Westport: all of a sudden, everybody’s BFF

Paul BlomerusPaul Blomerus

Until a few years ago Westport Innovations was a name only a few aficionados in the diesel engine world recognized. It was the company that engineered heavy-duty natural gas engine systems for Peterbilt and Kenworth trucks, and formed the joint venture Cummins Westport to make natural gas engines for the medium duty market.

But as an increasing number of natural gas deposits have been opened up thanks to shale reserves and directional boring capabilities, Westport expertise in natural gas engines has suddenly made this Vancouver, B.C. company everybody’s new best friend.

This year alone Westport has inked development agreements with Caterpillar, General Motors and Volvo, and announced a new 11.9-liter engine product through its joint venture with Chinese engine manufacturer Weichai. The company is also working on a new Cummins Westport 6.7-liter, spark ignited natural gas engine (the ISB6.7 G) and showcased a new with a 12-liter Cummins Westport engine in February.

At the High Horsepower Summit 2012, held last month in Houston, Texas, we caught up with Paul Blomerus, senior director of the high horsepower division at Westport to find out more about the company’s newfound popularity and where it sees the future of natural gas power.

Westport has the technical know-how to do everything from simple natural gas fuel injection components to whole engines, Blomerus says. “Our strategy is to partner with these different OEMs, but the business arrangement will be slightly different depending on the needs of the partner.”

“Caterpillar already has some extensive natural gas capabilities so Westport will be doing some of the component design work for them,” he says. “What we’re doing with Caterpillar is a development partnership. Westport brings natural gas design and development capabilities but also component manufacture and supply.”

Caterpillar and Westport both have a range of natural gas technologies available for different applications, but for Cat’s the mining truck applications, Westport HPDI (high pressure direct injection) is the design of choice. “HDPI gives you the performance and efficiency you need,” Blomerus says. “It used to be that natural gas had a reputation as the fuel for people who could accept less than full horsepower. Now we’re saying you don’t have to accept compromises. That’s why HPDI in these most demanding applications is quite transformative.”

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On an HPDI engine, each injector shoots a mixture of mostly natural gas with a small amount of diesel into the cylinder. The diesel helps start the ignition in cylinder and the natural gas provides the rest of the power. The beauty of an HPDI system is that it retains the diesel-cycle functionality of a standard diesel engine, and the horsepower and torque curves are nearly identical to that of straight diesel injection.

For the time being, the best markets for HDPI in high horsepower are the engines that predominate in rail, marine and mining says Blomerus.  Even though the numbers of those engines are low, they burn millions of dollars of fuel every year. The other important market is on-highway haul trucks. These burn less fuel per unit, but because of the great numbers of these trucks, they comprise a sizeable market.

Making a case for natural gas powered off-road construction equipment, however, is going to be a challenge for now, Blomerus says. Because of construction equipment’s duty cycle and high idle times, fuel use per machine is not high relative to the other applications, he says. “It’s not a technology gap,” he says. “If we can make it work in a mine environment, we can make it work in a construction environment. It’s just an economic gap.” As the HPDI truck engine market matures, it will drive down the cost of the engines, and as the cost of diesel continues to rise relative to natural gas, then you will start to see the construction side make better economic sense, he says.