President Barack Obama has occasionally voiced public support for compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles over the past few years. But the chief transportation priorities of the administration and Energy Secretary Steven Chu have been clear: raising the overall fuel economy of consumer vehicles and promoting early adoption of plug-in electric vehicles.
However, recently the federal government is growing more confident in CNG’s ability to fit into the national transportation fuel mix.
Recent tests at Argonne National Laboratory’s Transportation Technology Research and Development Center have confirmed what natural gas advocates have argued for years. “Our conclusion is that natural gas as a transportation fuel has both adequate abundance and cost advantages that make a strong case to focus interest in the technology as a real game changer in US energy security,” said Mike Duoba, auto research center at Argonne in a press release. “In terms of consumer ownership and use costs, the case to make a switch from current fuels to CNG is much more compelling than for other alternative fuels like ethanol and electricity.”
According to recent cost-per-mile comparisons, CNG is about 40 percent cheaper than gasoline, and electricity is about half the cost of natural gas. Both technologies represent a higher up-front cost at the dealership than conventional internal combustion vehicles. But where Secretary Chu and other EV boosters speak frequently of future developments that will lower electric car costs and extend range, little has been said about the potential of natural gas vehicles to evolve.
Argonne hopes to change that. Further study of natural gas engine efficiency could shrink the size of CNG tanks, which are currently much bulkier than an ICE gas tank. The lab is also looking to develop a bi-fuel engine capable of running either CNG or gasoline. These developments would serve to extend the effective range of natural gas vehicles, which would greatly improve the market case for owning one.
Last month, governors from 13 states signed a letter to automakers asking for their help in converting state fleets from gasoline to CNG. Currently, there is only one mass-market consumer vehicle that runs on natural gas, the Honda Civic Natural Gas (though a host of converted and used CNG cars and trucks are available trough eBay’s listings). In order for the fuel to really take off in the United States, manufacturers will have to expand those options, as well as America’s CNG refueling infrastructure. Now, it appears the federal government will play a role in taking those steps.
Visit eBay’s Green Driving Center for more information about CNG cars and technology.
Photo: Refueling the Honda Civic Natural Gas. (Source: Honda)