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The Times: Diesel ready to make the big switch over to gas

May 11, 2007

Richard Yarrow

It seems that our love affair with the diesel car knows no bounds. From taking only 15 per cent of the European market in 1986, sales nudged through the 50 per cent barrier last year, according to JATO Dynamics, the industry research company.

But are we all using the wrong type of diesel? The oil industry thinks so, which is why it is investing billions of dollars in a new version of the fuel called GTL, which is effectively diesel Mk II. Until recently, all diesel has been made from crude oil, but GTL is made from natural gas – the acronym stands for “gas to liquid – and it is hugely important to the future of motoring for one reason.

While the planet’s reserves of the black stuff are running low, there are trillions and trillions of square feet of natural gas waiting to be exploited.

The first two cars in the world to run on pure GTL have been unveiled in South Africa by Saso, a local petro-chemical firm, in partnership with Chevron, the American fuel giant. A joint venture between the pair has led to a dedicated GTL plant in Qatar. Another one in Nigeria is on the way and they are looking at Russia, the Caribbean and Australia for future projects.

Ironically, Sasol has become an expert in the field because of apartheid. Import sanctions meant that its engineers had to find a way to create their own fuel because they could not buy oil. In researching CTL (coal-to-liquid) technology pioneered in Germany between the world wars, they came up with GTL.

But rival fuel firms are also on the case. BP, Exxon and Shell are working on GTL because, like Sasol, they have worked out the benefits to drivers.

Mark Schnell is Sasol Chevron’s general manager for global marketing, and he said that it will be at least a decade before anyone is the UK is driving a neat GTL car.

“The initial use is as a blending agent,” he said. “It will help upgrade the quality of some of the diesel that’s traditionally not been able to be used because it’s too low quality. That will start to happen this year.”

Shell is one step ahead and a small amount is in its V-Power premium diesel, although it does not advertise the fact.

But Schnell believes that blending is only the first phase. GTL will also be used to upgrade diesel from regular to premium. “After that, it’s about developing niche market applications for the neat fuel,” he said. “A good example of this would be on urban fleets such as buses or local authority vehicles. That will happen in the next two to three years and Europe and the UK will feature in that.”

The two cars he launched in South Africa are Mercedes M-Class SUVs. They have been given to the De Wildt cheetah preservation charity near Pretoria – hence the unusual paint finish – to see how the pure fuel works in real-world conditions, in this case tracking the movement of the big cats.

So how big can GTL be? An independent report by Daimler-Chrysler found that by 2010 it could meet 5-10 per cent of European diesel demand. By 2020, that could be up to 30 per cent. While drivers wait for the hydrogen cars that are still decades away from arriving in the showrooms, this technology has the potential to shape the future of motoring. Sasol Chevron has been working on the car manufacturers to develop next-generation engines that are optimised to run on GTL.

And this year Shell will open an experimental plant in Germany that takes things a stage farther, creating diesel from wood chippings. Run a car on that and it is effectively CO2 that is absorbed while the feed-stock crop is growing. Watch this space – you have not heard the last of GTL.

The benefits of GTL

—It has a higher cetane rating than regular diesel. Cetane is diesel’s equivalent of the octane that is in petrol and means that combustion in the cylinder is more efficient.

—The engine block does not need to be so bulky because the compression ratios can be lower. And that means less kerb weight, so higher mpg for drivers.

—Sulphur content is very low and hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide emissions are down by 95 per cent.

—GTL engines run quieter. The traditional clatter of the diesel engine is eliminated.

—There is less wear and tear on the mechanicals. Engine oil in a car running on GTL fuel lasts much longer because there are fewer impurities.

—And the downsides? About a 5 per cent cut in fuel economy compared with a regular diesel car.

http://driving.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/driving/new_car_reviews/article1774464.ece

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