July 10, 2014 at 1:00 am

Soup it up

Livonia firm turns autos on to propane

Roush's CleanTech division is converting fleet vehicles now, may do cars down the road

Roush CleanTech's propane technology powers this Ford F-250 work truck and other commercial vehicles including buses. (Larry Edsall / Special to The Detroit News)

What’s the most commonly used fuel source for cars and trucks around the world?

If you guessed gasoline, you are correct.

And in second place … yes, diesel.

But can you guess what is the third-most used fuel? Not ethanol. Not hybrids. Not electricity. No. 3 is propane, which propels 23 million vehicles worldwide, though only some 250,000 in the United States.

But that last figure is growing, thanks in large part to Livonia-based Roush CleanTech. Yes, the folks who brought us the high-performance Roush Mustang and all those race-winning NASCAR stock cars are at the forefront of converting vehicles to run on the same fuel that may heat your house or barbecue your burgers.

Right now, such conversions are for commercial vehicles, be they school buses or delivery trucks. But the head of Roush CleanTech expects passenger cars to be in the mix before 2020. And the delay isn’t because of a lack of technology but a lack of infrastructure to make propane refueling as easy as buying gasoline or diesel.

Speaking of propane, Joe Thompson, president of Roush CleanTech, notes that nearly all (97 percent) of the propane used in the U.S. is produced in North America and 75 percent of it comes from national gas rather than petroleum refining.

Propane carries a 105-octane rating while producing less than a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions as gasoline. But propane is green not only in terms of emissions but in cost benefit.

After a couple years of incubation and research and development, Roush launched its CleanTech division in 2010 and based its pitch to potential fleet customers on savings based on the then-current price of unleaded gasoline — $2.80 per gallon.

Now, with gasoline pushing 4 bucks and with diesel costing even more, one of Roush CleanTech’s biggest customers, the Mesa (Arizona) public school district, boasts that it saves so much money using propane that it basically gets its new buses for free.

In addition to school buses, Roush has converted a variety of Ford trucks to propane and is working with the likes of U-Haul, FedEx and UPS on test fleets. UPS has nearly 100,000 vehicles in its overall delivery fleet. That means that every cent in increased fuel costs UPS an additional $10 million.

Roush has applied the same engineering standards to its CleanTech programs as it did for its Mustang and race car programs. For example, while some propane outfitters make fuel rails from 18 separate pieces — and thus have 18 sources of leaks — Roush rails are machined from a solid piece of billet aluminum.

The Roush system works so well that a major oil company is testing propane trucks on its drilling exploration fields on Alaska’s North Slope, where a leak of even a quarter cup of diesel fuel results in reams of environmental paperwork.

We drove a Ford F-250 equipped with Roush CleanTech propane propulsion. We noticed only one difference between that and other big gasoline and diesel pickups we’ve driven: Once you turn the key to start the propane-fueled engine, it takes a few seconds for fuel to be pumped from the quarter-inch-thick steel tanks and through stainless-steel fuel lines to the delivery rail and injectors, so what you do is climb behind the wheel, turn the key, and then latch your seat belt. By the time your buckle clicks, the engine fires up and you’re ready to roll.

PS: Note that propane is just the first project for Roush CleanTech. Thompson, who formerly headed the Roush Mustang development program, said the company expects to have compressed natural gas engine technology on the road within the next two years.

Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at ledsall@cox.net.