Intelligent Energy

Electric car? So 2011! DOE eyes compressed natural gas

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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.'

Some people think the road to energy independence should be full of compressed natural gas vehicles, like the Thomas Built school bus above (N.C.-based Thomas Built is a subsidiary of Germany's Damiler AG)

The DOE lab that helped bring you the Chevy Volt and other electric vehicles has a new focus: cars, trucks and buses that run on compressed natural gas (CNG).

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.

Underpinning the next wave of vehicles? The chassis of a Mercedes-Benz CNG bus.

"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:

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure