Cheap natural gas makes inroads as US vehicle fuel

Mar 28, 2012 by Veronique Dupont
A van powered by compressed natural gas (CNG) on display at the 2011 Washington Auto Show. Natural gas, whose price is at record lows thanks to a shale drilling boom, is gaining traction as an alternative energy in the United States, with automakers jumping on the bandwagon.

Natural gas, whose price is at record lows thanks to a shale drilling boom, is gaining traction as an alternative energy in the United States, with automakers jumping on the bandwagon.

The use of instead of oil-based gasoline to drive the country's cars and trucks "is definitely starting to take off," said Mark Hanson, an analyst at investment research firm Morningstar.

"The economics seem to work," he said, noting it was "just a question of what pace" the necessary infrastructure will take to develop.

Gas is in focus as a potential engine fuel because "it is tremendously good fuel," said David Cole, the chairman emeritus of the Center for .

Unlike gasoline, whose rising prices are causing pain at the pump for consumers, natural gas is cheap in the United States as supplies bulge from production in the country's vast shale gas formations.

In addition, natural gas burns while emitting less carbon dioxide than gasoline.

Thus, it is considered a "green" fuel even though in its raw state, the methane it emits is more destructive to the Earth's than CO2, and the artificial fracturing of gas shales, known as "fracking," has drawn fire from environmentalists.

There are several forms of natural gas used to power vehicles. Compressed natural gas (CNG) is pressurized gas stored in a similar way to a vehicle's gasoline tank.

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is produced by chilling natural gas to about minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 162 degrees Celsius). It can be used as engine fuel for heavy ground or maritime vehicles.

A recently assembled Honda Civic GX, powered by compressed natural gas, awaits final testing at the Japanese automaker's Greensburg, Indiana plant in 2011. Unlike gasoline, whose rising prices are causing pain at the pump for consumers, natural gas is cheap in the United States as supplies bulge from production in the country's vast shale gas formations.

In Europe, the fuel of choice for automobiles is liquefied , typically a mixture of butane and propane made from refined crude oil or natural gas.

Across the Atlantic, the three big US automakers are pumping out vehicles based on alternative fuels.

Company, the nation's second-biggest automaker, has the largest array of alternative-energy vehicles: eight powered by natural gas.

The smallest US car maker, Fiat-controlled Chrysler, in early March unveiled a pick-up truck than can use liquefied natural gas, which will go on sale in June.

Sergio Marchionne, the chief executive of Fiat and Chrysler, views natural gas as having greater potential than electricity to power vehicles.

General Motors, the US giant at the top of the global auto industry, produces two vans that use compressed natural gas, the Chevy Express and the GMC Savana, and will begin production by the end of the year on two pick-up trucks running on CNG.

GM already has sold 1,200 of the vans to US telecommunications titan AT&T.

The Detroit, Michigan auto maker is working on a number of different alternative fuels and particularly on electric vehicles.

But a GM spokesman, Dan Flores, said: "We think offers a lot of potential. The technology is promising."

It is particularly appealing to businesses, especially service providers such as telecoms, package deliverers like UPS, or to local governments, which operate trash removal or emergency vehicle fleets.

CNG vehicles operate at relatively short distances from a refueling hub. The economies of scale for a large business or public body can potentially justify the cost of an investment in the specialized refueling equipment.

For individual consumers, the refueling infrastructure is limited. And compressed or liquefied gas is expensive and requires substantial storage capacity, restricting the vehicles' range.

Morningstar's Hanson said that currently there are only about 400 CNG stations in the US.

In Europe, natural gas also is sparking interest amid rising gasoline prices, but so far it remains only a small portion of the market.

In France, for example, it represents less than one percent of the vehicle fuel consumed and only 200,000 vehicles are outfitted for liquefied petroleum gas, of the 31 million privately owned.

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Jeddy_Mctedder
2.4 / 5 (5) Mar 28, 2012
Theres about 50 reasons why natural gas is far less polluting than petroleum OTHER than the fact that it releases less C02 when it is combusted.
Less polluting to drill for
Accidents cause less pollution
Less polluting to process/refine
Less polluuting to transport
Domestic money gets recyled into R&D petrodollars in saudi do not
Damages engines less and requieres less lubrication
Cng fuel never requires additives
Research on adsorbing sponges dovetails with hydrogen storage
Fuel cell research applicable acrong cng and hydrogen not petroleum
And the BIG ONE----preventing disputes over foreign oil may prevent WAR which is highly polluting.
Newbeak
5 / 5 (1) Mar 28, 2012
T.Boone Pickens is solidly behind it,so it must be good.It certainly makes a good bridge fuel to an alternate energy future.
DaveMart
5 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2012
'In Europe, natural gas also is sparking interest amid rising gasoline prices, but so far it remains only a small portion of the market.'

Poor research. In Italy there are hundreds of thousands of CNG vehicles, and Fiat is the largest producer in the world and has hundreds of filling stations.
Germany also has an extensive network of CNG filling stations.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Mar 29, 2012
To be fair: saying "it is a very small portion of the market" is correct.
In germany - at more than 40 million registered vehicles - only about 70k are powered by gas (which is less than 0.2%)

In Italy the percentage is much higher (about 7% of all new cars are powered by gas)

Growth has been steady, though.
RitchieGuy
1 / 5 (2) Mar 29, 2012
In spite of the good benefits of natural gas, I sometimes wonder what the drilling, fracking, etc for gas and oil is doing to the Earth's crust other than the obvious appearances at or near the surface. I wonder about the vast chambers and tunnels underneath the Earth from where those fossil fuels are extracted, and whether or not those oil and gas chambers will someday collapse inward and take everything on the surface down with them.
A pretty good analogy might be if an egg is emptied of its contents, then buried intact under several feet of soil and rock. As the egg's top surface cracks with the weight of the soil and rock from above, wouldn't an emptied gas or oil chamber eventually collapse and fall inwards from the weight of the soil, rocks and other heavy things above?
It might even be similar to the sinkholes that appear in Florida due to extraction of water from underground reservoirs in the coral rocks below for drinking water. Houses and cars fall into these sinkholes.
Callippo
1 / 5 (2) Mar 29, 2012
The natural gas obtained with drilling and fracking is everything but cheap source of energy and it has many environmental consequences already. The risk of earthquakes is one of them. http://www.physor...fracking We should realize, the era of environmentally harmless methods for fossil fuel mining is already out. The most effective way how to solve is to invest into cold fusion research.