Is natural gas a viable option to power your car?
While many alternative fuels have failed, compressed natural gas seems to thrive. Here's why.
The battle for the best alternative fuel to petroleum has been waged, unsuccessfully, since the automobile was invented. A century and a quarter later, we still have not found a fuel as abundant, energy-rich and cost-effective as gasoline and diesel. Ethanol, hydrogen, solar, electricity, a DeLorean running on trash — none has yet proved useful for the masses. But one fuel is even more abundant than oil, burns cleaner and is incredibly cheap and relatively easy to use: natural gas.
Compressed natural gas, or CNG, is the same gas that lights up stoves and heats homes, only instead of running through pipelines, it is stored in vehicle tanks at high pressure. (Liquefied natural gas, or LNG, is used by utility companies and tractor-trailers and for overseas shipments, so we won't cover it here.) CNG is at least 90 percent methane, a greenhouse gas found in mineral deposits, shale rock and, as you may have heard, belches from cows. But despite its heat-trapping effects — methane alone is 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide — compressed natural gas reduces overall vehicle greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 21 percent when compared with gasoline, according to the Energy Department. Particulates and carbon monoxide are also significantly cut back.
In plain dollars and political sense, natural gas wins. The United States has enough of it to last 92 years with current reserves, and at 24 trillion cubic feet of gas used per year, we are not exactly scrimping. It is also nearly free from OPEC control and the turmoil that comes from accepting foreign oil. Despite a few LNG imports from Qatar and Yemen, nearly all of the CNG the U.S. imports comes from Canada.
Natural-gas prices hit a 10-year low this spring, thanks to an unusually warm winter and increased production efficiency. At the pump, CNG prices stay constant for months at time, unlike the roller-coaster fluctuations at your local gas station. In Massachusetts, CNG costs $2.38 for the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline. In the petroleum-rich states of the Southwest and the Gulf Coast, CNG stations display 1990s prices: $1.50 or less per gallon equivalent.
"Right now, with the prices of gasoline as it compares to natural gas, we've got a situation where the economics are there," says Paul Shaffer, vice president of BAF, an aftermarket company that converts Ford vehicles to CNG. "It's technology that's available now. It's not technology of the future."
Models, Prices, Conversions, Driving
Spurred by low fuel prices and a car industry willing to experiment — no doubt inspired by the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt — more automakers are now selling natural-gas-powered vehicles in the U.S. Roughly 130,000 such vehicles are operating here, mostly in government or private fleets such as city buses, sanitation trucks and vans. The European Union has nearly nine times that amount. The relatively low American numbers have not stopped Honda from selling the Civic Natural Gas in the U.S. since 1998, and it remains the only passenger car of its kind in America. Last year, during the Civic's ninth redesign, Honda sold just 990 CNG models.
This spring, General Motors will sell natural-gas-powered versions of the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, in addition to the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana cargo vans. By July, Chrysler will have introduced a CNG Ram. BAF, which is a subsidiary of the natural-gas utility Clean Energy, sells natural-gas-powered versions of the Ford Econoline, F-Series and Transit Connect through regular dealers. And VPG, an upstart automaker that builds the handicapped-accessible MV-1 van, offers a natural-gas option. Aside from the Civic, these large vans and trucks are America's only natural-gas-powered vehicles.
They are also pricey. The Civic Natural Gas is $5,650 more than a regular Civic EX and $2,105 more than the Civic Hybrid. The CNG Ram will cost $11,000 more than its gasoline counterpart, and Ford natural-gas conversions can cost as little as $10,000 or run more than $20,000 per vehicle. If you think it might be easier to convert your own car, think again. Conversion kits and companies that are not EPA-certified — a tedious, expensive process — can invite federal fines, not to mention the safety hazards of mishandling compressed gas.
Now, to the boring part. Anyone expecting a revolutionary driving experience will be disappointed by the simplicity of a natural-gas-powered vehicle. It drives and sounds exactly like any gasoline engine, but without the noxious smell during a cold start. With hardened valve seats, modified injectors and a new pressure regulator, combustion engines can burn natural gas just fine. That makes it easy to build "bi-fuel" vehicles that can run on either natural gas or gasoline, much as the Chevrolet Volt can switch between gasoline and electricity. No fancy transmissions, heavy batteries or complicated hybrid systems are needed. As such, fuel economy is not significantly affected.
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Here is an idea, how about building a car that runs on natural gas, or 100% alcohol, or 100% gasoline, or any combination of alcohol and gasoline. Well, its not a concept car but a reality in Brazil where you can buy such a car right off the showroom floor that runs on three different types of fuel. Fiat Motors in Brazil makes such a car and they call it a tri-flex.
The car has two cylinders for natural gas storage in the trunk that holds 11 cubic meters of natural gas. It has a regular gas tank as well that can hold alcohol, gasoline, or any combination of the two fuels. The on-board computer knows which fuel is available and it chooses natural gas as its first choice if it is available. If the natural gas runs out, it switches automatically to alcohol or gasoline depending which one is in the tank. The switch is made seamlessly and the only indication that the fuel source has been switched is a red light on the dashboard that indicates that alcohol is now being used instead of natural gas. When the natural gas cylinders are refilled, the motor starts burning natural gas once again.
Refilling the car with natural gas is very quick and convenient. The filling apparatus looks very similar to an air hose used to put air in the tires. There is a valve under the hood, which you open up to attach the hose and within a few minutes the tanks are recharged to a set pressure. The tanks must be refilled to a prescribed pressure and you can't partially fill the tanks, they must be completely refilled. The filling station where we went was running low on natural gas so they did not have enough pressure in their tanks to completely refill our tanks, so the cylinders in the car were only filled to 80% capacity. There is a separate fuel gage on the dashboard indicating how full the cylinders are in the car. The car's computer can tell you the mileage being achieved by the car and how many more kilometers worth of gas remain in the cylinders.
Great article, but you left out a major factor. Natural gas is also the most economical source for refining methanol. At today's current pricing, methanol could be delivered for $1.70 / equivalent gasoline gallon. (Methanol requires roughly 2 times the number of gallons for the same range, therefore it nets out to about 85 cents per methanol gallon.)
The obvious advantage of this liquid fuel is the transition cost to make a car or pickup dual fuel capable is nearly zero. Many onboard electronics simply require only a flip of a switch to make them alcohol compatible. Other cars would require roughly $70 in parts to make the transition to be able to run on any blend of gasoline and methanol, making the fueling equation much simpler and therefore the fueling station infrastructure buildup would be much smoother as well.
There's no rocket science here. The technology exists in a reliable fashion. One only has to look at the energy independence Brazil has achieved in the last ten years to see the huge advantage this would present to the U.S. economy. No more OPEC price fixing cartel. No more $500 billion annual trade deficit. The addition of U.S. jobs would be staggering.
It all happens with a simple bill before Congress at this time -- the Open Fuel Standard Act. Call your Member of Congress today and ask that they sponsor this common sense legislation.
You can put a compressor in your garage and fill up at home by tieing into your home gas line. Don't need gas stations for local commuting.
BUT -- the gov loses controll and can't figure how to tax it! That is why they won't approve it! DUH
They say it's dangerous -- NOT.
Back in the 70s, Southern Union Gas Co. in Albuquerque New Mexico, had a
fleet of their service trucks running on natural gas...
They installed a carburetor conversion unit, and added a storage tank for natural gas...
The trucks would run on either form of fuel...
I have been running a NON EPA approved CNG conversion kit on my F-150 for several years now. No problems whatsoever. I am soon going to install a home filling station as soon as it arrives. For me, this is the most viable fuel solution on the market today.
Chromed engine parts? One poster said something about water and rust? That is the first I have heard of that and I could not find any reference to it anywhere on the web.
This is not a new story. CNG could have been saving us money, and creating jobs and keeping our money here in the usa for the last ten years! Let's do this!