Is natural gas a viable option to power your car?
Filling Up, Range, Space
But as with any alternative fuel, there is a storage problem — a big one. As a gas, CNG takes up more space and contains far less energy than liquid gasoline, which means automakers must specifically design and fit one or more tanks to achieve a respectable driving range. For a single-tank system like in the Civic Natural Gas, that leaves just a 240-mile range. Worse, these bulky tanks cannot be reshaped like a standard gasoline tank. Under a large van's loading floor or boxed shut on a pickup's bed, they are less obtrusive. In smaller cars such as the Civic, however, the tank eats more than half the trunk. They are extremely strong, though. Even if a tank were to leak, natural-gas vapors disperse quickly and are less flammable than gasoline.
Refueling, if you are lucky enough to find a station, takes only minutes (the U.S has only about 800 public stations, about the same as Germany alone). Because CNG stations cost more to build than a gasoline station, many are privately owned or are scattered in random, hard-to-reach places like airports. Honda, for example, sells the Civic Natural Gas in 36 states, and only to specific dealers within driving range of a station. Chrysler says it will sell its CNG Ram only to fleets.
While CNG pumps look nearly identical to a gasoline pump, it can take a few tries to clamp the heavy hose onto the vehicle's awkward connector. Without help, you may feel like an idiot — even after filling up successfully at one station — because some pumps have valve handles that turn in opposite directions. You'd better get used to it, because when a natural-gas-powered car runs low, no fuel can or free electrical outlet will save you. And while home refueling stations are available, they require eight or more hours to fill, the same time as recharging a typical electric car.
Legislation, New Tech, and the Future
Unlike the billions of dollars granted in federal tax credits and loans to electric-car companies such as Fisker and Tesla, there are few government incentives to produce and buy natural-gas-powered vehicles. Similar credits for fuel-station owners and vehicle buyers expired in 2011, and a more expansive bill was voted down by the U.S. Senate in March. However, a similar bill in the House would offer a $7,500 to $64,000 tax credit for buyers, a $4,000 per-vehicle credit for manufacturers, and up to $100,000 for each new CNG station, all funded by increased CNG pump taxes. While the bill, which would expire in December 2016, has 180 co-sponsors from both parties and enjoys President Barack Obama's support, the fuel's inherent difficulties remain.
"The infrastructure's not going to get built unless we have vehicles. The vehicles aren't going to get manufactured unless there's infrastructure. It's a chicken and the egg deal. I don't care if you're giving the gas away, it's not going to happen," says John Sullivan, R-Okla., one of the bill's sponsors.
Still, many states have their own incentives. Utah offers residents up to $2,500 per CNG vehicle. Oklahomans can apply for a $2,500 credit to install a home refueling system. Californians with certain natural-gas-powered cars can breeze by in the HOV lane.
Better tank technology is needed, too. 3M is developing a lighter, thinner tank that supposedly can return more range and increased durability. But as it stands, the price of CNG tanks remains prohibitive for most automakers.
"If the packaging and cost could come down, boy, that would be tremendous," says Brent Pope, BAF's sales director.
With ethanol dead in the water and hydrogen a pipe dream, the future of alternative fuels may be a steady fight between natural gas and electricity — if advances in gasoline and diesel technology abate in the next 30 years. Whatever happens, the norm of $70 fill-ups could one day be a faint memory.
Clifford Atiyeh is the automotive editor for The Boston Globe and Boston.com. He has contributed to The Times of London, The Wall Street Journal, Popular Mechanics, and spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
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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!