MIT and International Energy Agency Explore The Promise Of Natural Gas-Powered Transportation

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

A pair of studies, by MIT and the International Energy Agency [via GreenCarCongress] take a look at what is rapidly becoming a hot topic in the world of alt-energy transportation policy: the use of natural gas to power cars and trucks. If you’re intrigued by the car industry’s “forgotten” fuel source (and with Honda Civic GX models going on sale in 50 states and a possible $7,500 natural gas car tax credit going before congress this summer, you probably should be), hit the jump for some comprehensive information about the future of natural gas-powered transportation.

MIT’s study [ PDF] is a 170-page monster which “seeks to explain the role of natural gas in a carbon-constrained economy,” and argues that the fuel’s use is likely to expand in almost all scenarios, due to low costs, abundant supplies, carbon advantages. The main shortcoming of natural gas, namely the cost of transportation and lack of fueling infrastructure, will likely be addressed by developments in natural gas liquification and will, in particular, spur increases in natural gas use in transportation applications (only about 3% of current supply goes to transportation right now).

The IEA report [ PDF]is not much shorter, at 131 pages, and it carries the provocative sub-headline “Are We Entering The Golden Age Of Gas?” The IEA document is more globally-focused than the US-centric MIT report, but it comes to many of the same conclusions, namely that the best opportunities for natural gas-powered cars is in commercial fleet vehicles, freight, and public transportation. The study plots out several scenarios and projects trends in natural gas use, concluding that natural gas vehicles (NGV) could capture 10% of the global market by 2035, and that such a development would reduce oil use by 5.7m barrels per day compared to a 1.9% market share, but would offer a less dramatic improvement in carbon emissions.

Compared to the barriers faced by pure electric cars, for example, natural gas seems like a seriously underutilized energy source for cars. If carbon reduction is the top goal, it’s certainly less ideal, but for energy independence, and general reductions in oil consumption, gas has a lot to offer. Possibly most compelling to the auto industry, natural gas does not require brand-new technologies, but can be burnt using existing engines with relatively minor conversion costs. The MIT report encourages the US government to study different natural gas-derived liquid fuels (as each has its own quirks and foibles) as a precursor to any infrastructure investments needed to drive transportation-sector use of natural gas, while the IEA report sees the biggest gains in natural gas transportation in Latin America and Asia. It seems clear from the research that natural gas, along with micro-hybrids, hybrids, EVs, and possibly even fuel-cell vehicles, will be a key element of the “carbon constrained” fleets of the future.

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  • Old Guy Old Guy on Jun 11, 2011

    Sounds really dangerous to have all that gas around! And as soon as I finish heating up a burrito in my gas oven, I'm going to toss my empty propane tank in the trunk of my gasoline-fueled car (and light up a Marlboro with my Bic lighter while I gas it up) and get it refilled so I can barbecue tonight.

  • ConstructionContractor ConstructionContractor on Jun 12, 2011

    My company operates a fleet of propane-powered vehicles. I carefully evaluated CNG before settling on Roush CleanTech propane option. CNG fuel tanks are simply too large to be practical. Also, fueling is difficult with CNG. I think that liquified NG has potential. But propane is right for the moment. My understanding is that it is relatively simple to turn NG into liquid form. My experience is that the EPA is biased against new ICE technology that involves alternate fuels. The True Believers of the EPA are promoting electric vehicles and punishing propane and NG conversions by making the certification process unreasonably expensive. For those interested, Business Fleet magazine published an article this month about our fleet experience. Also, you can learn a bit about it by visiting the Austin Gutter King web site.

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