Propane Fuel Basics

This photo shows a propane tank and pump to fuel propane school buses.

Also known as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) or propane autogas, propane is a cleaner-burning alternative fuel that's been used for decades to power light-, medium- and heavy-duty propane vehicles.

Propane is a three-carbon alkane gas (C3H8). It is stored under pressure inside a tank as a colorless, odorless liquid. As pressure is released, the liquid propane vaporizes and turns into gas that is used in combustion. An odorant, ethyl mercaptan, is added for leak detection. (See fuel properties).

Propane has a high octane rating, making it an excellent choice for spark-ignited internal combustion engines. It presents no threat to soil, surface water, or groundwater. Propane is produced as a by-product of natural gas processing and crude oil refining. It accounts for about 2% of the energy used in the United States. Of that, less than 2% is used for transportation. Its main uses include home and water heating, cooking and refrigerating food, clothes drying, and powering farm and industrial equipment. The chemical industry also uses propane as a raw material for making plastics and other compounds.

Propane as an Alternative Fuel

Interest in propane as an alternative transportation fuel stems from its domestic availability, high-energy density, clean-burning qualities, and relatively low cost. It is the world's third most common transportation fuel, behind gasoline and diesel, and is considered an alternative fuel under the Energy Policy Act of 1992.

Propane used in vehicles is specified as HD-5 propane and is a mixture of propane with smaller amounts of other gases. According to the Gas Processors Association's HD-5 specification for propane, it must consist of at least 90% propane, no more than 5% propylene, and 5% other gases, primarily butane and butylene. (See fuel properties.)

Propane is stored onboard a vehicle in a tank pressurized to about 150 pounds per square inch—about twice the pressure of an inflated truck tire. Under this pressure, propane becomes a liquid with an energy density 270 times greater than its gaseous form. Propane has a higher octane rating than gasoline, so it can be used with higher engine compression ratios and prevents engine knocking. However, it has a lower British thermal unit (Btu) rating than gasoline, so it takes more fuel by volume to drive the same distance.

To find the fuel, see propane fueling station locations. For retail fuel prices, see the Alternative Fuel Price Report.