US wants natural gas as major auto fuel option

Rising gasoline prices combined with increased natural gas resources may force market for new fuel options

toyota natural gas hybrid
Natural gas has never been much of an option for US car drivers and its going to take a lot of effort by the government and auto manufactures to make it a viable alternative to gas. 

But that's just what a $10 million program from the Department of Energy's advanced project development group The Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E)  aims to start anyway. ARPA-E's Methane Opportunities for Vehicular Energy (MOVE) program wants to develop system "that could enable natural gas vehicles with on-board storage and at-home refueling with a five-year payback or upfront cost differential of $2,000, which excludes the balance of system and installation costs."

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From ARPA-E: "Specific aims include technological advancements in the area of (1) new sorbent materials for low-pressure storage of natural gas and (2) new high-strength, low-cost materials and manufacturing processes for conformable tanks capable of high-pressure (250 bar) natural gas storage. Low-pressure approaches inherently reduce the cost on home refueling; however for high-pressure approaches this program also seeks (3) innovative low-cost, high-performance compressor technology."

According to the agency, there are over 13 million natural gas vehicles on the road worldwide but only 120,000 in the United States.  But with what the agency termed as massive increases in the US natural gas reserves over the past decade, there is now an "unprecedented opportunity for advancing the economic, national, and environmental security of the nation. Spurred by technological advances in shale gas production, increased natural gas reserves have led to a decoupling of domestic natural gas with global petroleum prices, and historically low natural gas prices relative to petroleum."

"Natural gas vehicles have the highest deployment in regions of the world where governments have artificially altered market conditions to favor natural gas. For example, in most of Europe, compressed natural gas is about $4.00/GGE (gasoline gallon equivalent) less expensive than gasoline due to high gasoline taxes.  By contrast, natural gas vehicles in the U.S. must compete with gasoline and diesel vehicles based on commodity market prices. As a consequence, the US currently has limited deployment of natural gas vehicles and in only small, specific market sectors. These include buses and fleet vehicles, in addition to some heavy-duty trucking applications, such as refuse trucks that benefit from both high fuel use and predictable daily routes," ARPA-E says.

In terms of refueling infrastructure, the US has five times fewer natural gas refueling stations per natural gas vehicle than nations with wide-spread adoption of natural gas vehicles. However, a change appears to be on the horizon for heavy-duty, long-haul natural gas trucks as the private sector is beginning to finance CNG (compressed natural gas)and LNG (liquefied natural gas) refueling stations along major highways without the use of public funds, ARPA-E says. By contrast, light-duty natural gas vehicles will still have to compete with a well-established gasoline refueling infrastructure that includes over 118,000 stations nationwide.  Furthermore, the current cost of a natural gas refueling station is about $1.6M, compared to about $100k for gasoline.  At these costs, a natural gas infrastructure that is equivalent to gasoline could cost over $100 billion and take decades to complete, according to the agency.

With 65 million US homes using natural gas service, the natural gas light-duty vehicle infrastructure problem could be overcome with at-home natural gas refueling.  That requires a new home storage system that would also be developed as part of the MOVE plan.

So, would you be willing to jump through the hoops required to employ natural gas as your auto fuel?

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8 and on Facebook

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