US spends $30M to reinforce natural gas vehicle technology

DOE takes aim at developing less cumbersome on-board storage tanks, home refilling technologies

toyota natural gass hybrid
The US Department of Energy today funded 13 cutting-edge research projects with $31 million it hopes will develop technologies that boost the use of natural gas as a vehicle fuel.

Through its Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E), the DOE funded projects focus on developing light-weight, affordable natural gas tanks for vehicles and natural gas compressors that can efficiently fuel a natural gas vehicle at home.

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Some of the new projects funded include:

  • REL, Inc. in Calumet, Michigan will receive $3 million to develop an internal "foam core" for natural gas tanks that allows tanks to be formed into any shape. This will enable higher storage capacity than current carbon fiber tanks at one third the cost. Today's natural gas vehicle technologies require tanks that can withstand high pressures, are often cumbersome, and are either too large or too expensive to be suitable for smaller passenger vehicles.
  • The Center for Electromechanics at the University of Texas at Austin will get $4.3 million to develop an at-home natural gas re-fueling system that compresses gas with a single piston. Unlike current four piston compressors, the Center for Electromechanics - UT Austin's highly integrated single-piston system will use fewer moving parts, leading to a more reliable, lighter, and cost-effective compressor that could be used in homes.
  • Eaton Corporation will get $3.4 million to develop an at-home natural gas refueling system that will use a liquid, which acts as a piston, to compress natural gas. Eaton will engineer a heat-transfer material that controls the temperature during compression and improves efficiency. This liquid compression system will eliminate the need for costly high-pressure piston seals that are used in conventional gas compression.
  • Ford got $5.5 million to engineer a high-performance natural gas storage tank that utilizes an innovative external framework and internal porous materials. This comprehensive design will lower pressure and cost while increasing the performance of the fuel system.
  • United Technologies Research Center will get $4.4 million to engineer a low-cost natural gas tank for light-duty vehicles using modular designs and low-cost construction materials, allowing tanks to be manufactured into shapes that easily fit into the tight spaces of light duty vehicles. This modular design will replace today's bulky storage tanks in light duty vehicles at a lower cost and without sacrificing driving range.

This latest round of investments are part of ARPA-E's Methane Opportunities for Vehicular Energy (MOVE) program, announced in February, designed to increase the use of methane as fuel for cars.  MOVE 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."

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 home storage system that would also be developed as part of the MOVE plan.

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