New technology, old habits

Full tank: Long Beach is a fan of LNG fuel Full tank: Long Beach is a fan of LNG fuel
Industry Database

Terminal tractors need to balance sensitive features with regular rough handling, finds Stevie Knight

A yard tractor’s lot is not an easy one. As Frank Oerlemans of Terberg Benschop says, “When you see these tractors being built, you can’t believe that they’d ever break, but when you see what they go through in the yard, you wonder how they ever survive.”

As common as horizontal rain, salty water and high winds are the cavalier attitudes of yard drivers who often put a foot to the floor, corners notwithstanding. Mr Oerlemans recalls delivering a brand new tractor “which was tipped over on its side within a week of delivery”.

Although the designs incorporate strengthened cabs and bases, given the rough treatment, sophisticated equipment has to be incorporated with care: “We only use complex electronics where it meets specific needs, such as between engine and transmission or on revolving ro-ro tractor controls where a wired connection would wear out. There’s no point in showing off – it’s not like a sports car.”

Not only do these tractors get manhandled, but recent years have seen terminals “sweating their assets” says Chris Booth of Kalmar. “The retirement age of yard tractors rose from an average of five years up to seven or eight years old. Then 2014 saw a whole heap of orders for fleet renewals, especially from the US. Personally I think that operators came up against the hard fact that very old tractors need more maintenance than they are worth.”

However, not all operations presently invest in specialist equipment, but this, says Mike Roeth of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE), is about to change. “Although ports and terminals used to be where older trucks were sent to die, they are really bad for emissions and reliability,” he says, adding that both issues are steadily rising up the agenda.


Close call

Having a circumscribed arena puts ports into a good position as early adopters of innovative or emission technologies. “The trucks are never going to be far away from a fuelling or recharge point,” explains Mr Roeth, so finding a refill isn’t an issue. Consequently quite a few ports are following the lead set by California and are now trialling technologies such as electric yard tractors, fuel cells and of course, both Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) and Compressed Natural Gas (CNG).

Despite this, specialised solutions aren’t always attractive. Places like Hong Kong will probably carry on using European road trucks for as long as stevedores only get short term, year-long contracts, explains Mr Booth. “The trucks have to be prepared to be out of a port job and able to earn a living on the highway again. It means operators simply aren’t going to invest in three or five year strategies however much safer or more appropriate.”

Plus, the technology doesn’t always fit. For example, battery-hybrid tractors have their problems: Mr Booth says that batteries are still large and expensive and take a huge amount of recharging and storage space to get the power needed for a really heavy duty cycle. There is another issue: the recharging cycle has to be calibrated against engine load, but this changes wildly depending on what’s onboard: “If the driver of an empty tractor stamps hard on the accelerator or brake he might find the result pretty uncomfortable.”

However, interest is growing in natural gas. Kalmar has been providing LNG tractors to Ningbo and Terberg has landed its own sets of orders. Valencia’s Noatum terminal tested a Terberg LNG powered terminal tractor under the Greencranes project and the company has an order for 40 units for Asyaport in the Port of Tekirdag.

Despite the need for ports to clean up their act Mr Oerlemans says that Asyaport’s interest is not only driven by the green aspect, but also by the sheer cost of diesel which is among the most expensive in the world at €1,525 per litre, roughly double the price of the US market; obviously it helps that Asyaport has an LNG import terminal on the spot.


Gas growth

Roe East of Cummins, the company that supplies both Kalmar and Terberg tractor engines, says that the number of countries taking up natural gas as an energy strategy is rising, presenting opportunities for ports to get hold of a fairly cheap source. “As a terminal tractor can be guzzling 2.5 gallons per hour and working up to 20 hours a day, gas-powered tractors can be an interesting cost-cutting measure.

Meeting this interest has meant a substantial reworking of the layout for both Kalmar and Terberg LNG tractors including a longer wheelbase because the gas tanks need to be twice the size for LNG (and four times the size for CNG) to get an appropriate run time.

Despite this, LNG does fit well with port operations: it’s scaleable and firms such as Clean Energy have partnership solutions for fleets with as few as two to five trucks all the way to large installations like the one at the Port of Long Beach. Further, a yard tractors duty cycle fits the LNG profile: “The tanks are large insulated bottles, not refrigerated, so they’d be no use in an application when you want to park it for a week – they’d just automatically vent. Luckily most ports never shut down,” says Mr East, adding: “If an LNG truck is going to sit for a while for maintenance you need to fill the tank, that way it will keep nice and cold for several days.”

It can’t be avoided that LNG engines and supply lines need specialised care: not only is LNG kept at -163°C, cold enough to damage ordinary metal and burn human flesh but the vapour expands several hundred times when released, it’s dangerous to inhale and bad for the environment; despite green claims it’s still a petrocarbon. Plus it’s explosive in certain concentrations. Mr Roeth explains: “Upgrading a repair shop can get expensive due to the gas sniffers and alarms that need to be installed anywhere that leaks can occur and gas become trapped.”

This brings us back to the potential clash between those ‘cavalier’ drivers and the nature of LNG. To this end, manufacturers have taken steps to ensure a vehicle's resilience with elements like side-impact tested double walls and a heavy-duty external structure plus an automatic crash shut-off.

However simple self preservation is part of the deal says Mr Oerlemans: “Of course the fact this is a LNG tractor will also make the driver more careful as his own safety is involved.”

Despite this, the station’s refuelling procedures should give pause for thought. The question remains, does a port want to entrust a rigid safety regime to those same ‘hard cornering’ drivers that can occasionally tip over a truck?

Gas remains an attractive option

Ideally a natural gas fuelling station will, like Asyaport in Turkey, have a nearby supply but even if not, most suppliers will distribute by truck and the station can be built to provide both CNG and LNG at point of delivery says Mike Roeth of NACFE.

Roe East of Cummins adds that given the commitment to the investment, a port may as well sell the gas on to the trucks outside the gate as LA does already, especially as the majority tend to keep within a fairly tight radius, visiting the port several times a day.

However, there are differences between LNG and CNG refuelling and despite the cryogenic technology, LNG is actually much quicker to fill, he explains. CNG is still a gas, and the pressure required to get a whole tank full either means taking it slowly or pushing it in with more energy.

So while LNG takes “about the same time as diesel”, CNG even on fast-fill still needs a 20 or 30 minute slot. On the other hand, the safety regime needed for LNG (hard hat, goggles, gloves and so on, plus hooking up the tank to an earthing point) pulls the balance back toward CNG which doesn’t need trained crew to operate the pumps.

Whether CNG or LNG, gas is attractive. “If it’s not hitched to the oil price the cost of natural gas is free to find its own level and in places like the US you can get, long, fixed rate supply contracts which give ports some financial security,” says Mr East.

Mr Roeth adds that even if lengthy contracts are elusive, the gas element at the pump is much lower than diesel: “If oil doubles at the barrel, it doubles at the pump, but if gas doubles, it’s only a fraction more at the pump. Most of the price is actually the infrastructure which will pay for itself over time. That softens most increases.”


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