Natural Gas Vehicles: Technology Targets The Challenges

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2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas

2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas

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As a vehicle fuel, natural gas holds considerable promise but faces a number of challenges.

Overcoming those challenges is the goal of recent funding granted by the U.S. Department of Energy for a handful of research projects.

Among them are the challenges of incorporating high-pressure natural gas storage tanks into vehicle designs.

While pickup-truck adaptions customarily put the cylindrical tanks in the front of the bed, or perhaps under the bed between the frame rails, the challenges are much tougher for passenger cars.

The 2013 Honda Civic Natural Gas, for instance--the only passenger vehicle currently sold that runs on natural gas--loses about two thirds of its trunk volume to accommodate the natural gas tank--because there's no other space in the car large enough to accommodate it.

A research project at Ford, funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency--Energy (ARPA-E), will look at materials that would allow the natural gas to be adsorbed in a tank that could thus carry more energy at lower pressures.

The goal there would be to provide natural-gas vehicles with equivalent range to any other passenger car. Today, the Honda Civic Natural Gas provides a range of 150 to 180 miles in real-world use, versus twice that in any gasoline Civic model.

Overall, ARPA-E plans to award up to $30 million in grants for research on making natural-gas vehicles more practical.

Another project from the DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in Richland, Washington, proposes developing a ball-shaped tank made of less expensive materials that would nonetheless increase the storage efficiency by 90 percent over current tanks.

2010 Honda Civic GX natural-gas vehicle, Los Angeles, November 2010

2010 Honda Civic GX natural-gas vehicle, Los Angeles, November 2010

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Finally, home refueling for natural gas--long seen as the Holy Grail for adoption of natural-gas passenger vehicles--will be addressed under a project initiated by General Electric.

Their research involves a home refueling station that would chill natural gas drawn from a home's gas line, making it easier to remove the water it contains, which cannot be part of the fuel when it enters the car's engine.

Home refueling stations will remain necessary because the low pressure of household gas supply lines isn't nearly sufficient to fill a car's high-pressure tank.

That requires a compressor that runs for several hours, typically overnight.

The various challenges and approaches to solving these problems were, according to John Gartner of Navigant Research, a frequent topic of discussion at the most recent ARPA-E Summit meeting.

That gathering was held late in February in Washington, D.C.


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Comments (7)
  1. Does anyone know what price natural gas would have to be in order for it to cost essentially the same per mile to drive a car as with gasoline? I ask, because while I can see the benefits at this point of promoting natural gas usage as a car fuel, I have always percieved the natural gas market as being more volatile than oil. Certainly there are other issues, such as environment and domestic vs. foriegn production sources, but cost is likely one issue that consumers will look at closely.


    Handy payback calculator for switching to natural gas
    Natural gas is so abundant it will be very stable and low priced for a long time, especially if you home fuel with supply from a regulated utility!

  3. Haven't we heard all these issues before with a new 'fuel' for cars? Oh yes - EV's!

    In the UK (and I'm sure elsewhere) NG conversions of standard petrol ICEs have been around for the last 20 years or so. These vehicles usually have a donut shaped NG tank where the spare tyre normally goes giving about 80 miles or so range. You have a switch to go from petrol to NG on the dash. The main reason for getting a conversion done (cost is around £1k) is the cost of fuel - the UK government used to peg the price of NG at a rate that was about 40% of the cost of petrol but it is now around half the cost (in volumetric terms). To answer Chris' question, I gather the energy content of NG compared to petrol is about 80%.

  4. (cont...) As with EVs, the question of where you refuel arises. The UK has a pretty good availability of NG usually at regular petrol stations (about 10% nationally have NG pumps) but some are based in industrial areas which also sell to the public. See for more info.

  5. @Martin: Energy content of natural gas used as vehicle fuel will depend on how much it is compressed. Energy content will double as compression does (more or less), but stronger tanks add weight, hence the desire for research into better storage mechanisms.

  6. I have a Honda Civic GX, and your figure of 150 to 180 miles mixed driving range is WAY low. I have driven over 200 miles in stop and go driving without refueling, and still had over 1/4 of a tank of fuel left. On highway driving I have driven over 300 miles between fill-ups.

  7. @Paul: I've driven both a 2009 Civic GX and a 2012 Civic Natural Gas, both in LA temperatures of 70 to 80 degrees. For whatever reason, the range on the latter after a fillup showed 165 or 170 miles (I'd have to go back to my notes) and the same on the GX was about 200 miles.

    There are many variables, including pressure at fueling station (the "full" pressure sensor may be set differently at different stations) + the temperature at which the tank is filled.

    Are you in a warm or cooler climate? How and where do you refuel?

    It seems to me that predicted range of natural-gas vehicles varies more than that of a gasoline vehicle, though perhaps not as much as range f/plug-in electric cars.

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