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A Solid Look at Compressed Natural Gas

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

The need for an alternative to gasoline and diesel has certainly been made clear over the past couple of decades.  Presidents and legislators alike have promised to funnel money into funds to help find alternative fuels, and car manufacturers are working tirelessly to create vehicle that do not require these fuels.  One proposed solution that is gaining a fair amount of popularity in the automotive world is compressed natural gas.  While this is still a fossil fuel that can emit greenhouse gases, it is considerably greener than its predecessors, does not increase carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, and can even be produced from landfills and wastewater.

It is already possible to convert vehicles to compressed natural gas, and surprisingly, many transit companies have already done so.  Many states even offer rebates and tax incentives to companies operating large fleets of vehicles who are willing to convert the fleets to use this newer, cleaner source of energy.  Arkansas, for example, just put $2.2 million into a fund that is available until December 2011 for companies looking to convert their fleets. The money is available to fleets belonging to public entities as well as any private fleet that operates ten or more vehicles, as long as at least four of them are converted.

Within the week since Arkansas made the announcement that they would be providing these monies, they have received numerous calls expressing interest.  Because the money is first come, first served, the state is hoping that many will take advantage of the program quickly.  Rebates will cover half of the cost of purchase, up to $25,000, provided the equipment installed is certified by the EPA and meets all of their requirements.

So, what is stopping companies throughout Arkansas from taking advantage of the money immediately?  The best guess is that it is likely logistics.  Finding the right place to have a conversion installed and finding a ready source of compressed natural gas that can be used as needed is not yet as easy as many public vehicles need it to be.  The move towards more eco-friendly vehicles is certainly picking up steam, but until there are reliable sources of alternative fuels or charging stations for electric cars, many motorists are still going to have to wonder how they will venture far from home without the need to drive significantly out of their way to refuel.  The good news, however, is that governments and alternative energy companies everywhere are working to address that even as we speak.

A Little Known Worldwide Phenomenon: Natural Gas Powers Cars

Unlike using solar energy to power cars, this is still very underground as far as green movements go. Yet, nonetheless, it’s making an impact worldwide; using compressed natural gas (CNG) to power cars is a green phenomenon. But how does it work? Can a fossil fuel really be green? These and other questions permeate the mystery behind natural gas as a fuel for cars.

What is natural gas?

Natural gas is a byproduct of oil drilling. It can be obtained from petroleum reservoirs as a multi-component gas. It consists of about 90% methane and 10% other gaseous hydrocarbons. It is refined and compressed into tanks or cylinders to be used in cars and other market uses. CNG is nothing new to commercial fleet operators. Honda has been selling the gas for over eighty years. UPS is a notable buyer.

How does it work?

Engines in natural gas cars are similar to conventional gasoline engines. They are, however, fitted with custom engine modifications or add-ons that allow it to run on natural gas. Engines can be built to run on natural gas or, in some cases, gasoline engines can be converted to utilize the gas. The engine works similarly to a gasoline engine. It uses pistons (spark plugs) to generate motion using fuel combustion. However, natural gas varies in its flammability, volume, and ignitability.

Natural gas is also stored in the car in a similar manner to conventional gas, usually in the rear of the car. The natural gas fuel tank contains cylinders which hold the gas under around 3,000 pounds of pressure to conserve space. The cylinders are protected from impact with metal buffers.

Advantages

  • Natural gas cars are considerably less expensive to run than gasoline-powered cars. On average, natural gas costs 30% less than gasoline. Furthermore, it is possible to refuel your car at home using your household natural gas line.
  • Natural gas, although it is a hydrocarbon, burns much cleaner than conventional gasoline. In fact, natural gas vehicles can reduce carbon monoxide emissions by 90%.
  • Safety is also a notable advantage for natural gas vehicles. They are considered safer because of the reinforced fuel tanks which makes them more resistant to leaks and punctures.

Disadvantages

  • One disadvantage for natural gas cars is smaller passenger space due to that large, reinforced fuel tank. And while they burn cleaner, natural gas cars have less fuel efficiency than gasoline cars.
  • Secondly, while it burns much cleaner, natural gas is a fossil fuel and a non-renewable resource.
  • Another issue, for now, with natural gas is the lack of fueling stations for fill-up. If you do not have natural gas running to your home, it is often not feasible to own a natural gas vehicle.

Nonetheless, natural gas is a readily available, domestic resource that could easily make a huge difference in greenhouse gas emissions. There are over 8 million natural gas cars in use worldwide. In 2006, Honda introduced the Civic GX, its first natural gas vehicle. Popular Science did a year-long study of the car, creating an excellent resource for information on natural gas cars and their day-to-day function.

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