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Natural Gas Fuel; A Bridge To....What?


Last year T. Boone Pickens brought the concept of natural gas as a vehicle fuel into the national stream of consciousness when he launched his “Pickens Plan”. Since then the concept has evolved to the point where there are several pieces of legislation making their way through Congress (Natural Gas Act of 2009)and the Senate which will encourage the more widespread implementation of this “green” fossil fuel. Recent estimates of the natural gas reserves in the United States indicate that we have a 100 year supply which is equal to all of the oil in Saudi Arabia. Pickens and his supporters are calling natural gas a bridge fuel to a greener tomorrow but some critics seem unsure of how this could work.

In this story I will attempt to answer those doubts by building that bridge in realistic terms from readily available information. In simplest terms Pickens CNG “bridge” can extend the time we have to transition to another vehicle fuel no matter what type. In a previous story (Why The Future of Transportation Fuel Is Hydrogen)I pointed out that hydrogen fuel is the logical choice as our eventual primary fuel because, when produced from water using solar or wind energy, it is 100% non polluting and 100% renewable. In addition, in the near term, it is the one fuel which can be produced from anything domestically available that we are currently using as a fuel including fossil sources and renewables. From my perspective Pickens has created the best, most viable option for a transition to 100% clean hydrogen fuel.

Hydrogen energy has, to this point, faced a lot of obstacles because it requires a specialized storage and distribution infrastructure and, even though it can be used with our familiar, internal combustion engine powered vehicles (with the proper storage and fuel system), the cost of the infrastructure necessary combined with the fact that it is much better to use hydrogen with fuel cell vehicles in order to take advantage of its full potential and the cost of producing hydrogen have all served to keep hydrogen energy stalled at the verge of being implemented. In financial terms it is something of a chicken or egg scenario; do we build the infrastructure with no cars available or build the cars with no infrastructure or invest hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars into building both simultaneously?

Pickens idea of using natural gas as the vehicle to transport us into an independent, green energy transportation future provides the only viable option from the perspectives of both economic viability and seamlessness of transition. In fact India has been quietly pursuing this same concept for at least the past 5 years or more and doing it from an angle that is not even mentioned as an option in the US.

It started when the Indian government mandated that all public vehicles in Delhi be converted to run on CNG fuel in order to cut pollution in the city. CNG fuel produces 25% less CO2 pollution than gasoline vehicles and 90% fewer other pollutants. From there the concept evolved into one where the vehicles are running on a mix of CNG and hydrogen fuel. This mixture further reduces CO2 pollution by a percentage roughly equal to the percentage of hydrogen mixed into the CNG stream. In a press release from this past January it was revealed that all of the Indian car manufacturers are now working together to develop cars for retail sale which will be optimized to run on this fuel mix.

There are the first two steps of the transition. First bringing natural gas fueled vehicles to market. There are many CNG vehicles available worldwide made by companies like General Motors and Honda but only one currently available in the US but the point is that it wouldn’t take much to bring CNG fueled vehicles to the American market.

The second step is to create a retail market for hydrogen fuel where none currently exists by inserting hydrogen into the natural gas stream. By doing so we will foster growth and innovation in the hydrogen production industry by providing opportunity not tax dollars.

This concept has been explored and tested by the US Department of Energy. The DOE says that; “Natural gas can be blended with hydrogen to make HCNG. Vehicles fueled with hydrogen/natural gas blends (HCNG) are an initial step toward the hydrogen-based transportation of the future. HCNG vehicles offer the potential for immediate emissions benefits, such as a reduction in nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions. At the same time, they can pave the way for a transition to fuel cell vehicles by building early demand for hydrogen infrastructure.”

A recent study on the viability of this concept says that CNG/hydrogen mix, unlike straight hydrogen fuel ,can be distributed through the existing natural gas system in the US. This system reaches all of the heavily populated areas of our country and can be extended in some form to the rest of the country at a much lower cost than building out a whole new pure hydrogen infrastructure.


The natural gas industry could partner with the auto manufacturers who produce CNG vehicles to install CNG pumps at all of their dealerships nationally. In this way we could have a national CNG refueling network in a short amount of time which would be financed by the gas and auto industries and their dealers as they would be the ones making a profit from the system in an ongoing manner. This transition could probably be at least 80% in place within the next 5 years and the greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced roughly 40% at that time (25% from switching to CNG fuel and an additional 15% from mixing that amount of H2 into the CNG fuel stream).

From that point the next step would be the introduction of fuel cell vehicles. Most of us think of fuel cells as running on pure hydrogen fuel and while those are the types of vehicles that have been built and tested most often as prototypes there are other types of fuel cells which may be better suited to this transition. Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFC) operate on the same principle as pure hydrogen fuel cells but can run on a variety of fuels such as natural gas or the CNG/H2 mix being discussed here. The advantage is high operating efficiency (60%) as compared to internal combustion vehicles (30%). Introducing SOFC powered vehicles would then be expected to reduce CO2 pollution by an additional 50% since they double the efficiency of the vehicle and thus require essentially half the amount of fuel to do the same amount of work. The total CO2 reduction at this point of the transition would be 40% from steps 1 and 2 plus an additional 60% of that from step 3 for a total reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the US transportation sector by roughly 75% or very nearly the 80% asked for by the Kyoto Protocols and we can do it with the technology that is available today.

The venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins of which former Vice President Al Gore is a partner is heavily invested in Bloom Energy, a startup who is said to be making a cheap, nickel based SOFC fuel cell which is capable of running on a variety of fuels including natural gas. A recent story says that;” In a successful test at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga over the past two years, engineers ran a Bloom box on natural gas for 6,000 hours and found it to be twice as efficient as a boiler burning natural gas, with 60 percent lower carbon emissions. Kleiner partner Aileen Lee told Gertner that the Bloom box can produce electricity using natural gas or a variety of liquid fuels, including ethanol.” So the SOFC fuel cell technology seems ready for market now and all that remains is for them to be adapted to light and heavy vehicle applications.

The final step, when we are ready to take it, is to move to a totally clean, pure hydrogen from water economy. Until we can make that transition the Pickens Plan offers us a way to become both energy independent (thereby enhancing national security) and to reduce GHG emissions by the amounts that scientists say that we need to in order to avoid the worst effects of Climate Change. All of this being accomplished by using currently available technology and building off an existing infrastructure which will require minimal amounts of public investment in comparison to creating an entire new infrastructure to support technology which has been “not quite ready” for the last 20 years or so. All that is needed is a commitment by the American public and their leaders to take this logical, available route to a clean economy.