Green Update: There’s No Fuel Like an Old Fuel

Ford Transit Connect taxi

Compressed natural gas (CNG) has been around and functioning in automotive vehicles for a long time. There are 11.2 million of them worldwide, including 2.5 million in Pakistan and 1.8 million in Argentina. CNG cars in Europe can run on gasoline or CNG—though not terribly well on either.

Now, because it’s so abundant in the U.S. (but not so easy to extract), big car companies like GM and Chrysler are showing renewed interest. And the price of gasoline is of course a big factor.

Chrysler, which has avoided the hybrid route, is working to launch CNG vehicles by 2017. Fiat has a number of effective CNG engines, and it makes “several vehicles” that run on CNG.

CNG use, right now, makes much more sense for buses and fleets, and GM has been offering its commercial customers a $15,910 CNG conversion package for its Savana and Chevrolet Express vans. That’s a large piece of change, and we wonder how many fleet owners have taken the option.

Rotary drilling rigFor all its cleanness and logical sense, natural gas faces big problems: infrastructure and refill stations, bigger pressure tanks to store fuel, and the fact that it doesn’t contain as much energy, per unit volume, as gasoline.

But the upside is we have gobs of it in this country, and when burned it emits very much less of the major pollutants. In the always-humble opinion of yours truly, CNG will likely be a major fuel of the future—at least for large commercial vehicles, and maybe cars too.

The infrastructure problems are no worse than those posed by battery-powered cars. Hydrogen, if it happens, is way down the road. I think they will find ways to extract better performance from CNG, and the city of Chicago has just ordered 12 CNG-powered Transit Connects for testing; L.A. is in for 120, and other cities are catching on.

Does CNG fuel show the promise we think it does? Or are Chrysler and GM barking up the wrong tree?

—jgoods

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Used Ford Transit Connect

3 Comments

  1. Randy makes some great points… at least EV charging stations won’t blow with the force of a nuclear explosion. Scary!

  2. I think they may leapfrog into LNG (liquified natural gas) which is much more concentrated than CNG, but the delivery system is higher tech and more expensive than delivery of CNG. Given the general skill level of truck drivers in this country though, I’m not sure I would want to live near a LNG service station or distribution point because of the extreme nature of the fuel. I remember seeing news footage of a LNG storage unit blowing up in Japan. It looked just like a nuclear bomb going off. I thought at the time that it looked so bad because of the close scale of the image, until the anouncer mention the photographer was several miles away. Indeed, I’ve seen it mentioned in anti-terrorism information that some of the large LNG receiving areas in Texas could explode with the force of nuclear weapons in case of a terrorist attack. Not the kind of thing you want to drive around with inside your car or refill your LNG tank next to Billie Bob who is running his engine and smoking a cigarette.

    One nice thing about NG and propane-powered vehicles is that the engines are virtually spotless inside when you tear them down– These fuels don’t produce much carbon during combustion, with is nature’s sandpaper.

    In any case, the energy density of CNG is still much better than that of electricity, so it may be possible to get super-economy cars with 150 to 200 mile ranges.

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