from Key Industry Engineering Group, LLC are planning to set up a refinery in the Czech Republic.
Home-Brewed Biodiesel?
Small-scale biodiesel companies and DIY home-based operations have sprung up in recent years. Several companies make machines that enable you to produce biodiesel in your own garage or workshop on a small scale—about 40 to 100 gallons per day—for less than $1.00 per gallon (not counting the labor involved).
Photo 18/21   |   Making biodiesel in your own garage or workplace is feasible and economical but requires some safety precautions.
A biodiesel system typically consists of a couple of plastic tanks with pumps, hoses, valves, and filters, along with a weight scale and testing equipment. To produce biodiesel, you first have to collect some waste vegetable oil and filter out any debris. Then its quality has to be evaluated by “titration,” a simple chemical test that determines the amount of lye and methanol required to convert the oil to biodiesel.
These two chemicals are carefully mixed together in a sealed container. This mixture, called sodium methoxide, is caustic and requires safety precautions such as protective goggles and gloves. The mixture is added to a tank of lukewarm vegetable oil (heat speeds the conversion process), and after about 30 minutes, glycerin separates out from the oil and is drained off. The resulting biodiesel is slightly cloudy at this point. Although it can be burned as fuel, some systems add another step of “water washing” for further refining. This phase uses a mister to spray water into the oil. As the water sinks to the bottom (since oil floats on water), it captures impurities and is later drained off. Lastly, the biodiesel is pumped through a water separator to eliminate any remaining moisture, and fine filters to get rid of particles and impurities. Some companies recommend an additional drying stage if water washing is used.
Photo 19/21   |   Biodiesel can be made from a variety of feedstocks, such as canola oil (right), or even coffee beans (left).
If you’re a work truck owner/operator and you’re considering making your own biofuel, keep in mind a few cautions: It’s fairly time-consuming to collect and refine a biodiesel feedstock. It’s also imperative to be safety-conscious, since the process requires working with methanol and lye. Last but not least, a by-product of biodiesel processing is glycerol (also known as glycerin), which requires a suitable use or method of disposal.
Note, too, that biodiesel is a solvent and tends to loosen accumulated sludge, which might clog the filter and require replacement after running a tank or two in an older vehicle. Also, most pre-’94 and a few later-model vehicles may have rubber fuel lines and/or rubber seals in the fuel system. Biodiesel will gradually swell the rubber and degrade it. It’s a good idea to check under your hood periodically and replace fuel lines and seals with a biodiesel-resistant synthetic, such as Viton, if they begin to deteriorate.
In addition, for those who drive in a colder climate, biodiesel gels at around freezing or slightly higher, depending on what kind of oil/fats it was made from and the percentage of the blend. Of course, this clouding can be a problem for diesel fuel in general, and the same cold-weather additives can be used for biodiesel as well.
Photo 20/21   |   Other biodiesel feedstocks include jatropha, peanut, soybean, coconut, and waste fryer oil.
Ethanol: Alcohol-Based Fuel
Recently, entertainer and car collector Jay Leno raised a question in an AutoWeek article titled “Can’t We Just Get Rid of Ethanol?” That’s a reversal for him, since not too long ago at SEMA, he touted E85 and other ethanol blends of gasoline with his Z06 Vette. Let’s address a couple of objections to ethanol that both Leno and others have raised.
It’s true that ethanol emulsifies and holds water. But that can be an advantage, since gas tanks are actually drier after the transition from E0 to E10. With straight gasoline, whatever water is in any tank or atmosphere “phase separates” and falls to the bottom of the tank. With ethanol-blended fuel, however, that water will be suspended during the driving of the vehicle and vaporized by the engine.
Concerns about the increased risk of engine fires or damage have not been substantiated—even on older vehicles. And much testing with E0 (0 percent ethanol) and E10 (10 percent ethanol) shows the latter type should not negatively affect an old car or truck. And newer flex-fuel vehicles are designed to handle ethanol.
Even so, the energy content of ethanol is lower than gasoline, so your fuel mileage will be reduced. On the plus side, ethanol has a higher octane level, so it works well with high-compression and either turbocharged or supercharged engines. Learn more at:
GDiesel’s Ginormous Ford F-650
When you’re an electrician working for GDiesel refiner ARC, it only makes sense to drive a diesel truck—but not just any rig. To really make a statement, Chuck Bump mans the wheel of a supersized Ford F-650.
Photo 21/21   |   Which Alternative Fuel For Work Trucks Gdiesel Ford F650 020
Instead of being fitted with a functional flatbed or cargo box in the rear, Manning converted the cab/chassis into a four-wheel-drive setup with a pickup bed out back. The latter mod required shortening the framerails to 56 inches. Since the cargo bed sits a full foot above them, a collapsible ladder deploys from its mounting on the tailgate to make it easier to climb aboard.
The four-wheel-drive conversion was fairly involved, with the steer-drive axle swapped out for a Marmon-Herrington front-drive drop axle in a center bowl configuration with automatic slack adjusters for the air brakes. Double Cardan joints were used in the two-piece front driveline that’s mated to a Marmon-Herrington MVG750 two-speed transfer case with an air-shift mechanism.
This setup has some specific requirements. Only a 43B or 43C OEM front axle can be used (with the drive-axle rating the same as the factory GAWR). Regarding the transmission, a five-speed automatic is recommended, since the top gear has to be deleted on a six-speed unit. For exhaust, either the 91B or 91D systems are fitted. Lastly, this setup only works on air-brake trucks running on 22.5-inch wheels with an air-ride suspension and/or a high-CG body.
The Ford’s stock 6.7L Cummins engine had just 18,000 miles on it when Bump purchased it. Leaving well enough alone, he focused his upgrades on the cosmetics, such as adding diamond-plate covers on the battery boxes, plus side and rear body trim. To show off his employer’s fuel, Bump had J&R Sign company in Reno, Nevada, apply the GDiesel logo wrap with the company logo prominently displayed. Everybody knows what kind of fuel Bump’s running when he rumbles through town.


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