No one can question that diesel trucks and SUVs make great recreational vehicles. But for contractors and big rig owner/operators, the persistently high cost of diesel fuel is not a fun matter.
Nor are the misguided efforts of some leaders of government and the truck industry who insist on reducing diesel emissions at the expense of fuel economy.
So why can't we have the "best of both worlds"-improved economy and reduced emissions?
That's a question that Asa Waters, president of Provident Technologies of Orlando, FL, has asked for a number of years.
He and his associates are convinced that hydrogen, compressed natural gas (CNG), propane (LPG) and other alternative fuel sources can be used with diesel engines for greater horsepower, reduced emissions, longer maintenance intervals and lower fuel costs.
They have partnered with several forward-looking companies throughout the United States that are doing something about it.
For example, NoGasNow (NGN) of Phoenix, AZ, produces custom-sized hydrogen generators (commonly abbreviated H2G), to allow for the typically over-stuffed engine compartment of most vehicles-from sub-compacts to 18-wheelers. The packaging is also transparent, permitting observation of the hydrogen being generated.
For a nominal cost, NGN also sells plans for constructing one's own H2G system-for those who have both the time, mechanical aptitude and tools to do so.
So what exactly is a "hydrogen generator" (or H2G)?
Plain and simple, it's a container of water and steel plates that a DC electrical current passes through. The current comes from the vehicle's battery, via the alternator. Some of the steel plates are attached to the "hot wire" (positive lead) and others to the ground (negative lead).
The electric current breaks the water molecules apart into hydrogen and oxygen, forming microscopic gas bubbles. A vacuum hose connects the H2G to your engine air intake, which combines fresh air with the hydrogen and oxygen from the H2G.
The hydrogen and oxygen supplement the vehicle's diesel fuel or gasoline, creating more horsepower-which improves fuel economy. The amount of hydrogen and oxygen drawn into the engine varies with the engine's rpm, because it's the engine's vacuum that draws the gases in.
WHAT ABOUT EMISSIONS?
As the hydrogen and oxygen react (burn) with the fuel in your engine, they recombine to form super-heated water vapor (steam). This water vapor will not corrode the engine (it is expelled immediately with exhaust gases), but it does help clean out and keep out carbon deposits.
Likewise, carbon particulate emissions (soot) are reduced by as much as 70 percent.
ARE HYDROGEN GENERATORS SAFE?
After all, wasn't the Hindenburg disaster due to the explosion of hydrogen?
Yes and no. It was actually the paint used on the dirigible's skin which caused the problem. (see Dr. Addison Bain's book, The Freedom Element.) The paint was highly flammable (essentially made from what is now recognized as rocket fuel) and the hydrogen became involved only after escaping past the rapidly burned skin and then mixing with enough air to combust. Furthermore, hydrogen generators in modern vehicles use no pressurized storage tanks, eliminating that possible concern-the hydrogen and oxygen are produced "on the run" and are immediately consumed in the engine.
And these two gases are mixed with water vapor and a small amount of "electrolyte," such as household baking soda or white distilled vinegar, to mix with and increase the electrical conductivity of the water. This combination is called Brown's Gas, and this form of hydrogen is particularly resistant to combustion at ambient air temperature.
WHAT MODIFICATIONS HAVE TO BE DONE TO THE ENGINE?
None. It is true that some gasoline-fueled vehicles require re-programming of the vehicle's computer, or "fooling it," because the vehicle's oxygen sensors pick up the extra oxygen and may add more gasoline to "balance" it. If this is not done, then the amount of hydrogen and oxygen produced must be kept low, "under the threshold" of the computer's sensitivity.
Not so with diesel engines. No oxygen sensors; no over-sensitivity to oxygen.
So, are there any precautions or negatives for using hydrogen generators with diesel engines?
There are some.
One is to keep the amps (electric current) within the guidelines of the manufacturer. This is done (a) to keep materials from melting/fusing and (b) to keep from burning up the alternator. This is why an H2G should always be installed with an ammeter, so the driver can monitor the amps just like the thermostat or other gauges.
The ammeter, however, will not control the amps. It just shows what they are at any given moment.
So another useful device to accompany an H2G is a pulse width modulator-a fancy name for an electronic rheostat-which can increase or reduce the amps going to the H2G, maintaining them at a constant level.
Why can't one just set the amps once and for all? Because the number of amps drawn by the H2G will rise as the temperature of the water rises (or go down as water temperature drops, as in winter weather). Also, the proportion (and type) of electrolyte mixed with the water will affect the number of amps used.
Another precaution is to make sure that only distilled water is used, since the minerals in tap water can cause the amps to go sky high.
Also, the water/electrolyte mix has to be replenished regularly, anywhere from every 200 miles to more than 1000, depending on the number of amps and the size of the H2G.
And in sub-freezing weather, it will be necessary to replace some of the distilled water with ethyl alcohol (available at hardware stores). When the mix is 20 percent alcohol, it should protect the H2G contents down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit or a little below.
All of this may seem very inconvenient, but experienced hydrogen generator users simply keep a few gallons of pre-mixed water/electrolyte on hand and top off their H2G whenever they top off their gasoline or diesel fuel.
SO WHAT KIND OF DIESEL FUEL SAVINGS CAN BE EXPECTED?
It will vary with the vehicle, the amps, the efficiency of the particular H2G, the terrain, vehicle speed, traffic and driving patterns, etc.
But many H2G users claim more than 20 percent better diesel fuel mileage and some as high as 40 percent. Considering that distilled water and distilled vinegar cost less than $1.50/gallon in most areas of the U.S. for the H2G "mix" and one gallon will last 1000-2000 miles, the potential savings on diesel fuel are huge.
One unexpected benefit of the H2G is the extra oxygen that it generates, compensating for oxygen starvation at high altitudes that typically drives diesel fuel economy into the ground for those needing to drive in the mountains.
In a recent test, a Caterpillar diesel-powered motor home towing a Jeep (total GVW of 35,000 lbs.) traveled more than 500 miles through the Grand Tetons. It crossed the Continental Divide six times and used only 20 percent more diesel fuel (7.2 mpg) than cruising the freeway at 60 mph at sea level.
WHAT OTHER ALTERNATIVE FUEL SYSTEMS ARE COMPATIBLE WITH DIESEL ENGINES?
Two that have been rapidly gaining momentum are compressed natural gas (CNG) and propane (LPG).
Vehicles have been effectively powered by propane for decades, such as forklifts in warehouses. Experimental vehicles experienced remarkably clean emissions and like-new engines after hundreds of thousands of miles of use.
And nearly 15 years ago, many "green-minded" U.S. municipalities converted their vehicles (especially mass transit) to CNG or bought the vehicles with engines that used CNG exclusively. This trend came to a near stand-still several years ago, when the refueling stations became scarce and repair parts from the engine manufacturers became scarcer. And both propane and CNG were priced at the pump higher than gasoline and diesel fuel in some areas.
Then a little over a year ago both gasoline and diesel fuel prices went through the ceiling. At the same time, alternative fuel proponents such as T. Boone Pickens made a strong case for the use of CNG, a fuel that was available in abundance from within the U.S. and could help free us from dependence on foreign oil.
Almost overnight CNG refueling stations appeared in California, then in Utah and Oklahoma and are now working their way across the U.S. At the same time, forward-looking engineers and entrepreneurs were developing CNG and propane conversion (aftermarket) kits for both gasoline and diesel engines.
Noah Rogers, director of research and development for RGR Alternative Fuels in Nevada, has been proactively developing a variety of alternative fuel solutions for diesel engines for the past seven years, including CNG, propane, and diesel electric (EV).
Rogers points out that there are significant differences between converting a gasoline engine vs. a diesel engine to propane or CNG.
Gasoline engines can run on 100 percent propane or CNG, with a special set of fuel injectors and some associated equipment and a pressurized propane or CNG reservoir tank, of course. The ideal conversion allows the vehicle operator to switch from CNG (or propane) to gasoline (and back again) at the flip of a toggle switch.
Diesel engines, on the other hand, must have a significant portion of that oily diesel fuel in addition to the CNG or propane. Note that biodiesel fuel can also be used with a CNG or LPG system. The compressed gas is injected into the air intake manifold of the diesel engine, mixing with fresh air and burning with diesel in the combustion chambers.
Does that sound a bit like the way hydrogen generators work? In a way, but a huge difference is that the CNG or propane is metered into the air intake via a special computer that communicates with the engine's computer. After all, the CNG or propane is under pressure and can't simply be drawn into the engine by the engine's vacuum, as hydrogen is from H2Gs.
A special feature of some conversion systems, such as those installed by RGR, is that they provide "idling compensation." That is, they will provide the same cost-saving benefits to the vehicle when it is idling, not just when running at high rpm. This addresses a significant need for many applications of diesel-powered vehicles.
Another important feature to look for is EPA certification of a conversion kit. RGR, for example, has EPA certifications for several models of Cummins diesel engines. Vehicles with EPA-certified alternative fuel systems are eligible for large tax credits from the IRS-a very significant factor when considering potential savings of an alternative fuel system.
Finally, discuss your needs with an alternative fuel specialist certified by CSA America, which sets the national standards for alternative energy (accredited by ANSI-the American National Standards Institute). The CSA National Registry of Certifications is available at www.csa-america.org.
WHAT IS THE COST OF A PROPANE OR CNG CONVERSION KIT FOR A DIESEL ENGINE?
CNG requires a tank with a capability of 3600 psi. Propane requires a tank that can handle 320 psi. As a result, new CNG tanks can be $1000 or more compared to new propane tanks. Fortunately, used tanks are often available and are just as effective as new-but at a fraction of the price.
In addition, a diesel engine conversion kit (less the tank) is between $6000 and $15,000 installed, depending on the vehicle.
So why would anyone want to use CNG if propane conversions cost less and propane is available in many locations that CNG is not (a very important consideration for over-the-road truckers)?
Because CNG propane historically has cost less than LPG. Currently, propane costs between $2.50 and $3.00/gallon (about 30-40 percent higher than diesel fuel), depending on the locale. In areas where refueling stations are plentiful, CNG has been hovering between as low as $1 and $1.30/gallon.
Also, in deciding whether to go with a hydrogen generator, CNG or propane conversion, one needs to factor in the diesel fuel mileage. CNG and propane conversions have been reported to improve diesel fuel economy by as much as 50 percent.
WHAT ABOUT DIESEL ELECTRIC?
The Santa Fe Railroad was running diesel electric engines before most of us were born and the railroads still do. They are expensive, but provide enormous power for the amount of diesel fuel they use.
Likewise, the mining industry utilizes 200-ton haul trucks that have an electric motor on each wheel, with the electricity provided by a diesel generator.
Clearly, to convert one's personal diesel vehicle to electric (EV) or even a fleet requires considering many factors: the power needed, years/miles the vehicle will be utilized, etc. EV conversions of diesel engines can cost less than a CNG or LPG conversion.
It should also be understood that converting a diesel-powered vehicle to an EV basically requires gutting the drivetrain. The transmission is replaced by an electric motor (or motors), and the engine by a relatively small diesel-powered generator.
In turn, operating an EV can cost as little as 50 cents a day, according to Rogers.
There is no one system or technology that "does it all." Each has its benefits and its drawbacks. Hydrogen generators are on the low end of the cost spectrum while diesel electric systems are the priciest. On the other hand, an EV will likely save considerably more fuel expense per mile than the H2G. And the propane and CNG systems are somewhere in the middle.
It is ironic that much of the technology being offered today as "state-of-the-art" alternative fuel systems is decades old. At the same time, the recent increased interest in these supplemental or alternative systems has generated a surge of research and development that is likely to yield considerable refinements over the next few years to the presently available systems.
Clearly, it is tempting to wait for the refinements. On the other hand, the sooner one invests in the alternative fuel technology for one's own vehicle, the sooner savings may be realized.
So the decision is yours. Look at each system carefully, weigh the costs and benefits, ask a lot of questions. And the more of us that do so, the better the end results are likely to be - for us as individuals, and for all vehicle owners.