The Patch Technology-Natural Gas

It is somewhat of an undisputed fact, whether from a policy perspective, environmental perspective, or from the perspective of your wallet, that America should look at switching its primary choice of transportation fuel— petroleum. 

Currently, the United States’ gluttony of oil is detrimental to the environment and leads us towards an unstable future. Our outrageously huge consumption of oil is sure to be detrimental in the future, whether because of a financial meltdown from the price of oil, or the destruction of environment and the health problems future generations could be expected to face due to pollution.  America needs to look for a domestic, more environmentally friendly, more stable alternative to oil in order to minimize the detrimental effects of our current oil dependency.

There are many technologies that have promise at solving the issue over the next century.  Electric cars, hydrogen fueled cars, super-rail, jet packs… you name it, and some one is suggesting it.  But for most of these solutions, the technology isn’t quite there. 

Electric cars, for example, have many problems of their own.  “Popular Mechanics has tested the Volt’s mileage claims and found that it gets 33 miles on its electric charge (not 40) and that its miles-per-gallon performance is 31.67 in the city and 36 on the highway (not 50).”[i]  Also, a question electric vehicle (EV) enthusiasts must answer is how convenient is it to charge the battery?  “There are currently 500 charging stations in the United States — 400 of them are in Southern California.”i  Then can we not just charge our EVs at home?  According to the Washington Examiner, the fine print on the Nissan Leaf states that “it takes 20 hours to charge on a standard 110V outlet” for a 100 mile range.i  That is quite an inconvenient amount of time.

Now I am not here to beat up on electric vehicles.  I also understand that technology must progress and in the future electric vehicles (among other technologies) may be the solution.  But until then, we need a patch.

Senator Lisa Murkowski sums up the patch perfectly:

“Without a doubt, the new technology that we’re seeing has enabled a natural gas boom that has changed our energy landscape and the outlook for our economy,” Murkowski said. “Natural gas is now an abundant, affordable, and clean source of energy, providing great opportunities for economic growth and energy security.”[ii]

Various Natural Gas Technologies

Compressed Natural Gas Conversion Kit Schematic

Compressed Natural Gas Conversion Kit Schematic

Compressed Natural Gas Vehicles Schematic

Compressed Natural Gas Vehicles Schematic

Liquified Natural Gas Maritime Storage Container

Liquified Natural Gas Maritime Storage Container

Natural gas technologies include compressed natural gas vehicle conversion kits, compressed natural gas vehicles, and maritime fuel containers for LNG engines among other solutions.  These technologies use natural gas instead of oil as a fuel source.  Through the use of natural gas instead of oil, oil dependency is thus lowered.   Although natural gas still produces emissions, the percentage of harmful emissions is much lower compared to power plants.[iii]  NGVs also have a total emission reduction of 20-30%, including a carbon monoxide reduction of 70-90% and oxides of nitrogen reduction by 75-95% over gasoline or diesel powered cars.[iv]  The economics of a NGV are superior as well to gasoline or diesel powered vehicles.   The quantity of CNG a vehicle uses is measured in gallons of gasoline equivalent (GGE), which is the quantity of CNG that offers the consumer the same amount of energy, measured in BTUs, as a gallon of gasoline. A natural gas GGE is on average significantly cheaper than a gallon of gasoline, making CNG a more economical fuel source for drivers.iv  For the commuting American, converting his or her vehicle to natural gas from gasoline will save an estimated $600 per year.[v]  Also, since natural gas burns much cleaner than gasoline or diesel, the amount of wear and tear on engines caused by gunk and combustion residue is greatly decreased.[vi]

There are promising technologies for natural gas that work today and can use conversion kits to efficiently convert our vehicles to natural gas from gasoline or diesel.  Natural gas as a fuel source is both abundant and domestic, and for the time being, cheap.  I understand that there is not a solution that is perfectly inconsequential.  Natural gas has its own downsides, as I am sure many people can speak to, but it does offer an emission reduction alternative that is readily available, policy positive and less or evenly expensive as gasoline or diesel.  If we use natural gas as a patch until one of the other technologies can progress to being suitable alternative, we can help the environment, our security and our pocketbooks.

William McCraney

[iii] Wang-Helmreich, Hanna, and Stefan Lochner. “The Potential Of Natural Gas As A Bridging Technology In Low-Emission Road Transportation.” Thermal Science 16.3 (2012): 729-746. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Dec. 2012.

[vi] Tirkey, J. V., H. N. Gupta, and S. K. Shukla,”Integrated gas dynamic computational modelling and thermodynamic combustion diagnostics of multicylinder four-stroke spark ignition engine using compressed natural gas as a fuel,” International Journal Of Sustainable Energy 29, no. 2: 59-75. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost



Filed under energy

3 responses to “The Patch Technology-Natural Gas

  1. Agee Springer

    I really like this idea of a “patch” or bridge fuel between gasoline and electricity. I feel that too often Americans (and especially our politicians) expect a neat, simple, easy-to-fit-in-a-sound-bite solution to any problem they face. As has become clear from Dr. Webber’s lectures so far this semester, such a solution simply does not exist in the world of energy. There is no one technology or fuel that will solve all our energy problems. However, there are technologies that are better than what we are using now and can help alleviate some of the environmental and national security challenges presented by our current energy portfolio. While not perfect, as you have pointed out, these technologies can serve as patches until cleaner technologies are more mature.

    All that being said, I do feel there are some challenges to converting our transportation fleet to natural gas, which you did not directly address in your post. The first is cost. As you pointed out, the price of natural gas is quite low at the moment. However, it likely won’t stay low if there was a huge increase in demand like the one that would be created if we were to convert our vehicles to natural gas. Indeed, just last week, we saw electricity prices spike in New England after there was a huge demand for natural gas for heating [1]. You also do not discuss the cost of converting existing vehicles to LNG. A quick Google search indicated that a conversion kit for a four cylinder engine could easily run $1000-$2000 [2], and that does not include mechanic labor costs, which most people would need to pay. I worry that the high cost of conversion might deter many people from making the switch, even if the annual fuel savings end up being as high as you estimated in your post.

    The second large challenge I see has to do with infrastructure. The American Public Power Association has already warned that demand for natural gas has been outstripping the supply capability since 2010 [3]. This problem would likely be exacerbated if we switched over to natural gas as a transportation fuel source. Moreover, LNG has to be stored at low temperatures to prevent evaporation. Both of these problems would likely necessitate significant retrofitting and upgrading of both our natural gas transportation infrastructure and storage capabilities at fuelling stations. These upgrades might be costly, and could end up raising the retail price consumers would pay for LNG at the pump.

    I am not trying to sound negative about this post. I really do think natural gas could hold tremendous potential as a “bridge” fuel. But the switch will require thoughtful planning by both engineers and policy makers (which could be a challenge in itself) to overcome the difficulties I have mentioned above. Thanks for bringing this topic up!




    • Great points Agee.
      I realize there are definite challenges.
      A first step solution towards filling up CNGV’s is at home refueling stations. While this may warrant overnight filling up due to the low pressure values in our homes, right before the NG pipeline is connected to our home one last “step-down” in pressure occurs. Many of the “at-home” refueling stations could be connected before this last step down to decrease refueling time.

      As for new demand created by switching over to NG, the thought had crossed my mind. But at the same time we should also realize the importance of having domestic fuel as opposed to foreign fuels, even if it is Canada. The USA is reported to have approximately 100 years of equivalence (to gasoline & diesel) supply of natural gas with our continuing increasing usage. This domestic supply could help to offset a higher cost due to the higher demand. However, at the same time a higher cost of NG at the fuel pump would likely drive private companies to build better infrastructure and stop burning off so much natural gas.

      So if we assumed that the overall cost per year of fuel for the average American was equivalent to current costs, we would still get all the great environmental reductions by switching from oil. Natural gas is reportedly one of the cleanest burning fossil fuels we could implement in our daily-consumer transportation.

      As far as the conversion kits costs, I personally think these would come down. In my next blog I plan to focus more on the policy of implementing NG into the consumer and commercial transportation sector. Much like how the Prius was successfully researched and produced privately by Toyota and then subsidized all over to world to the end consumer, I think the same concept could be applied to CNGVs. In addition, once these vehicles could be implemented on a scale such as the Prius has been, people would likely see a subsidy to the consumer for conversion kits. Since conversion kits only cost up to $8000 on the high end, a government subsidy would only have to be a much smaller amount than a government subsidy on an entire vehicle. Also, hybrid models such as CNG and gasoline fueled cars could ease the conversion to natural gas. Finally I would bet that if CNGVs were seen as viable, it would be possible to increase the supply of CNGVs and CNG conversion kits that could lower the overall costs.

      As for LNG, most of the time it is only viable in huge cargo ships as the storage containers have to be so highly contained as pressures can exceed 270 times atmospheric pressure and -160 celcius. Already many fleets are working on the conversion of their ships as environmental laws kick into place to clean up the dirty, polluting ships. (interesting idea )

      Will it be difficult? For sure! Anything worthwhile is never easy. Politicians will never get that, or will never be able to make the hard decisions as long as they able to be career politicians.

  2. brianvogel2013

    Excellent post and replies. WILLCMCC, touched on the reduced CO and NOx emissions of CNG compared to gasoline, but an additional benefit that fits nicely with your assertion of CNG as a “patch” fuel is the reduced CO2 emission per BTU. The efficiencies of CNG and gasoline are similar for most applications [1], but the CO2 emissions are drastically lower. The EIA reports 156 pounds of CO2 per million BTU for gasoline, compared to 117 for CNG [2].

    I find the analogy with current trends in electric power generation compelling. Similar to reducing CO2 emissions per mile by switching from gasoline or diesel to natural gas, CO2 emissions can be greatly reduced by switching fuel for electric generation from coal to natural gas. The IEA reports an range of 780-990 grams per kWh of electricity generated using goal, compared to 400 grams per kWh when using natural gas [3].

    Given the contentious nature of the current political climate, and the acknowledgement that no one solution is a panacea, it is refreshing to find technologies that have the dual benefit of being clearly environmentally cleaner, while at the same time providing a solution to national security and economic concerns. Hopefully the integration of natural gas as an automotive fuel can follow the path of natural gas for electric generation, supplanting a relatively dirty fuel with an economic solution.


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