With all the information, promotional materials, and special interest groups, it is good to do your homework on alternative fuels. Alternative fuels may sound like something you will not use, but they are used in everyday applications, and can greatly save (or cost) you money. The following series will outline the different types of fuel and power generating techniques that are available, and some that may become available in the near future.
Lesson 1: Natural Gas
Delphi in ancient Greece was thought to be the purest fire in all the world. When the fire in town was thought to have grown unclean, all the fire would be extinguished and new fire brought in from Delphi. The fire spewed from an invisible source in the ground, mystifying the people of the ancient world.
Today we understand that the fire sprang from a gas pocket that was trapped inside the Earth. The gas began to seep out, and caught fire, most likely from a lightening strike from Zeus.
Natural gas is a gaseous product (usually around 90% Methane) created in conjunction with oil during the compression and heating of ancient organic materials over time. This gas is still found in pockets around the world. In 2010 a large natural gas field was found in Northern Louisiana, which has roughly 18 years worth of equivalent US oil production. Unlike foreign oil that is imported from suspect countries around the world, 98% of natural gas is domestically produced. This makes for more stable and affordable pricing. Current pricing of natural gas versus gasoline can be found here. Be warned, it will make you think twice about buying a new SUV…unless it is powered by Natural Gas.
Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) is a compression tool for packing more gas into a smaller space. This is done by utilizing a compressor that will pack the gas into storage cylinders that are heavily regulated by the Department of Transpiration for safety. The natural gas that may be used in homes for water heaters, stoves, or household heat is the same gas that can power a car, boat, bus or plane. However, to actually be used in a transportation application, the gas must be compressed.
There is always the fear of having a large tank of gas traveling on top of a vehicle. The initial concern from people is, “Will it blow up?” The answer is no. According to safety guidelines, cylinders must be inspected on a regular basis for cracks and cuts that could allow for gas to seep out. All regulated CNG tank systems are equipped with blow-out valves. If the tanks are tossed into a fire they will reject the fuel out of the valve. Due to the high rate of compression, the gas shoots out at a rate too fast to mix with the oxygen necessary to make it burn. This means that CNG cylinders are actually more safe than a gas tank in a car.
There is virtually no Miles Per Gallon (MPG) loss between gasoline and CNG, and the emissions are so low that only hydrogen is better. So why has this not taken off? Some would claim a conspiracy by Big Oil, but most likely it is due to lack of infrastructure. There are over 1,000 CNG fueling stations across the country with over 110,000 NGVs on the road. However, the infrastructure is mainly found around cities. There is an option to put a fueling station right in your garage! Imagine coming home and filling up your car overnight on gas pumped into your car from a compressor you mount on the wall.
No matter how it is sliced, CNG is a viable alternative to current oil consumption. However, current vehicle manufacturers have not truly embraced the concept. Honda is the leading CNG car manufacturer. They sell out of the Honda GX before they are built, but refuse to increase production. They are only available in select markets, most of which are in California.
The bright spot is there is great movement in commercial applications for CNG. Buses, refuse trucks, long-haul trucks, and sweepers are a few of the vehicles that have embraced the CNG trend. With increasing fuel prices, the expansion of infrastructure, and the constant fluctuations of dependence on unstable countries, expect to see CNG become more prolific in the coming years.