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Will Natural Gas Be the Automotive Fuel of the Future?

greener gasoline, alternative fuels



LA Wad, courtesy Flickr

Dear EarthTalk: I recently saw an article extolling the virtues of natural gas as an abundant, inexpensive and domestically produced automotive fuel. Is this going to be the automotive fuel of the future and how green is it?—Jason Kincaide, New Bedford, Mass.

It is difficult to say which of the growing number of fuel options will power the cars of the future. But natural gas, given its domestic abundance, low price and lesser carbon footprint, is certainly a contender, at least as far as researchers at the federally funded Argonne National Laboratory are concerned. Some of the same engineers there who developed the batteries now used in electric cars have been tasked with improving natural gas powered engine technologies, thanks to anticipated consumer demand for vehicles powered by something cheaper and greener than gasoline but without the hassles of other alternative fuels.

“Our conclusion is that natural gas as a transportation fuel has both adequate abundance and cost advantages that make a strong case to focus interest in the technology as a real game changer in U.S. energy security,” Mike Duoba, an engineer at Argonne’s Transportation Technology Research and Development Center outside of Chicago, told the Talking Points Memo news blog. “In terms of consumer ownership and use costs, the case to make a switch from current fuels to compressed natural gas (CNG) is much more compelling than for other alternative fuels like ethanol and electricity.”

Given this promise—in addition to a February 2012 Department of Energy announcement of a $30 million competition aimed at finding ways “to harness our abundant supplies of domestic natural gas for vehicles”—Duoba and his colleague have been ramping up vehicle systems analysis and engine research and testing around CNG as a way to wean ourselves off of foreign fuel sources.

Their goal is to improve the efficiency of the CNG combustion process so that it can fit into a new line of engines that can run on gasoline or CNG equally as well, giving consumers the flexibility of choice without any trade-offs. Duoba thinks such a vehicle would have significant consumer appeal, especially in light of sluggish sales of the latest round of electric vehicles from the major automakers.

“At least for some time, compared to plug-in vehicle batteries, CNG storage offers lower weight, higher energy storage and lower costs—as well as faster refueling/recharging.” And while CNG vehicles would generate emissions from their tailpipes, the Argonne team believes that their overall emissions footprint would be smaller than that of an electric vehicle drawing power from the fossil-fuel-based electric grid.

But to Duoba the appeal of CNG is more about reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil sources than on saving the planet. “Various technologies have been successful at reducing the environmental impact (criteria pollution) over the decades,” Duoba wrote. “To the extent that consumption of foreign petroleum has not been reduced to acceptable levels, this could be viewed as the principal motivation.”

But CNG faces the same major hurdle to becoming widely accepted as any other challenger to gasoline as king of the road: a lack of refueling stations. Whatever does finally unseat gasoline will no doubt have to have a system for refueling that rivals the convenience we’ve come to expect from our corner gas stations.

CONTACTS: Argonne Center, www.transportation.anl.gov.

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