Autogas is widely used as a "green" fuel as it decreases exhaust emissions. In particular, it reduces CO2 emissions by around 20% compared to petrol. It has an octane rating (MON/RON) that is between 90 and 110 and an energy content (higher heating value—HHV) that is between 25.5 megajoules per litre (for pure propane) and 28.7 megajoules per litre (for pure butane) depending upon the actual fuel composition.
In countries where petrol is called petrol rather than gasoline, it is common for autogas to be simply referred to as gas. This can be confusing for people from countries where petrol is called gasoline, as they often use the abbreviation gas to refer to petrol. In the United States, autogas is more commonly known under the name of its primary constituent, propane.
Another source of confusion is that the term autogas is used in the United States to refer to automobile petrol, when used in piston-powered small aircraft. Aircraft owners using this fuel in place of the more common aviation fuel or avgas, require a Supplemental Type Certificate issued by the United States Federal Aviation Agency.
Currently, a number of automobile manufacturers—Citroën, Fiat, Ford, Hyundai, General Motors (including Daewoo, Holden, Opel/Vauxhall, Saab), Maruti Suzuki, Peugeot, Renault, Toyota and Volvo—have OEM bi-fuel (dual fuel) models that will run equally well on both LPG and petrol.
Vialli manufacture OEM LPG powered scooters and LPG powered mopeds that run equally well on LPG. Ford Australia have offered an LPG-only variant of their Falcon model since 2000.
Autogas is especially popular with taxis, except in remote areas where transportation costs make autogas prices uncompetitive.
Whilst autogas is currently excise-free, excise is to be imposed on all vehicle fuels that are not currently subject to excise, being added incrementally from 2011 to 2015. The excise on autogas will start at 2.5 cents per litre in 2011 and reach 12.5 cents per litre by 2015. By comparison, the excise on petrol will remain at its existing 38 cents per litre. The additional excise on autogas is being offset somewhat by a subsidy that was implemented in 2006 for private motorists, paying either AU$2000 to convert their existing vehicle to autogas, or AU$1000 for purchasing a new vehicle that was manufactured to operate on autogas. The subsidy does not apply to business vehicles or vehicles with a Gross Vehicle Mass of over 3500 kilograms. In addition to the subsidy provided by the Australian federal government, the Western Australian government also provides a AU$1000 subsidy under the long-running LPG subsidy scheme.
The different autogas systems generally use the same type of filler, tanks, lines and fittings but use different components in the engine bay. Some injection systems use special tanks with circulation pumps and return lines similar to petrol fuel injection systems.
There are three basic types of autogas system. The oldest of these is the conventional converter-and-mixer system, which has existed since the 1940s and is still widely used today. The other two types are known as injection systems, but there are significant differences between the two.
A converter-mixer system uses a converter to change liquid fuel from the tank into vapour, then feeds that vapour to the mixer where it is mixed with the intake air.
Vapour phase injection systems use a converter in much the same way as with a mixer, but have a series of electrical shutoff solenoids and nozzles (collectively referred to as injectors) that are controlled by a computer. The computer works in much the same way as a petrol fuel injection computer. This allows much more accurate metering of fuel to the engine than is possible with mixers, improving economy and/or power while reducing emissions.
Liquid phase injection systems do not use a converter, but instead deliver the liquid fuel into a fuel rail in much the same manner as a petrol injection system. These systems are still very much in their infancy. Because the fuel vapourises in the intake, the air around it is cooled significantly. This increases the density of the intake air and can potentially lead to substantial increases in engine power output, to the extent that such systems are usually de-tuned to avoid damaging other parts of the engine. Liquid phase injection has the potential to achieve much better economy and power plus lower emission levels than are possible using mixers or vapour phase injectors.
The type of filler used varies from country to country and in some cases different types are used within the same country.
The three types are:
Adaptors that allow a vehicle fitted with a particular system to refuel at a station equipped with another system are available.
The fill valve contains a check valve so that the liquid in the line between the filler and the tank(s) does not escape when the bowser nozzle is disconnected.
In installations where more than one tank is fitted, T-fittings may be used to connect the tanks to one filler so that the tanks are filled simultaneously. In some applications, more than one filler may be fitted, such as on opposite sides of the vehicle. These may be connected to separate tanks, or may be connected to the same tanks using T-fittings in the same manner as for connecting multiple tanks to one filler.
The hose between the filler and tank(s) is called the fill hose or fill line. The hose or pipe between the tank(s) and the converter is called the service line. These both carry liquid under pressure.
The flexible hose between the converter and mixer is called the vapour hose or vapour line. This line carries vapour at low pressure and has a much larger diameter to suit.
Where the tank valves are located inside an enclosed space such as the boot of a sedan, a plastic containment hose is used to provide a gas-tight seal between the gas components and the inside of the vehicle.
Liquid hoses for LPG are specifically designed and rated for the pressures that exist in LPG systems, and are made from materials designed to be compatible with the fuel. Some hoses are made with crimped fittings, while others are made using re-usable fittings that are pressed or screwed onto the end of the hose.
Rigid sections of liquid line are usually made using copper tubing, although in some applications, steel pipes are used instead. The ends of the pipes are always double-flared and fitted with flare nuts to secure them to the fittings.
Liquid line fittings are mostly made from brass. The fittings typically adapt from a thread in a component, such as a BSP or NPT threaded hole on a tank, to an SAE flare fitting to suit the ends of pipes or hoses.
The tanks have fittings for filling, liquid outlet, emergency relief of excess pressure, fuel level gauge and sometimes a vapour outlet. These may be separate valves mounted into a series of 3 to 5 holes in a plate welded into the tank shell, or may be assembled onto a multi-valve unit which is bolted into one large hole on a boss welded into the tank shell.
Modern fill valves are usually fitted with an automatic fill limiter (AFL) to prevent overfilling. The AFL has a float arm which restricts the flow significantly but does not shut it off entirely. This is intended to cause the pressure in the line to rise enough to tell the bowser to stop pumping but not cause dangerously high pressures. Before AFLs were introduced, it was common for the filler (with integral check valve) to be screwed directly into the tank, as the operator had to open an ullage valve at the tank while filling, allowing vapour out of the top of the tank and stopping filling when liquid started coming out of the ullage valve to indicate that the tank was full. Modern tanks are not fitted with ullage valves.
The liquid outlet is usually used to supply fuel to the engine, and is usually referred to as the service valve. Modern service valves incorporate an electric shutoff solenoid. In applications using very small engines such as small generators, vapour may be withdrawn from the top of the tank instead of liquid from the bottom of the tank.
The emergency pressure relief valve in the tank is called a hydrostatic pressure relief valve. It is designed to open if the pressure in the tank is dangerously high, thus releasing some vapour to the atmosphere to reduce the pressure in the tank. The release of a small quantity of vapour reduces the pressure in the tank, which causes some of the liquid in the tank to vapourise to re-establish equilibrium between liquid and vapour. The latent heat of vapourisation causes the tank to cool, which reduces pressure even further.
The gauge sender is usually a magnetically coupled arrangement, with a float arm inside the tank rotating a magnet, which rotates an external gauge. The external gauge is usually readable directly, and most also incorporate an electronic sender to operate a fuel gauge on the dashboard.
Check valves are fitted in the filler and on the fill input to the fuel tank to prevent fuel flowing back the wrong way.
Service valves are fitted to the outlet from the tank to the service line. These have a tap to turn the fuel on and off. The tap is usually only closed when the tank is being worked on. In some countries, an electrical shutoff valve is built into the service valve.
Where multiple tanks are fitted, a combination of check valves and a hydrostatic relief valve are usually installed to prevent fuel from flowing from one tank to another. In Australia, there is a common assembly designed for this purpose. It is a combined twin check valve and hydrostatic relief valve assembly built in the form of a T-fitting, such that the lines from the tanks come into the sides of the valve and the outlet to the converter comes out the end. Because there is only one common brand of these valves, they are known colloquially as a Sherwood valve.
There are two distinctly different basic types of converter for use with mixer type systems. The European style of converter is a more complex device that incorporates an idle circuit and is designed to be used with a simple fixed venturi mixer. The American style of converter is a simpler design which is intended to be used with a variable venturi mixer that incorporates an idle circuit.
Engines with a low power output such as; scooters, quad bikes and generators can use a simpler type of converter (also known as governor or regulator). These converters are fed with fuel in vapour form. Evaporation takes place in the tank where refrigeration occurs as the liquid fuel boils. The tanks large surface area exposed to the ambient air temperature combined with the low power output (fuel requirement) of the engine make this type of system viable. The refrigeration of the fuel tank is proportional to fuel demand hence this setup is only used on smaller engines. This type of converter can either fed with vapour at tank pressure (called a 2 stage regulator) or be fed via a tank mounted regulator at a fixed reduced pressure (called a single stage regulator).
Mixer type systems have existed since the 1940s and some designs have changed little over that time. Mixers are now being increasingly superseded by injectors.
In some installations, the fuel gauge sender fitted to the autogas tank is matched to the original fuel gauge in the vehicle. In others, an additional gauge is added to display the level of fuel in the autogas tank separately from the existing petrol gauge.
In most modern installations, an electronic device called a tachometric relay or safety switch is used to operate electrical shutoff solenoids. These work by sensing that the engine is running by detecting ignition pulses. Some systems use an engine oil pressure sensor instead. In all installations, there is a filterlock (consisting of a filter assembly and a vacuum or electric solenoid operated shutoff valve) located at the input to the converter. In European converters, there is also a solenoid in the converter to shut off the idle circuit. These valves are usually both connected to the output of the tachometric relay or oil pressure switch. Where solenoids are fitted to the outputs of fuel tanks, these are also connected to the output of the tachometric relay or oil pressure switch. In installations with multiple tanks, a switch or changeover relay may be fitted to allow the driver to select which tank to use fuel from. On dual-fuel systems, the switch used to change between fuels is used to turn off the tachometric relay.
Closed loop feedback systems use an electronic controller that operates in much the same way as in a petrol fuel injection systems, using an oxygen sensor to effectively measure the air/fuel mixture by measuring the oxygen content of the exhaust and control valve on the converter or in the vapour line to adjust the mixture. Mixer type systems that do not have a closed loop feedback fitted are sometimes referred to as open loop systems.
Injection systems use a computerised control system which is very similar to that used in petrol injection systems. In virtually all systems, the injection control system integrates the tachometric relay and closed loop feedback functions.
In European style systems, the size and shape of the venturi is designed to match the converter. In American style systems, the air valve and metering pins in the mixer are sized to match the diaphragm sizes and spring stiffnesses in the converter. In both cases, the components are matched by the manufacturers and only basic adjustments are needed during installation and tuning.
An autogas carburettor may simply consist of a throttlebody and a mixer, sometimes fitted together using an adapter.
Cold start enrichment is achieved by the fact that the engine coolant is cold when the engine is cold. This causes denser vapour to be delivered to the mixer. As the engine warms up, the coolant temperature rises until the engine is at operating temperature and the mixture has leaned off to the normal running mixture. Depending on the system, the throttle may need to be held open further when the engine is cold in the same manner as with a petrol carburetor. On others, the normal mixture is intended to be somewhat lean and no cold-start throttle increase is needed. Because of the way enrichment is achieved, no additional choke butterfly is required for cold starting with LPG.
The temperature of the engine is critical to the tuning of an autogas system. The engine thermostat effectively controls the temperature of the converter, thus directly affecting the mixture. A faulty thermostat, or a thermostat of the wrong temperature range for the design of the system may not operate correctly.
The power output capacity of a system is limited by the ability of the converter to deliver a stable flow of vapour. A coolant temperature lower than intended will reduce the maximum power output possible, as will an air bubble trapped in the cooling circuit or complete loss of coolant. All converters have a limit, beyond which mixtures become unstable. Unstable mixtures typically contain tiny droplets of liquid fuel that were not heated enough in the converter and will vapourise in the mixer or intake to form an excessively rich mixture. When this occurs, the mixture will become so rich that the engine will flood and stall. Because the outside of the converter will be at or below 0°C when this happens, water vapour from the air will freeze onto the outside of the converter, forming an icy white layer. Some converters are very suceptible to cracking when this happens.
The systems typically operate by metering a small quantity of LPG, at a pressure slightly above atmospheric, into the intake manifold, where it enters the combustion chamber and is ignited with the diesel. LPG flow is regulated to ensure smooth operation, and will typically only deliver LPG under power.
Some companies claim a 10% to 20% increase in power and torque, and a reduction in overall fuel costs. Any actual savings are dependent on the relative cost of diesel versus LPG. In Australia, where diesel costs substantially more than LPG, savings of 10 to 20% are claimed.