By Mark Halper
Posting in Energy
Argonne Lab helped advance the lithium ion battery for Chevy Volt, other EVs. Now it's developing natural gas cars, citing US energy independence over environment. Repeat: 'Drill, Frack, Compress.'
Argonne National Laboratory, a leading developer of lithium ion batteries used in EVs, has featured a Platt's Inside Energy story on its website saying that it "now hopes to be on the vanguard of another automotive power source that many say is poised to grab a big share of the transportation-fuel market: natural gas."
Not that the Chicago area lab is walking away from batteries. But the U.S. Department of Energy unit simply cannot help notice that the country has an abundant supply of natural gas, especially now with fracking well under way.
As Argonne engineer Mike Duoba sees it, the availability of natural gas could make CNG a more compelling fuel replacement than any other alternative to conventional petroleum. Although natural gas-powered vehicles emit more CO2 than EVs do, they would help the U.S. cut reliance on imported oil and still reduce greenhouse gas emissions when compared to gasoline engines, he says.
"In terms of consumer ownership and use costs, the case to make a switch from current fuels to CNG is more compelling than for other alternative fuels like ethanol and electricity," Duoba says in an article on the Talking Points Memo website, which printed written comments from him. "Various technologies have been successful at reducing the environmental impact (criteria pollution) over the decades. To the extent that consumption of foreign petroleum has not been reduced to acceptable levels, this could be viewed as the principal motivation." (I've added the boldface).
He puts EVs like the Volt and Nissan's Leaf in their place:
“Only about 17,000 out of 12.8 million [vehicles] sold in 2011 were Leafs and Volts,” Duoba told TPM, also noting that: “At least for some time, compared to plug-in vehicle batteries, CNG storage offers lower weight, higher energy storage and lower costs - as well as faster refueling/recharging.”
In other words, a new mantra could emerge for the automotive industry: "Drill, frack, compress. Drill, frack, compress."
Only one CNG car is currently available on the U.S. consumer market - the Honda Civic GX, according to TPM. That could begin to change now that Shell Oil and T. Boone Pickens have announced plans for CNG refueling stations.
CNG powers a number of trucks and buses on the road today. Argonne, west of Chicago, recently tested CNG for a fleet of AT&T vans. Argonne's automotive research facilities are outfitted with state of the art equipment for testing electrical energy and fuel consumption.
One thing that slightly puzzles me: Natural gas is largely methane, and methane is highly explosive, n'est-ce pas? They're certainly worried about it escaping over at Lake Kivu in Africa. If it could become a fireball in Rwanda, it seems it could also be an incendiary hazard in an expressway collision. I think the answer has to do with how concentrated it is. Please explain.
Note: This version corrects earlier misspelling of French phrase n'est-ce pas, thanks to bilingual reader per comments below.
Photos from Daimler AG.
Driving CNG on SmartPlanet:
Methane and Africa's Great Lakes:
Jun 11, 2012
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If the natural gas industry would return to traditional methods of extracting natural gas, CNG might be a viable alternative to gasoline. That ain't gonna happen, apparently. Given the environmental degradation imposed by fracking, CNG is a terrible alternative and I'm appalled that the Argonne National Laboratory and the author of this article would put their respective fingers on the scale in weighing the desirability of CNG as an alternative to other fossil fuels. Mike4891 has it exactly right.
In 1990 when I was in NZ, CNG was readily available at most service stations, in fact I had no idea what CNG was until I asked!
Just to add another country where CNG or LNG has been used in Australia for decades, especially on city buses because they run a lot cleaner than diesel. Almost the entire fleet in my city (pop. several million) has been converted. Safety isn't an issue possibly because the tanks are on the roof and so are quite unlikely to be damaged in an accident, not in any initial collision anyway. There are probably tax advantages, for two reasons I can think of. One is that it is cleaner. Second, Australia has huge reserves of fossil fuels such as coal and NG but not much light oil (the type used to make petrol) which is therefore mostly imported. Also, many taxis run on gas. The problem here is that the tanks are quite big and are put in the front part of the trunk and so reduce the available storage space quite a bit. Finally any existing diesel or petrol motor/vehicle can be converted to run on gas. It is probably an economic thing as to whether one would convert older vehicles. Certainly the reason that it has taken more than a decade to convert the entire bus fleet to gas is that they do not do it on the old ones, and buses can easily survive 30 years (they shouldn't really still be used but cities are always hard up financially).
I know that in some parts of the country, people do not typically have natural gas utilities, but for those of use who do, a small compressor would allow us to refuel at home. Of course, without refueling stations we still same problem as with current electric vehicles, which could be stated as "can I take a vacation in it?" AltFuelPrices.com lists 21 CNG refueling locations in Texas, one of which I pass every day in Houston. There are stations in Beaumont and Austin, as well, which are the only places I typically travel to, so if I had the CNG powered Civic I'd be fine. (And the trip to Beaumont and back would typically not require a fuel stop, anyway.) The Civic GX seems to have about a 180 to 200 mile range based on independent tests, so more planning would be required than with a typical gasoline powered car, but it's about motorcycle range and definitely do-able. I'm actually quite surprised that CNG for automobiles hasn't caught on. Oh, well, maybe I do understand... the Civic GX costs $10,000 more than the base Civic sedan. It's $2000 more than the hybrid.
To answer the question about the safety of CNG, methane combusts at a narrower concentration range (5% to 15%) than gasoline. With an added oderant, you can smell it long before it reaches a combustible concentration. And CNG tanks are very strong and have withstood federal crash tests (standards for CNG tanks already exist). See http://www.cleanvehicle.org/committee/technical/PDFs/Web-TC-TechBul2-Safety.pdf .
My area (Atlanta) has had NG powered vehicles for years/decades. Some trucks have operated on NG and the NG distribution company converted their pick-up trucks years ago. Some transit buses operate on NG around the city. Many industrial vehicles operate on NG such as lift trucks in industrial facilities with NG being the first or second most used. Inside buildings, I've never seen a lift truck (fork lift) that operated on gasoline or diesel. The conversion to NG or propane is not difficult or expensive. Install a different "gas tank," different gas lines to handle the pressure and a carburetion system to control gas instead of liquid and it's a done deal. Few if any changes to the engine are necessary. The local NG distributor has converted all their vehicles to operate on NG. Peachtree Center in downtown Atlanta generates all of it's electricity with natural gas. Back in the 1950's or early 1960's, they installed natural gas turbines (engines) to run generators and cut the line to the electric company. These gas turbines work similarly to jet engines and are located in the basement of the buildings powering the generators. It's not exactly rocket science anymore.
"Although natural gas-powered vehicles emit more CO2 than EVs do..." This statement is only true in the case of EVs charging off of solar or nuclear only powered grids. Which is not ever the likely case in the US's interconnect electrical grid. In general the US grid system is powered by 85% fossil fuels. Do the math. Between line resistance, transformer and generating losses (more than 30%) EVs use substantially more amounts of fossil fuel generated electricity from power plants (even if the generators are powered by NG) emitting more CO2 than a ICE powered engine running on NG. I should also point out that NG is not an alternative energy solution, but just one more form of petroleum/fossil fuel - rather a bridge that gives us a little longer to develop cost effective alternative energy sources and storage systems for them - and get human population growth under control. Human nature and our past history demonstrates that we will not remember this again until the NG too - runs out.
Levels emitted by vehicles is a deceptive figure where the fuel source may vary: that is to say, electric charge initially produced with coal still has a big carbon footprint. With CNG, by the same token, you'd need to factor in the contribution of the actual drill practice, the contribution of the frack practice, the contribution of the compress practice, the practice by which the product actually gets transported to market, and so forth in order to arrive at genuinely applicable comparative data.
On Okinawa all of the taxis and many private vehicles were CNG powered Nissans as of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was more cost effective to bring in LNG by ship instead of gasoline. They are just getting around to bringing their first natural gas power plant on line this year to replace one of their old coal power plants.
Nez pah? Surely you meant to say n'est-ce pas which is French for "isn't it so?" or "isn't that so?"
Yes, I think that is correct at least for vehicles. But those giant ships carrying masses of LNG are pretty scary. If targeted (terr*rism etc) while the LNG cannot burn/explode in the centre because there is no oxygen, it burns at the edge of the expanding sphere of gas--and keeps on expanding in a fireball that would consume a gigantic area for kilometers around the tanker. They say it would be the equivalent or worse of the Dresden firebombing because what it doesn't burn to a crisp it asphixiates in the lee by lack of oxygen and the methane (and there is always some CO in the gas too). For this reason (I understand) LNG tanker terminals are built offshore (such as that one proposed several years back in California but killed by politics).
Merci! Now corrected. Apologies for the brutal phoneticism. They may not let me into France next time I go.
Thanks. It will be interesting to see if CNG becomes more prevalent in consumer vehicles there and elsewhere.
I have alerted the Douane! You are in the system, it is ready for your next visit. But don't worry about getting in, it is getting out when they will test you. If you fail you will be consigned to roaming the transit area of Paris-CDG forever. You do know that that Tom Hanks movie Terminal was based on a true story of a guy trapped in CDG for years? You gotta believe the French bureaucracy can do it! Take your French lessons, Marc :-)