Could Propane be the New Diesel?

Man working on engine

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently granted more than $9 million in research funding for propane engine technology. One of the largest allocations went to Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins for heavy-duty propane engine development.

CSU won $3.5 million for a project called: Development of Advanced Combustion Strategies for Direct Injection Heavy Duty Propane Engines to Achieve Near-Diesel Engine Efficiency. While the name is a mouthful, the objective of this 3-year DOE project is to develop propane engines, especially heavy-duty engines, that are as close to efficient as current diesel engines.

CSU has a 30-year history of gaseous-fueled engine development, using alternative fuels such as propane, natural gas, hydrogen and biofuels. With the university’s world-class research facility known as “Powerhouse”, the program has the capability to work on large and powerful engines.

The project will undergo three phases: fundamental studies, modeling and demonstration. By increasing the efficiency of propane engines, the research will help take advantage of propane’s benefits as a more affordable, efficient and lower emissions fuel. Replacing diesel engines, which have been the backbone of heavy-duty equipment for years, with propane-powered units is the first step toward a lower-carbon future.

With DOE investing significantly into heavy-duty propane engine development, the question arises: Could propane be the new diesel?

In a recent episode from the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) podcast Path To Zero, Tucker Perkins, PERC President and CEO, visits with Dr. Bryan Willson, Executive Director of the Energy Institute at CSU, and Dr. Daniel Olsen, Mechanical Engineering professor at CSU. Together, they share an interesting conversation about our nation’s joining to a low carbon future. They also take an in-depth look into the recent grant for the development of new, high-efficiency propane engines.

Could propane be the new diesel? It’s a valid question, and Dr. Bryan Willson introduced it in a headline referring to the new study. In PERC’s Path to Zero podcast (at the 17:42 mark for those who want to listen in), Perkins asks Dr. Willson, “Is the world really ready to perhaps embrace propane as the new diesel?”

Dr. Willson replied, “I think the world is looking for clean and economical fuels. What we have the potential to do here is to take a less expensive, lower-polluting fuel, and if we can raise its performance, then I think it is one of the tools in the toolbox to a lower carbon future.”

Propane autogas engines hold so much promise for the future because they not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but they also reduce harmful NOx and particulate matter emissions.

The molecular makeup of propane paired with innovative, high-performing heavy-duty engines creates a clear pathway to a lower-carbon future and a healthier environment for everyone.

With renewable propane, or bio-propane (propane made from plant and vegetable waste material), which is coming soon, propane becomes an even more promising solution for a clean future, even offering benefits over electric vehicle solutions because of the processes used to generate electricity from fossil fuels.

Could propane be the new diesel? Propane today is already recognized by the U.S. EPA as a clean alternative fuel. It is widely used in applications from school buses and irrigation engines to lawn mowers and delivery vans. Propane’s advantageous chemical makeup certainly offers a promising alternative to diesel, providing a cleaner option for even more fleets in the future.

With advances made in propane engine technology made possible by this DOE grant, propane certainly could be the new diesel fuel of the very near future.