By on June 10, 2011

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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31 Comments on “MIT and International Energy Agency Explore The Promise Of Natural Gas-Powered Transportation...”

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    FINALMENTE. This technology is a logical step and the technology is already there, no need to invent warm water again.

    • 0 avatar

      As the discussion develops we see a lot of people confusing natural gas (NG) with petroleum gas (PG). The differences are more than just that PG is a derivative of the distillation process while NG is not. The topic of this thread is “Natural Gas”, not “Liquified Petroleum Gas”.

  • avatar

    In Milan in 1995, my friend had a 325i that was propane/fueled. We filled up all the way to the Swiss border, and found gas (literally “gas”) stations even in the Czech Republic, around Prague. The Bimmer could also use gasoline at the flip of a switch.

    I’ve been wondering what the difference is with this newfangled NG.

    • 0 avatar

      Probably you are talking about the so called ‘LPG’, Liquid Petroleum Gas. Actually, it’s still coming from oil (it’s a refinery product, low quality, which in the past was just burnt and now starts to be used). It has worst properties than the normal gasoline, so the fuel consumption with LPG is higher on the same engine than when it runs on gasoline (round 6-8%); performance are also decreasing.
      People in Europe use it because it’s still much cheaper than gasoline (almost half price) and require a modification to the car which cost round 1500-2000 dollars roughly, depending on the engine displacement and other characteristics.
      The CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) is NOT a product of the oil refineries, and has different properties than both Gasoline and LPG. Fuel consumption is lower on the same gas-engine, but the engine should better be designed for running with CNG. In fact, due to the lower lubrication properties of the CNG when compared with the gasoline.
      Lower CO2 and HCs, but higher NOxs are in the emissions to be mentioned.
      Sorry for the rough explanation….

      • 0 avatar
        Athos Nobile

        What are you talking about?

        There are still very few CNG dedicated engines. So a conversion kit on the normal petrol engine is required and it goes for around the same amount of money you mentioned. The end result is a bi-fuel car.

        The end result has a power loss when working on CNG that varies from 5% to 15%, which depends of engine calibration, design, CNG composition (it’s not standard) and other variables. That said it’s impossible its consumption is less than when running petrol.

      • 0 avatar
        M 1

        You’re both at least partially wrong. :)

        LPG conversions are most similar to (and based upon) gasoline engines, and CNG conversions are similar to and based upon diesel conversions. Saying there are “few dedicated CNG engines” is meaningless, as the conversion process is straightforward and well-understood, if expensive. Bottom line: you don’t need to design a whole new engine.

        It basically comes down to a lower compression ratio, a modified head, timing changes (sometimes with a new cam), and different injectors. Maybe $15K, which is nothing when you’re talking commercial vehicles, which is why it’s so popular with municipal fleets.

        The LPG conversion for gasoline engines is virtually the same, although quite a bit cheaper.

        Gasoline/diesel fuel consumption and power is dramatically better than either LPG or CNG, and LPG is marginally better than CNG.

        My company sells hundreds of CNG vehicles (usually buses, but sometimes garbage trucks and the like) worldwide each year.

      • 0 avatar

        @Athos, M1
        as you said, CNG can be used both on a diesel and on a gasoline cycle.
        For ‘heavy duty’ applications (e.g. buses, trucks) it’ used the diesel application to be converted. The diesel architecture has a ‘stronger’ design, and these mechanicals are also created for long-life (so low power, big displacements).
        When we talk about passenger vehicles, the story is a bit different.
        All CNGs in Europe are based on gasoline engines (mainly because converting a diesel would be too expensive, as the diesl is already more expensive by itself), but the gas engine cannot just be ‘converted’. The metal materials of the head and valves expecially are highly suffering the CNG, and a ‘simple’ conversion gives an higher fuel consumption than running in gasoline. While when you design the engine to run on CNG, and then on gasoline when needed (the opposite way as a ‘normal conversion’) the consumption is lower on CNG and the engine can run its intere life on CNG.
        This was experienced by Fiat with their first CNG application, which was the Multipla many years ago.
        They sold a 1.6 L which was just ‘converted’ with the injection and tanks and few other things needed.
        The gasoline output was 103hp, while CNG was 94 (if my memory is good). But the long-runner people had all the head cracking.
        Few years later, Fiat redesigned the head and granted full durability of the engine running with CNG, and 99hp (still, if my memory is good). People who owns that car actually love it….. I still prefer the diesel, at the moment.

  • avatar

    YES!!! I was considering a natural gas civic…but really so I could ride in the carpool lane solo here in Los Angeles…I’ll wait to see if the tax subsidy passes…COME ON OBAMA…RALLY THE TROOPS!!

  • avatar

    The only drawback to natural gas cars is: how do we subsidize ethanol with it?

  • avatar

    Natural gas power plants can replace dirty coal fired plants reducing carbon emissions and help carry the load of charging electic cars but there is no reason CNG and electric cars can’t both be the solution to our foriegn oil dependency. Plus a side order of hydrogen and hydraulic.

  • avatar

    When I was stationed in Europe with the US military during the seventies I briefly owned a used Opel that could run on both gasoline and CNG (compressed natural gas). Unlike refilling with gasoline, you had to take all sorts of precautions when refilling the CNG tank and the mileage difference was not worth mentioning. Cold weather plays hell with CNG, unlike gasoline (hard starting, frozen fuel lines, frozen CNG nozzle, etc)) The CNG was quite a bit cheaper but was not subsidized with Esso coupons for the US military. Still, in a pinch, laying down 100 Deutsche Mark to keep going when there were no Esso stations around was a benefit. I hope that if the US adopts the use of CNG for use in US cars, that new technology will provide the safe fueling of CNG cars. My memories of refueling a car’s CNG tank were pretty scary and not for the faint of heart.

    • 0 avatar

      I know what you mean, being I live in Europe actually.
      I can tell you that now some countries ‘pushed’ a lot the usage of CNG and LPG, and the technologies have been doing some important steps forward, too.
      Fiat has in its line-up 5 vehicles designed to run with CNG & gasoline, including 1 MPV and 1 mid-sidez van.
      Engine range goes from 1.2 liters to 3.0 liters.
      Then the commercial vehicle company of Fiat (Iveco) has a full bus-lineup with CNG.

      About the passenger’s cars, the 1.2 ltr are really for people who just drive in the city, and don’t care about performances at all. They are really slow, and torque-lacking. Thus, the fuel economy is just – impressive.

      There are not many particulare cares at all for fuelling etc – but there are some important manteinance requirements. E.g. in Italy, I think there is a mandatory full check of the CNG tanks each 6 years. It is quite expensive, as the tanks gets disassembled from the car and they get fully-tested and renewed.

      Also Opel (GM) has some 1.6 Ltr engines running with CNG. There is one very impressive in particular, as it’s a turbocharged one, pulling out 150Hp and therefore quite torquey, too. Good challenge for the equivalent diesels, which are anyway still more torquey and less expensive in manteinance.

      • 0 avatar

        Patz, it is good to read a post from someone who knows what he is talking about. Too many guys here confuse LPG with CNG and if they did that in real life they wouldn’t be posting here any longer. I am actually a big fan of CNG (not LPG, except for my barbeque) because it is plentiful and cheap, and it can be used in so many different applications, to include power generation with far fewer harmful emissions. However, knowing this and also knowing how the US government likes to tax all sources of energy to the extreme because it refuses to further develop its own natural resources in preference to importing them, to please the Green Weenies, I know that it will be a long time before we see any widespread movement on this source of energy. Talk is about all we’re going to get.

  • avatar

    I’d expect the technology has advanced a bit since the 70s. I guess since it’s compressed it won’t be ever be as easy a gas tank, but I don’t see why the other problems couldn’t be overcome.

    • 0 avatar

      There’s only one way to refuel a CNG tank but doing it safely with mechanical interlocks and electronic pressure sensing and negative pressure to vacuum up leaked CNG would be at the top of my list. The odor added to the CNG to detect leaks was nauseating and if the CNG tank was mounted in the trunk like most of them were, unless they were commercial vehicles, the smell would permeate through the whole car resulting in a quick egress of all occupants and the opening of the trunk lid. There were also instances where static sparks or other igniters would result in fires anywhere along the CNG fuel supply, even under hood. Great way to detect a leak! CNG disperses and mixes with the surrounding air quite rapidly, unlike gasoline, and burns more rapidly than evaporated gasoline. If adopted for use in the US there’s no doubt that the politicians and the government will tax CNG as profusely as they do gasoline. That’s where the Euros had it right. CNG was much cheaper than gasoline in Europe when I was there.

  • avatar

    Every time I read about the use of alternative fuels I always wonder “What about people who either can’t afford or don’t want to buy new cars with the new powerplant?” No matter what new fuel you chose, you’re still going to be stuck with huge numbers of vehicles powered by good old fashioned gasoline or diesel for decades to come unless there is a very cheap and completely reliable way to convert the old cars over. I’d like to know more about how the conversions from regular unleaded petroleum to CNG work.

    • 0 avatar

      In New Mexico they started mandating the use of E10 at the beginning of this year and already we’re seeing people with older cars suffering from fuel line leaks and fuel gasket deterioration. You can smell the fuel seeping from fuel lines not designed for ethanol as you walk by them in parking lots. In most cars, including my newer ones, it takes more gas pedal to make the car move as quick as it did before, unless you step up to 92-octane Premium which prevents knocking and pinging.

    • 0 avatar

      Basically the changes are (1) a new LPG tank, (2) a convertor (3) a delivery system. For newer vehicles you can add (4) fuel computer & (5) injectors. The tanks come in various be inside the boot (trunk) or under the floor.
      The convertor uses heat from the cooling system to change the liquid gas to a vapour which is then delivered via a simple gas inlet to the carburetter, or, in the case of a fuel injected system via an additional set of injectors which are computer controlle, and are integrated into the original cars system. If you go one step further you can dispense with the convertor and go straight to liquid injection, but that is a more expensive system all together.

      The cons? you use 30% more lpg than petrol (gasoline) but as long as the gas price is around half or less than gasoline is works out more economical. If you are running a vehicle that was NOT made for unleaded fuel you may require an upper cylinder lubrication sytem installed as lpg is a “dry” fuel and it wrecks soft valve seats.

      The pro’s. cheaper to run, longevity. we have taxi’s that run 300,000-400,000km on one engine on lpg. less pollutants, produce water as a by product!

      Availabilty of fuel, like Henry Ford said, I build the cars somebody will supply the fuel. Over hear it’s an above ground tank with a separate supply pump for the car. A screw on adapter to the filling point on the car. It’s limited to 80% capacity of the tank to take care of expansion.

      Safety. Tests have shown and the state & national regs demand that the fule supply is cut off at the tank and convertor when power is interupted and in case of fire, a safety valve will release gas in a controlled manner.

      The only lpg explosions are/have been caused by morons leaving a bbq bottle leaking in the boot, or, working on the lpg tank itself. Real candidates for the Darwin awards!

      All in all a pretty safe, economical fuel system.

      Cost: at present the average price of a sequential injection vapour system, fitted is around $3000.00 Australian. real cost is $4480 for my ML320 but the goverment throws in $1500 to encourage the switch over.

      As to working, just replaces gasoline with gas (propane & butane) and a little less power if you don’t use the sequential computer systems. The change over from gasoline to gas is also automatic so you wont notice the switch over, and if you run out of LPG the system switches back to gasoline.

      • 0 avatar

        I’d be very surprised if they are compressing natural gas to its liquid state. Propane compresses to a liquid rather easily, natural gas takes much more pressure.

      • 0 avatar

        What you say is valid for LPG, but not for CNG. CNG needs mostly some more important hardware modifications in the engine compartment, too. Including stronger cylinder head material, valvetrain, and different timing adjust.

      • 0 avatar
        M 1

        Patz is on the right track here.

        You generally only want to do a CNG conversion on a diesel engine, so that will be the first big issue state-side. You can do an LPG conversion on a gasoline engine.

        They both require a lower compression ratio, which will also screw up your gas/diesel performance. Cam, heads, injectors and timing changes will do the trick. Oh, and a new fuel tank of course. You don’t need a new computer, any modern ECU can easily take a new map.

        You wouldn’t need a new car, technically, but the changes will cost as much as a lower-end new car…

        Oh yeah, and typically CNG vehicles (like buses) store the fuel at about 500 PSI, which is actually quite low and doesn’t require a particularly expensive tank design. However, when you look at dedicated CNG vehicles you’ll notice the tanks are typically mounted externally and high (usually above and at the rear of a bus) which probably isn’t a valid design option for the private consumer market.

    • 0 avatar

      People who can’t afford to buy new cars, can’t afford to contribute to politicians’ campaigns, either; so exactly why would any politician care about them?

    • 0 avatar
      Tree Trunk

      That´s a nice but fundamentally flawed thinking that could be used to argue against any new technology.

      Just think of the stressed out mom driving her 15 old beater between her waitress and WalMart job.

      Her car in all likelihood has a CD player, ABS, EFI, air bags etc. all of which started out on new expensive cars but gradually become industry standards and eventually are found even in the 3K beater.

      So if there is a large push towards natural gas, it will in good time find it´s way all the way to the bottom of the market.

  • avatar

    The better news is, we are close to renewable natural gas. Oil isn’t such a bad stop-gap resource if everyone wouldn’t hype peak oil especially traders and oil companies.

  • avatar
    Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

    vehicle-sized SOFC/Bloom Box + LPG = victory?

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I wouldn’t worry about it. NG can readily be synthesized into liquid fuels (gas & diesel). The real issue is how can our politicians mess things up.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    This is basically one half of the “Pickens Plan” that T. Boone Pickens has been pushing hard for a few years. His initial idea was two fold. First put up a bunch of windmills to generate electricity and reduce the use of natural gas to generate electricity. Secondly, aggressively switch over the mobile transportation fuel source to natural gas. Lately I see that he is pushing conversion of the commercial fleet to natural gas as the obvious first step.

    The US really needs a comprehensive, fact based plan and policy for where our energy is going to come from. Every other developed country has a comprehensive plan for this and they update them periodically. Only in the US do we just stumble and bumble along without a real plan.

  • avatar

    by which time we will already be gone (natural gas acronym ‘ng’….gone….) migration to alternative energy sources will be too slow for market conditions. My estimation is that this slow transition to alternative fuels will force other variables into matters that will prevent a smooth and orderly transition away from the current market structure.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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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