According to T. Boone Pickens, there is an alternate fuel right under our noses for automobiles with just as much energy capacity as gasoline, plus it's cleaner. The fuel is called CNG, short for compressed natural gas. We have plenty of it on the planet, and it burns with greater octane than gasoline, a key point with new tech engines. What concerns the public with this fuel? Distribution, handling and safety.
With the introduction of GM’s HCCI and Ecotec technology, plus Ford’s EcoBoost, it appears the ICE (internal combustion engine) is going to be with us a while longer. Pure green heads might ask, "Why?" The latest engine technologies are designed to maximize efficiency by burning more complete, which means it can handle higher compression ratios and higher octane, which ultimately means more power per engine size, and cleaner air than what we have presently on the roads.
So, now the choice is a mixture of pure economics, bang for the buck, return on investment and technological achievement. In other words, all the new engine technology needs is a cleaner fuel source to make its efficiency really shine.
That means the flashpoint isn’t really over the internal combustion engine at all, but the fuels used in the ICE to propel our vehicles. Certainly, we can burn more than gasoline while getting cleaner air in the process. Already we have E85, a mixture of 85% alcohol and 15% gasoline. Unfortunately, America has to use a food source like corn to manufacture it. That's why CNG seems such a natural alternative. (pun intended)
For the record, this blog received a relevant comment from RK (see EcoBoost article) about my mention of CNG in lieu of Ecotec and EcoBoost that bears noting. It reads as follows:
“While the emission benefits of CNG powered vehicles are valid, the lack of market acceptance of CNG as a fuel source is also clear. Using CNG as a vehicle fuel source poses many challenges in distribution, safety and supply economics that have not been adequately answered. For example, no infrastructure exists to supply 4,000+ psi CNG to fueling stations and the safety implications of the public handling a flammable gas at this pressure is undeniable. Do you recall what happened to the price of corn when our Federal and State governments begin regulating its use in gasoline? Converting even a small portion of automobiles to CNG will create significant natural gas demand shifts that will invariably result in higher NG prices for power generation and home heat. While I’m certain some industry groups will applaud your position the fact is they don’t make practical sense from an overall energy policy standpoint.” (emphasis mine)
I fully respect RK’s comment, but still feel we need to view this from the perspective of energy transition. First, batteries are NOT ready for high volume at a cost that the average citizen can barely afford to rent, let alone replace. The cost of the Tesla and the Volt, not to mention the cost of battery replacement in a Prius bear witness. So, despite all the hoopla over full and plug-in electric vehicles, economics are playing a major trump card in our lives.
Natural gas, on the other hand, is plentiful in the earth; and America has a great portion of that supply. We already use it to heat our homes and power the generators that allow us to recharge our plug-ins. Will the price go up when used for automobiles? Sure it will, just like the cost of lithium will rise to meet the demand for use in lithium-ion batteries. But it is doubtful we would have go to war over natural gas.
RK is correct about the safety concerns of the public’s handling of high-pressure gas. Come to think of it, the same concerns were made when gasoline was first introduced. It was highly flammable, and the public was not familiar with handling it. Aside from the engine technology, that’s partly why diesel was preferred; it was less volatile. Then again, hydrogen
is not any safer; and it requires an entire new production and distribution system.
Nonetheless, all natural gas has to be compressed in order to be stored. The question is the degree of that compression. For the record, systems and ships are being built right now to compress natural gas into a liquid for high-volume transport. You will know it as LNG or liquid natural gas. Point: The safety issue is not lost on the industry; and their safety record is one to be praised and trusted, not condemned.
Examiner Final Comments
Natural-gas safety can be handled by the technology of the filling station. It is no less disconcerting than handling a charge plug under a rain-drenched carport. Now, whether we have to use 4,000 psi or 3,000 psi is debatable, because the higher value is merely the equivalent to a tank of gasoline. That, however, could be reduced with the mileage efficiency of the new technologies of the new engines, making it equivalent in range to present-day gasoline cars.
Nonetheless, high-pressure is a reality for on-board storage, even for fuel cells; and Brazil already has CNG fueling stations. So, what's the big deal about infrastructure and safety? If Brazil can do it, so can America. As far as CNG infrastructure is concerned, it’s already more existent than hydrogen. Think about it. We have natural gas and propane filling stations already in operation; albeit they may be lower pressure.
Finally, we seem to dismiss the power of American marketing – namely the likes of Walmart and Meijers, not to mention the interstate stations. Imagine their distribution system as a starting point. Then, as we progress, add hydrogen to the mix. So, until plug-ins and fuel cells become cost effective, imagine a power station that distributes gasoline, E85, CNG, diesel and bio-diesel in one place. For sure, your fill-up time will be much faster and far more convenient than required for that plug-in; and the prices will regulated, not by government, but by pure, capitalistic competition.
CNG Picture Source: Wikipedia