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LPG the answer to an inconvenient truth

Gas, not hybrid: Oil crisis should force Oz car-makers into action with LPG, says former GM Holden advanced engineering chief Dr Laurie Sparke.

Australia’s oil supply could become “extremely tight” by 2015, says ex-Holden expert

General News logo11 Mar 2008

ONE of Australia’s most influential engineers has called on the local automotive industry to place a greater emphasis on developing vehicles using liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) rather than developing bio-fuels and alternative powertrains in order to avoid a crippling oil shortage.

Speaking at a green vehicle technology conference in Melbourne yesterday, former GM Holden advanced engineering chief Dr Laurie Sparke – who led the development of Australia’s first-ever hybrid, the 2000 ECOmmodore concept, and a subsequent (stillborn) hybrid program – urged Australian car-makers to leave hybrid development to other countries and concentrate instead on reducing its reliance on imported oil.

The Federal government is pushing for Toyota, Holden and Ford to each produce a hybrid car in Australia as part of its Green Car Innovation Fund, evidenced last month by industry minister Kim Carr’s representation to Toyota Motor Corp in Japan.

However, Dr Sparke called on the Rudd government to assist local manufacturers in developing engines that would run solely on Australian-produced LPG, and in converting freight vehicles to run on locally produced compressed natural gas (CNG). He also emphasised the need for higher-tech aftermarket LPG systems.

Ford Australia is currently the only manufacturer to produce a vehicle that runs on dedicated LPG, but this system has not been developed further as part of the FG Falcon program and could be retired when the company moves to a global V6 in 2010.

80 center imageDr Sparke (left) also spoke out against large-scale production of ethanol, a path clearly identified as a future direction for General Motors, telling GoAuto it was a “formula for disaster” in Australia.

Furthermore, he dismissed the benefits of diesel for local use, arguing that no diesel fuel is produced in Australia and that supply could be constrained in the future.

“In order to secure a sustainable future, Australia needs to move from its current dependency on imported oil for transportation,” said Dr Sparke. “We need to utilise energy sources that have reduced environmental impact and that are also sources that are available and economically viable.” Dr Sparke left GM Holden last May after 43 years and is now an adjunct professor at RMIT University. Although disappointed General Motors decided to not proceed with the ECOmmodore-based program, Dr Sparke now argues that Holden and other local car-makers should be looking at their own backyards.

“I think Australia can leave North America and Europe to develop the hybrid technology and we can pick it up as soon as it’s ready,” Dr Sparke said. “In the meantime, we have to focus our attention on what the implications of the fuel shortage are.” Dr Sparke said Australia, which in the past has been self-sufficient when it came to oil, was now increasing its reliance on countries including Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, United Arab Emirates and Malaysia.

He warned that increasing exposure to these markets would be problematic given global oil production is dropping at the same time that demand from developing countries increases.

“Given economic growth depends on fossil fuels, it is also an inconvenient truth that the world has reached peak oil supply,” he said.

Dr Sparke said production of oil in Vietnam, which is Australia’s largest supplier, had peaked in 2004. He added that exports of oil from Vietnam dropped from 2000 onwards as the country used more domestically.

It is a situation that is also being replicated in several other oil producing countries. With energy demand increasing at the same time supply is dropping, Australia will face a challenge in securing enough oil from exporting countries.

“We are not likely to be their priority customers,” Dr Sparke said. “Australia will have to compete politically and economically with the big players, military and economic powerhouses for diminishing and ever-more-valuable energy resources.” Dr Sparke was confident electric-only vehicles will replace mechanically driven models in time and that it will be a green solution as long as electricity production facilities such as brown-coal burning plants, such as those used in Victoria, reduced their environmental impact.

Asked if pursuing ethanol production in Australia was a ‘blind alley’, Dr Sparke said: “It is, particularly for Australia, for the world it is limited because ethanol production means using food resources and in Australia.

“With climate change going the way it is, we are going to be struggling to grow enough food for ourselves anyway. It is a formula for disaster to start turning food production to ethanol production. It has a role, we can probably afford to grow some and blend a few per cent and that will be useful in petrol, but it is not going to deal with the energy supply crisis we face.” In the meantime, Dr Sparke sees LPG and CNG as the obvious solution.

“The community needs to be encouraged to move to use LPG and the government should encourage the development of technology that achieves a 13 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases that is a potential in this fuel,” he said. “This is something we have vast resources of and provides significant greenhouse gas reduction.” Toyota Technical Centre vice-president Max Gillard, who also spoke at the conference, said Toyota Australia was investigating bio-fuels, CNG, fuel cells and hydrogen but considered hybrid was the only viable green technology in the near-term.

On the issue of LPG, Mr Gillard said: “Aside from Australia and some taxis in Japan and Hong Kong, LPG doesn’t seem to be a globally attractive fuel.” “LPG engines for us are just workhorses,” he said, adding that he agreed with Dr Sparke in that electric vehicles would be the best transport solution in the future.

Ford Australia product development vice-president Trevor Worthington was another speaker at the conference, and told GoAuto that the absence of a single solution when it came to green vehicle engine technology meant that a variety of alternatives were needed.

“There is no silver bullet,” he said. “Anyone who stands up there and says there is just isn’t paying attention.” Mr Worthington said Ford Australia was committed to offering LPG-fuelled E-gas engines for its Falcon although he would not comment on whether the post-2010 model, with a US-sourced Ecotec V6, would be offered in E-Gas form.

“LPG has done amazing things for us. We have sold 66,000 now,” Mr Worthington said. “We will obviously look at it. We obviously think it is a part of our future.” Dr Sparke argues that if Australian car-makers invested substantial resources into LPG-specific engine development, there would be environmental benefits as well as a chance to create export revenue.

“If you think of petrol control systems that are in cars today over that have been developed over the last 50 years, they are very sophisticated. The technology that has gone into a gas control system is minimal,” he said.

“If we develop that technology, as oil shortages strike the rest of the world, there is an opportunity to export that technology to the likes of China and America.” VFACTS statistics show that, of the one million new vehicles sold last year, 175,000 were diesel (including light commercial but excluding heavy commercial), 13,000 were LPG and 5000 were hybrids. According to the LPG industry, another 93,000 vehicles were retrofitted with a dual-fuel LPG-petrol system.

LPG Australia’s industry development manager Phil Westlake said that LPG was on a par with diesel in terms of CO2 but was cleaner than all other available fuels on a number of other fronts such as air toxics (benzene, formaldehyde and other carcinogens present in exhaust from petrol and diesel vehicles).

“In terms of replacing petrol, or replacing diesel, any one of those alternatives (hybrid cars and bio-fuels) probably will not be enough,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a mix of hybrids, a mix of LPG, a mix of ethanol, bio-diesel, natural gas vehicles – all those will be required to wean us off our reliance on petrol and diesel.

“I can understand where the manufacturers are heading. They are looking the whole climate change (issue) and reducing the carbon dioxide footprint – and diesel gives them a way of doing that using technology that’s already available and being used in Europe. So they can just pick up off-the-shelf technology and have that dropped into a vehicle for sale here in Australia.

“The CO2 output from diesel or and LPG engine is about the same … but one of the concerns that I have is that there is also another factor that doesn’t seem to be discussed in government circles, and doesn’t seem to hit the public spotlight – and that is the air quality issues from vehicle exhausts.

“There are a range of regulated emissions, but also air toxics and particle emissions that come from vehicle exhausts. Now, of the fuels available, LPG is probably the cleanest in terms of CO2 – and also in terms of regulated and air toxic and particle emissions.

“I know there is been a lot of work being done on particle filters to reduce particulates, but there is still some concern as to the size of those particles. The smaller they are, the worse they are. There are a lot of particle filters that claim to trap 95 per cent of the particles – but the issue is: are they only trapping the large ones?” Australia sells around 2.3 million tonnes of LPG per annum, with around two-thirds of this used for the automotive industry. Around 70 per cent of the total used is produced locally.

The ‘Change by Design’ Vehicle Technology conference was hosted by the Society of Automotive Engineers – Australasia.

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