Logistics specialists searching for alternative drive systems

In order to prepare the ground for sustainable logistics – which is often dictated by customer demand – many logistics specialists are using forward-looking technologies with a lower CO2 footprint on a much more frequent basis. Their aim is to satisfy growing calls to reduce pollution. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) has good chances of already being a candidate because of its ecological footprint. However, does this fuel system have a future on the way towards e-mobility and fuel cell technology?

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LNG at a glance:

  • Information about LNG as a fuel in this article
  • Legal requirements to reduce emissions
  • Benefits of LNG vehicles compared to trucks with traditional drive systems
  • The infrastructure for using LNG
  • How well-developed are other alternative drive systems?

Carsten Hölzer, Managing Director of the Road Freight division at the international logistics specialist, Rhenus, is responsible for managing key accounts and tenders in Europe. ‘The topic of sustainability as a criterion for working together is becoming much more important in customer enquiries,’ says the logistics expert in an interview.

The trendsetter in this regard is above all the chemical industry, one of the main sectors for which Hölzer and his team are working. The development of the so-called Safety and Quality Assessment System (SQAS) provided some impetus for this as early as the 1990s. This specific quality standard assesses safety and environmental compatibility when transporting chemicals and goes further than any pure ISO certification. ‘Without the appropriate auditing, it’s simply not possible for us logistics specialists to work for the chemical industry,’ Hölzer adds.

Politicians are also increasingly supporting the use of sustainable technologies, both by providing subsidies and by using legal stipulations to reduce pollutant and noise emissions. On the basis of regulations like these, logistics specialists are repeatedly compelled to find environmentally-friendly and also economically sensitive alternatives to conventional fuel systems.

For the sake of our climate: Diesel engines have become obsolete

Cost reasons alone have demonstrated that diesel and co. are hardly fit for the future: the prices for a litre of diesel fuel have shot through the EUR 2 threshold since the beginning of 2022. The reason for this is the increase in oil prices because of the risk of an import ban on Russian crude oil. Then there is the increased level of demand in the upturn following the economic decline that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. And, not least importantly, the increases in CO2 costs resulting from climate protection measures are also playing their part in pushing up prices.

An alternative must therefore be found – right away, if possible. The team at Road Freight Deutschland has been primarily using two LNG vehicles for groupage freight services within Germany since last year. It is doing so to test the benefits and disadvantages of what is ecologically a more sustainable drive system in actual practice. LNG is not only much more efficient to transport and store, but is likely to provide more reliable supplies in future than crude oil, which is gradually becoming scarcer.

The performance of LNG trucks is no worse than conventional trucks and they have an identical range and payload. However, they are much more sustainable as their CO2emissions are about 15 per cent lower and emissions of nitric oxide and soot particles are as much as 70 per cent lower. The engines are also much quieter and can reduce noise levels by up to 50 per cent. At the very least, this makes the vehicles attractive for services in inner-city areas.

Areas of operation depend on the infrastructure

It’s worth considering the purchase of LNG-powered vehicles, particularly in metropolitan areas such as the Ruhr region. Germany currently has about 100 LNG fuel stations scattered across the country. ‘This is an infrastructure network that we can work with,’ says Hölzer. However, he recommends that it is better to deliberately focus on using LNG trucks on particular lines. After all, not all routes are suitable for this more sustainable transport system. There are, however, considerable gaps in the network of filling stations, particularly in rural areas. ‘Sending vehicles back and forth across the countryside doesn’t make much sense as filling stations are mainly located in metropolitan areas,’ he reports.

Anybody who is considering using LNG vehicles to cross national borders needs to plan with even greater foresight. There are about 500 filling stations across Europe, but the infrastructure varies greatly, depending on which country is involved. This makes complex route planning absolutely essential – it must account for a wide range of parameters such as the opening hours of filling stations, road closures and difficult weather conditions. According to Hölzer, customers have already made enquiries and the logistics company is currently examining to what degree it can use its own LNG vehicles on scheduled cross-border services.

Between e-mobility and fuel cells

There are various concepts for alternative drive systems – using electricity, hydrogen or synthetic fuels made from organic waste: there will not just be one technology to cater for mobility as each alternative has its own advantages and disadvantages as well as special features. Electric trucks, for example, are already being used at factory sites and at container terminals – in line with the principle of ‘green logistics’ – but they are hardly suitable for long-haul routes. But infrastructure is not the only thing that’s missing. Electricity charging stations are expensive. The acquisition costs for the vehicles themselves are about three times as high as those for a conventional diesel truck. Then there are the long charging times and the operating ranges of the vehicles are too low.

Hydrogen technology is, however, still a long way from being ready for use in a reliable manner across the board. 25 manufacturers are currently focusing on the issue of e-mobility – but that number is reduced to four when it comes to hydrogen. It is hard to predict whether this propulsion system will be used in a reliable manner everywhere and whether it will finally dominate the market. Ultimately, hydrogen not only provides benefits: firstly, it requires a considerable amount of energy to be produced. At the same time, the costs for raw materials such as platinum, which are required to make fuel cells, are not exactly low either. Moreover, possible safety risks such as the high degree of combustibility of the material still have to be eliminated.

LNG as a bridge technology

In Hölzer’s view, LNG is not just a transitional technology that can be made available quickly. Instead it can be reliably implemented on the way towards climate neutrality. ‘Even if it’s probably only used for a temporary period, LNG is the ideal bridge solution,’ he states. In saying this, he is also looking ahead to the future and he and his team are constantly following developments related to sustainability. ‘Although we don’t own any vehicles as a logistics specialist, we view it as our task to offer services that are as broad as possible. Thanks to our partner companies and subsidiaries, we’re developing individual solutions for the most varied requirements for each customer and are able to make suitable technologies promptly available in each case.’

Do you need more information?

Are you interested in using LNG in your vehicle fleet? This will take you to our checklist with three things that you ought to know.

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