Some of the brightest minds, and best ideas, come from the world of automotive design. We traveled to three mega-shows recently to seek out the coolest concept cars, and hear experts pontificate about how we’ll be moving in the decades to come. Read more
Other than the oft-dreamed-about flying car, solar-powered cars are one of the future vehicle technologies people most frequently fantasize about. But just as we don’t see our skyscape dotted with airborne cars and trucks, we don’t see our roads crowded with cars pulling their fuel directly from the sun as they go. Read more
Our friend John Brackett, one of the stars of the Fuel Freedom-produced PUMP, attended the giant SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) expo in Las Vegas last week.
What he found was the usual mind-blowing parade: thousands upon thousands of amazing, tricked-out vehicles. And of course ingenious technology, the product of some of the most intelligent minds who are in the business of making after-market car components.
What he found lacking, though, was fuel choice.
Here’s his report:
SEMA Exhibitors have solutions ready:
Fuel component manufacturers made it clear that dealing with ethanol and methanol fuels would be easy on their end. Companies that alter a car’s software said it’d be no problem running several fuels with their devices or programs. The car makers have put fuel choice into vehicles for a century with tens of millions already on the road. Every vehicle sold since the Oil Embargo[hyperlink to wiki Oil Embargo] should have had fuel choice. For the last quarter century, we’ve been able to update a car’s software to adjust to different fuels with no additional parts. There is no reason we can’t run on performance fuels right now.
American “Enginuity” is alive:
No two vehicles looked the same, and everyone had a different interpretation of their ideal driving experience. Even with such ingenuity, what 98.6 percent of the vehicles had in common was no fuel choice. I saw V8 engines installed in series, radial airplane engines, super-turbocharged cars, an ice cream-making Kia Soul, a wagon that unfolds into a beer stand, and a 3D-printed car. With so many options, what is holding us back from fuel choice?
Dollars per horsepower matters:
One could easily double, if not sextuple, the cost of a vehicle with some of the solutions at SEMA. Yet those solutions wouldn’t be displayed if there weren’t a demand. These companies spend millions of dollars to develop some very unique solutions for the aftermarket vehicle enthusiasts. Dollar for dollar, using ethanol or methanol over gasoline gives one a more powerful and exciting driving experience. On a naturally aspirated vehicle, adding 5-10 percent horsepower with an aftermarket intake and exhaust system will cost darn near $1,000. Why not choose a fuel that gives you that same power gain and costs 25-40 percent less to drive on?
Now watch Bracket’s video, and see how many incredible vehicles you can name:
“Over the river and through the wood
To grandmother’s house we go.
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh\
Through white and drifted snow.”
Thanksgiving has come and gone, Christmas is coming, and that makes me think of alternative fuels and finding something to replace gasoline in our engines.
What, after all, was the horse and sleight except an old-fashioned means of transportation? It had served humanity since the Bronze Age. It has often been said that Julius Caesar and George Washington used essentially the same transportation technology in pursuing their wars
All this held through the early days of the 20th century. There is a famous scene Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, written in 1875, where the adventurers go to investigate a mysterious submarine – in a horse and carriage! When people started assembling on the New York docks in 1913 to hear reports of the missing Titanic, half of them arrived in horses and carriages.
We eventually made the energy transformation to the “horseless carriage” of automobiles but it wasn’t easy. People were afraid of the new invention. They didn’t know how to work it. They fretted over the extraordinary speeds that could be reached – 30 miles an hour! They did not like the nasty exhausts that some new technologies produced.
Nor was it ever certain which means of propulsion for the new “automobiles” would prevail. There were three contenders – the electric car, the steam car and the internal combustion engine running on any number of fuels. Gasoline was not the foremost possibility. When Henry Ford built his first model in 1895, called the “quadricycle,” he designed it to run on corn ethanol, which seemed like a reasonable alternative.
The steam car set speed records of 200 miles per hour and the electric showed great promise as a gadabout town car. But the internal combustion eventually prevailed. Why? The steam car, running on coal, took too long to warm up – about 20 minutes. The electric car had a very short range, as it still does today. The internal combustion engine was awkward because it required the driver to hand-crank the engine from the front. There was also a question of whether there would be enough fuel available to run large numbers of cars. At the time, oil was still a relatively rare commodity, marketed mainly for the “lamps of China.” But when Spindletop gushed forth in 1901, questions about the oil supply faded. And when Charles Kettering invented the electric starter in 1912, the battle was over.
Still, Henry Ford didn’t particularly like gasoline and never gave up on the idea that ethanol was a better alternative. Gasoline had a lower octane rating, was much more toxic (particularly when blended with tetra-ethyl lead to raise its octane rating) and emitted more pollutants. It was also more explosive and required complex refining, whereas ethanol was relatively easy to produce. Ford had roots in farm country and as late as 1925, with the farm belt in a chronic recession, he argued that farmers should be growing their own fuel. “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumac out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust — almost anything,” he told The New York Times. “There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.”
These ideas still resonate today. Making auto fuel from crops has become a reality since we add 10 percent corn ethanol to our gasoline supplies, cutting our dependence on foreign oil. There is still talk about using the much larger portions of “crop wastes” to produce cellulosic ethanol, although the technology to do this economically has not emerged yet. Electric cars are getting another run as battery life and range are extended. And there is a range of other alternatives – compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), hydrogen fuel cells and methanol derived from natural gas, coal or any number of organic sources, including garbage, crops and crop wastes. We have a regular Thanksgiving feast of options before us. It’s just a question of finding out what works best.
So remember, no technology is forever. The holiday revelers sleighing toward grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving never dreamed they might one day be making the same trip across 300 miles of countryside at speeds of 60 miles an hour. And today when you’re speeding down the Interstate in a car powered by gasoline from Saudi Arabia, you may not dream that in ten years you could be driving a car running on switchgrass grown on the scrubland of South Dakota or natural gas pumped from the Marcellus in Pennsylvania. Yet stranger things have happened. You never know where that path over the river and through the woods is going to lead.
The Ford Motor Company stepped front-and-center in the effort to fine alternatives to high-priced imported oil last week with the announcement that it will offer compressed natural gas (CNG) tank as an option in the F-150 pickup truck, its most popular brand that currently sells 700,000 models a year.
Now it won’t come cheap. There’s a $250-$350 charge for the vehicle to come “prepped” from the factory. That means putting hardened valves, valve seats, piston and rings into the V6 engine. But after that, there’s a $7-9000 charge for installing the CNG tank in the cargo bay – made considerably more expensive than in Europe because safety standards are interpreted in a way that makes them much more expensive. This lifts the showroom price from $24,000 to around $32,000. That’s a big chunk but Ford swears you’ll make it back in three years by substituting fuels.
With the price of gas at around $3.80 per gallon and the oil-equivalent of natural gas at around $1.20, those savings should add up fast. Of course all this assumes that the price differential won’t narrow to its traditional level, but that doesn’t seem very likely now. Electrical plants have shown a tendency to move quickly back to cheaper coal if the price of gas rises, but the difference between the crack spread and the spark spread seems to have separated permanently, much to natural gas’s advantage.
All this is good news for those looking to substitute some of our abundant natural gas for foreign oil in our transport sector. In fact, there’s a lot of progress being made right now:
Clean Energy Fuels of Newport Beach, CA already has a network of 360 natural gas fueling stations at truck stops along Interstate highways and is trying to build a complete national infrastructure. NGV stations cost $750,000 a pop but Clean Energy is looking at the long term. The ready availability of filling stations will help spur the conversion of giant 18-wheel diesel haulers, which most people see as the ripest target for conversion.
Heavy-duty fleet vehicles are making rapid progress. Buses and garbage trucks are in the forefront. Eight out of ten new vehicles bought in 2012 by Waste Management, the leader in the field, were powered by natural gas.
There are now 120,000 gas vehicles on the road in the United States, according to Natural Gas Vehicles of America, the trade group. Unfortunately, this constitutes only a tiny fraction of the 15.2 million NGVs worldwide. Iran, Pakistan and Argentina, improbably, are the leaders. We’re behind in making the transition, but there’s plenty of room to catch up.
In a report issued in June, Citi Research estimated that one-quarter of the world’s present consumption of oil could be replaced by natural gas under present conditions. More than 9 million barrels per day could be replaced in truck transport, 2 million of these in the US. Another 3 million b/d could be opted out in marine transport and 200,000 b/d in railroad locomotives.
All this would be fairly easy to transact since it involves large commercial organizations with centralized decision-making. Sooner or later, however, this approach is likely to run up against limits. The stumbling block will be the vastly more decentralized system of private automobiles, which still consumes 60 percent of our oil and involves a car in every garage and a gas station on every other corner. Here the problem of building an infrastructure and achieving widespread distribution is much more difficult.
The problem comes because reformers are viewing natural gas as a fuel instead of a feedstock. Compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) are the most readily available options – and both are legal – but in the end they are going to have their limits. It will make much more sense to use methane as a feedstock for the manufacture of liquids, methanol in particular. These will be much easier to transport and will substitute for gasoline in current car engines with only minimum adjustment – nothing like the $8000 required for the F-150. Valero has just opted to build a $700 million methanol manufacturing plant in St. Charles, Louisiana in anticipation of this demand. All depends on whether the Environmental Protection Agency decides to give a go-ahead to use methanol in car engines. The matter is pending.
So the effort to use our abundant natural gas resources to reduce our dependence on expensive, unpredictable and unreliable foreign sources of oil is making headway. Ford’s decision to equip the F-150 with CNG is a beginning. But there’s more to come.
The venerable Gray Lady, the NY Times, has in the recent past treated the possible use of natural gas and its derivatives (methanol and ethanol) as transportation fuels warily. Their primary focus has seemed to be on the environmental problems and economic opportunities related to fracking and the increased production of natural gas. Rarely did the Times cover or note in its editorials the increasing acceptance of natural gas, methanol and ethanol as a fuel to power vehicles. The importance of alternative fuels as part of national energy and environmental policies has not been granted significant visibility in the Times. The Times is still my favorite read over a cup of coffee.
But, surprise! Borrowing and taking liberty to amend the lyrics from the musical Jekyll and Hyde, “this may almost be the moment…when The New York Times begins to send many of its doubts and demons concerning alternative transportation fuels on their way… this could be the beginning. The momentum and the moment may be coming together soon in rhyme.”
Paul Stenquist, a respected, frequent writer for the Times automobile section, wrote an Oct. 29 article titled, Natural Gas Waits for its Moment. The content of the piece was, in reality, not as ambiguous or speculative. Read it! According to Stenquist, natural gas has arrived and this is its moment, or at least its soon-to-be moment. Sure there are problems to overcome, but to Stenquist, they seem relatively puny given where he thinks we are, and where he suggests we can be soon.
Stenquist opens his upbeat piece by indicating that “cars and trucks powered by natural gas make up a significant portion of the vehicle fleet in many parts of the world (Iran, Argentina, Italy, Brazil, and Germany).” After noting the almost 2,000 natural gas stations in Argentina, he asks, “Is America next?”
Based on Department of Energy (DOE) information, Steinquist indicates that natural gas is about $1.50 cheaper than gasoline and diesel fuels for the same mileage, and that because natural gas burns clean, it requires less oil changes, and vehicle exhaust systems last longer.
Sure, the author notes that the initial cost of natural gas vehicles are significantly higher now than gasoline vehicles. But based on an apparent positive interview with a fleet manager from Ford, he indicates that increased sales or leasing volume could bring the vehicle price comparable to today’s conventional vehicles. The key issue Stenquist does not address, is when this will happen, and how long will it take? But still he and his Ford colleague seem optimistic– perhaps a bit too optimistic, unless Detroit pulls a Steve Jobs; that is, just as Jobs did with the iPhone, convince the public through marketing and technological innovation that cheaper cleaner natural gas vehicles are a “must” for consumers.
But wait, there’s more! Stenquist, quoting from the Energy Department’s website, suggests that the environmental benefits of natural gas as a fuel appear to be immediate and important. Succinctly, natural gas vehicles have a much smaller carbon footprint than gasoline or diesel.
What remains, then, for the nation to benefit in a major way from use of natural gas as an alternative fuel? Well for one, reducing carbon leakage during natural gas production and distribution. Progress is being made. Stopping or cutting back leakage has become a priority for both involved companies, and federal as well as state regulatory authorities.
Second, both car companies and the government acknowledge that using compressed natural gas in a conventional engine would result in degrading engine performance. However, retrofitting engines to use natural gas would increase the octane advantage of natural gas and lessen the density advantage of gasoline-reducing performance issues. Fully designed natural gas cars are still relatively rare and are, at this moment, significantly more costly than conventional cars. But with increased demand, as noted earlier, the costs would likely come down and make household purchase decisions easier. Interestingly, Governor Hickenlooper of Colorado(D) and Governor Fallin of Oklahoma(R) have put together a 22 state coalition. The group has committed to purchasing new natural gas cars to replace old cars in their respective fleets. Detroit has committed in turn to work on developing a less expensive natural gas car, given the market pool or demand created by the states. This effort deserves watching and will, if successful, hopefully, provide a path to cheaper natural gas vehicles for consumers.
Stenquist, correctly, points to the lack of natural gas fuel stations as a key obstacle to increased popularity of natural gas. But he is optimistic that technology now in place (or soon to be in place) will be able to link available natural gas pipelines to in home fuel machines. I, also, would hope that these fuel stations would be placed in parking garages and that they would be much cheaper than currently existing home refueling equipment.
I suspect that the natural gas movement will require more than a few moments; that is, it may take a bit longer to gain traction than implicit in Stenquist’s piece. But it’s nice to see a journalist link natural gas to transportation fuel in such an aggressive way as Stenquist. Now if the Times could only follow in the content of its editorial and op-ed pages.
It is hard to be critical of Stenquist’s piece since it’s almost a first for the NY Times. However, I am puzzled by the absence of any discussion of natural gas based ethanol and methanol as alternative fuels in his article. Both, likely, would be cheaper per gallon and per miles traveled than gasoline. Both would record more environmental benefits than gasoline, and both, if they are accepted in the market, would reduce dependency on imported oil. Perhaps most significantly, both, assuming appropriate government approvals, could be used almost immediately to fuel existing vehicles with relatively simple and cheap engine conversion kits. Think of it! If we could add the trifecta: natural gas, ethanol and methanol –to fuel stations throughout America, it would provide needed competition to gasoline. Consumers would benefit by having access to lower cost fuel. The nation would benefit from improved environmental and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) conditions. America’s security and economy would be enhanced significantly. It would be a major win for the public interest and for America and Americans.
What if America had so much natural gas it didn’t know what to do with it?
Right now that’s the situation in the Marcellus Shale, the vast formation that underlies nearly all of Pennsylvania. There just isn’t enough demand for what’s available. And the same situation could be facing the entire United States in just a few years, according to speakers at the 2013 Natural Gas Utilization Conference held at the Omni William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh last week.
“Today there are 800 shut in wells in the Marcellus, waiting for an increase in price and improvements in infrastructure,” said Justin Carlson, manager of energy analytics at Bentek Energy of Colorado told the gathering. “By 2017, demand could dip below supply for the entire United States. We’re not doing enough to support growth. The market needs more users.”
Where could you find those new consumers? Virtually everyone agrees that there’s one market that is begging for greater natural gas use – the transportation sector.
Some companies are already looking for ways to do it. Last year Consol Energy Inc. and Praxair, Inc., a Connecticut-based manufacturer of industrial gases, was preparing to build a $2 billion plant to convert gas from the Marcellus into gasoline and diesel blends for use in cars and trucks. In the end, however, the economics didn’t quite work. “The project would have generated a positive rate of return but not the 12% that investors are looking for,” said Dante Bonaquist, chief scientist and corporation fellow at Praxair, who spoke at the conference. “We had to give it up.”
So absent a liquids option, most gas producers are opting for another technology – compressed natural gas. Leading the pack has been Chesapeake Energy, which set a goal to convert its entire fleet of vehicles to CNG by 2015. At the current pace it will hit the 80% mark in 2014. Last year Chesapeake’s Peake Fuel Solutions affiliate also partnered with GE to launch “CNG In A Box,” a package that compresses natural gas from a pipeline into CNG fueling stations so that small and large retailers can become vendors of natural gas. The package was introduced at the National Association of Convenience Stores 2012 annual convention.
“The 8-by-10-foot container is easy to ship and its modular design allows for plug-and-play,” said Bob Jarvis, spokesman for Chesapeake. “It makes pay-at-the-pump a familiar and secure experience.” GE already has a manufacturing plant up and running in Houston. On Sept. 17 it announced a memorandum of understanding with China’s Endurance Industries to deliver 260 CNGs In A Box to fuel China’s rapidly growing conversion to natural gas vehicles.
Last week, however, Chesapeake was forced to disband its seven-member Natural Gas Vehicle Task Force as part of an austerity-driven reorganization. But other companies may pick up the slack. “Chesapeake has been an important player in growing the natural gas vehicle market, but other companies and organizations have taken on that role now,” said Rich Kolodziej, president of advocacy group Natural Gas Vehicles for America.
Range Resources, another major player in the Marcellus, is also making an all-out effort to promote CNG vehicles. It recently closed a deal with GM to buy an entire fleet of trucks for its Pennsylvania operations. The company expects to save 40-50% of vehicle operating costs by switching from gasoline. With 180 trucks in the region, each carrying a 17-gallon tank, Range will save $3,000 each time its fleet refuels.
But is compressed natural gas the best way to go? The technology involves high-pressure tanks, both in storage and in your car or truck and involves a whole new infrastructure. Converting natural gas into methanol – a fairly simple process – would allow us to use the current infrastructure with only a few minor adjustments. Existing vehicles can be modified to use methanol for only a few hundred dollars and flex-fuel vehicles could use either methanol or traditional gasoline.
Methanol works better from the supply side as well. “The economics of methanol would have been more attractive,” said Bonaquist, of the Praxair-Consol Energy proposal that didn’t make it off the drawing boards. “The conversion and purification sections of the plant would have been less complex. It would have been particularly advantageous for smaller scale production.”
So what’s the problem? Well, unfortunately, putting methanol in your car hasn’t yet been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. That makes it illegal. If the regulations could be changed, methanol would become a much easier route for moving the nation’s looming gas surpluses into the transportation sector. There could hardly be a more promising way of freeing ourselves from dependence on foreign oil.