Navigant Research Blog

DOE Funding Targets Natural Gas Issues

John Gartner — April 26, 2013

The discovery of extensive shale oil reserves in North America has led to heightened expectations for using the domestic energy source as a transportation fuel. While environmental challenges exist for extracting and distributing fuel (safe fracking, pipeline expansion, and so on), the biggest hurdles to expanding natural gas as a fuel for passenger vehicles are related to pumping the gas into a tank and keeping it there safely. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has been focusing on these challenges by providing funding to several basic research projects, which were a significant topic of discussion at this spring’s ARPA-E Summit meeting in Washington, D.C.

Natural gas vehicles (NGVs) typically require multiple cylinder tanks in order to store enough fuel to provide a range similar to that of a gasoline car.  In larger vans and trucks, this may require three or four tanks. Ford Motor Company has described the current state of storage tanks as “too large, heavy, shape limited and expensive to properly facilitate the widespread adoption of natural gas vehicles.” Through an ARPA-E grant, Ford is working on a 3-year project to develop an adsorption tank system that would increase the energy density of compressed natural gas at lower pressures. The system would enable natural gas to be stored at lower pressure while providing a driving range comparable to that of gasoline car.

Fill ‘Er Up, at Home

The DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, located in Richland, Washington, is addressing the cost and efficiency of storage tanks with its ARPA-E grant. The lab is working on developing a ball-shaped tank that would increase the storage efficiency over current rectangular tanks by 90% while using less expensive materials.

Meanwhile, General Electric (GE) is resurrecting the concept of home refueling of natural gas (which was unsuccessfully pitched previously by makers of the Phill) with a low-cost natural gas system that is also being developed thanks to an ARPA-E grant. The system chills the gas to a very low temperature (-50°C) to separate water from gas, which otherwise requires a complicated multistep process. GE hopes to reduce the cost of a home refueling station to less than $500.

As detailed in Navigant Research’s 2012 Light Duty Natural Gas Vehicles report, attempts at popularizing home refueling have failed in both Europe and North America due to the cost of the equipment and limited availability of vehicles. Nevertheless, sales of NGVs in the United States are expected to surpass 30,000 vehicles annually by 2019.

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