Good ideas sometimes make a comeback…
Good ideas sometimes make a comeback…
Even if they’ve been dormant for a long time, certain technological solutions never lose their value and can eventually make a successful return.
One example, which many people probably don’t remember, regards a key portion of the fleet of small trains used in local services in Italy. If we look back to the years between the 1930s and the 1950s, millions of Italians travelled using the famous Littorina, a series of railcars which were then fuelled by natural gas. FIAT then came up with the idea for a gas railway engine, having initially built a petrol prototype engine with six cylinders, 10 thousand cc and 125 horse power. The prototype was a success and hundreds of Littorinas were built, but after sanctions imposed on Italy in the aftermath of the Ethiopian war, petrol became scarce and many railcars were converted to be powered by methane, extraction of which was just beginning in the gas fields of the Po Valley.
History therefore records that the first ever gas-powered train was Italian. Now, fast-forward to the present day and the recent agreement between Ferrovie dello Stato, Snam and Hitachi to trial the conversion of a number of diesel engines to LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) seems like a happy comeback for this evergreen of the last century.
The advantages of LNG over diesel can be summed up in four numbers: a more than 23% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, almost zero emissions of sulphur oxides, at least a 50% drop in emissions of particulate matter, and a 60% fall in nitrogen oxide emissions. It is an absolute no-brainer. Likewise, LNG comfortably outperforms the traditional methane gas used for the old Littorinas, as it takes up hundreds of times less space than methane, giving the trains a comparable range to what is possible with diesel engines.
It is difficult to predict how widespread this technology might become and to estimate its overall environmental benefits. We should note, though, that many railway lines in Italy – 4,800 km out of the total 16,500 km – still have no electricity supply and, for financial reasons, are not planned for electrification either. LNG could therefore be the solution, as shown by trials being conducted in Spain, where a number of small LNG trains have been running for more than a year, as well as in other transport sectors, from the road to the waterways.
LNG for ships and lorries
It was just over ten years ago that people began to talk about LNG ships. Back then it still seemed rather futuristic and LNG was seen almost exclusively in terms of its contribution to pipeline networks (the purpose being to diversify supply sources and make the system more flexible). But today the use of LNG to power ships is becoming a more and more everyday reality. Forecasts suggest that thousands of new vessels will be powered by LNG by 2030. The Italian company Fincantieri has recently signed a new contract with TUI Cruises for two 160 thousand ton ships, following on from an initial contract with the Carnival Corporation for two 175 thousand ton ships, and a subsequent contract with its Norwegian subsidiary Vard for another two vessels (to be supplied to the company Viking).
While LNG ships are sailing full steam ahead, LNG-fuelled lorries are also eating up their fair share of miles, with over a thousand now on Italian roads. Perhaps that doesn’t seem like many, but four years ago there were only about a hundred and by 2025 there should be at least 15 thousand, generating exponential environmental benefits and reducing climate-altering emissions. What’s more, these benefits will become even more pronounced when LNG becomes increasingly derived from renewable natural gas, produced from organic waste or other biomass. The direction of travel is therefore firmly established, with gas joining other energy sources in becoming more and more green.
READ MORE: LNG fuel and the shipping sector by Mike Scott