Converting River Towboats to Natural Gas

Jan 19, 2016 Transportation & Infrastructure

Photo Credit: Susan Oliver

The Power of 32 Region is more and more frequently being recognized for its leadership role in a wide range of areas from STEAM education to regional trail development to real-time traveler information systems. Now, thanks to the efforts of Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities (PRCC) —a U.S. DOE-funded regional nonprofit that supports the conversion of vehicles to alternative fuels —the region is distinguishing itself as a national leader in the development and use of alternative fuels for the inland waterways.

In the fall, PRCC and its western Pennsylvania coalition, Clean Fuels/Clean Rivers (CFCR), received a $730,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration (MARAD) for a cutting-edge liquefied natural gas (LNG) conversion demonstration project. The goal is to research and develop the technology to allow marine operators to use a cleaner burning alternative to diesel. This in turn allows them to meet new EPA emission requirements and reduce environmental impact to the inland waterways.

The PRCC collaborated with Life Cycle Engineering, Walden Industries, MANE Resources and Clipper Enterprises to submit the grant proposal to MARAD. Additionally, the team will include Altronic, LLC, S&O Consulting, the Shearer Group, Inc., and West Virginia University.

Rivers as Opportunity

The initiative to take a national leadership role in the development and use of alternative fuels in the maritime industry —which ultimately led to the MARAD grant — was sparked by the combination of the region's increased natural gas resources with the needs of marine operators to reduce their operating costs and exhaust emissions on the inland rivers.

"We spent a fair amount of time deciding that our opportunity to differentiate ourselves from the other 80 or so Clean Cities organizations lay on the rivers," recalls Jan Lauer, board President of PRCC. "We had a unique intersection of terrific assets including significant river traffic, the booming gas industry and pockets of tremendous expertise on the inland waterways."

One key asset, who turned out to be right here in the Pittsburgh area, is Tom Risley, P.E., Director-Energy Programs at Life Cycle Engineering and leading technologist in the marine alternative power and fuel marketplace.

With Risley and Life Cycle Engineering onboard, the first step was to conduct a feasibility study on the opportunities for alternative fuels on the inland waterways. According to Lauer, the study, "led by Risley and generously funded by the Richard King Mellon Foundation and Claude W. Benedum Foundation, took a hard look at what the opportunity really looked like including the technology, the economic impact, the environmental impact and more."

The completed study led to the MARAD grant to look at the emission benefits of conversion of a towboat from diesel to natural gas. The specific focus of the natural gas technology insertion covered by the project funded by the grant would impact over 60 percent of the vessels operating in the Pittsburgh Region.

New Technology

The vessel being used for the demonstration project currently operates more than 3,000 hours a year providing tow make up services, fleet shifting, and local transport of barges along the Ohio River in the Pittsburgh/Appalachia Region. It is typical of 60-65 percent of towing vessels operating in this region.

The PRCC Team will convert the towboat to burn liquefied natural gas (LNG) as its fuel source, monitoring the emissions before and after. The project will require developing the technology to support the LNG conversion and the emissions monitoring.

According to Risley, the technology being developed could be the lynchpin. The team is developing a vessel conversion design for insertion of a dual fuel fumigation system. This technology can reduce the demand for diesel fuel by injecting natural gas into the intake air system before it goes into the engine cylinder. In effect, the energy in the natural gas replaces some of the diesel fuel energy required so less diesel is needed in the cylinder to get the same power.

A different approach is important because the conversion of the vessel from diesel to natural gas is extremely expensive, especially for smaller towboats, which only burn 3,000-6,000 gallons of fuel each year.

"We think we can do it cheaper and better," Risley point out. "Not by using large engine and marine technologies and scaling them down, but by taking what is already in existence in the transportation industry and developing these technologies and moving them over to the marine industry. We can significantly reduce the conversion costs and shorten the ROI."

Risley says that for boat operators, the promise of LNG conversion is cleaner engines and reduced maintenance requirements. It also allows them to source fuels domestically, giving them better energy security and the possibility of LNG contracts, which will allow them to plan and peg their fuel costs.

Validating Natural Gas Conversion

The demonstration project kicked off in November and the team is working on a design that meets the requirements of the existing U.S. Coast Guard policy.

"From our perspective," says Risley, "success will be to demonstrate the validity of natural gas conversion from an emissions standpoint, vessel performance standpoint and financial performance, and to learn from these areas and begin to provide that information to the inland waterway marketplace. That is a success for us."

What does it mean for the region? Lauer quickly points out the "green over green" opportunities that are both environmental and economic, the positive impact on cleaning the region's airways, and the opportunities to develop the marketplace for vessel conversion.

"Our goal," says Lauer, "is to become a leader in the industry."