Technology About Gas

Natural gas vehicles on the move

 By Peter Ward
About gas

Natural gas has been an alternative fuel for vehicles for a very long time. The first instance of natural gas being used in a car was in the 1930s in America…

(Cover pic by Mike Mozart, Flickr)

Roughly 15.2 million vehicles in the world are powered by natural gas, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and that figure has been rising steadily for some time. In the past natural gas vehicles have been larger trucks, but advancements in technology means the fuel is now used for a range of vehicles, including smaller commercial ones like taxis and buses.

The three types

There are three types of natural gas vehicles. The first are dedicated vehicles, which are designed to run solely on natural gas. The second type is bi-fuel — vehicles which have two separate fueling system meaning they can run on regular gasoline or natural gas. And finally there is dual-fuel. These vehicles are usually used for heavy-duty operations. Their fuel systems run on natural gas, but they use diesel fuel for ignition assistance.
Vehicles used for lighter duty work, such as ferrying passengers or delivering smaller packages, typically use the dedicated or bi-fuel systems. There are also distinctions in the way the gas is stored. Compressed natural gas vehicles store natural gas in tanks while it is still in its gaseous state, while liquefied natural gas vehicles store it as a liquid. CNG vehicles are more common, but LNG vehicles can carry more fuel as it has a greater energy density than CNG.
Overall, the driving range of natural gas vehicles is generally lower than conventional vehicles, as natural gas has a lower energy density no matter what form it is stored in.

Filling a Honda Civic with natural gas at a CNG station in Torrance (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times)

Advantages

But gas-powered vehicles have many advantages over regular fueled vehicles. The major benefit is the fuel is cleaner. In a time when the effects of climate change are becoming all too apparent, reducing emissions from vehicles could be crucial. From a regulatory standpoint, as guidelines and laws on emissions become more stringent in most countries around the world, this type of technology will help companies and organizations hit those goals. Natural gas is the cleanest burning transportation fuel available today, and could be key in the fight against emissions.
But natural gas isn’t just clean, it’s also extremely safe. When you see an accident involving a vehicle, there’s always a huge danger that the gas will leak out and form a flammable pool on the floor. However, as the majority of natural gas vehicles use fuel that’s lighter than air, should there be an accident the gas would dissipate into the air.
There’s also an economic benefit to using natural gas in vehicles. Natural gas vehicles have been around 30 percent cheaper to refuel than traditional gasoline vehicles, according to NaturalGas.org. There’s also an argument that natural gas vehicles are cheaper to maintain than their traditional counterparts.

Conversion

There is an option to convert vehicles to use natural gas. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the upfront costs for the conversion can be offset by lower operating costs.
The future of natural gas vehicles will surely see more widespread adoption. The biggest threat to their continuing emergence is the electric car, which offers similar benefits. Despite this, there have been some fairly significant shifts of late towards natural gas vehicles. In March UPS, for example, announced it was building six compressed natural gas fueling stations, and adding 390 new CNG tractors and terminal trucks and 50 LNG vehicles to its fleet. The whole deal added up to an investment of more than $90 million in natural gas.

UPS Kenworth fueling with CNG in Denver (fleetsandfuels.com)

“With more than 4,400 natural gas vehicles and a network of fueling stations, UPS has had great results using natural gas as an alternative fuel in our fleet,” said Mark Wallace, UPS senior vice president global engineering and sustainability. “We know the importance of investing in natural gas globally for our fleet and the alternative fuel market. In 2016, we used more than 61 million gallons of natural gas in our ground fleet, which included 4.6 million gallons of renewable natural gas. This helped us to avoid the use of conventional gas and diesel, and decreased CO2 emissions by 100,000 metric tons.”
With these kinds of investments in the technology, natural gas vehicles will be more apparent on our roads for years to come.

READ MORE: The rise of natural gas trucks by Peter Ward

about the author
Peter Ward
Business and technology reporter based in New York. MA in Business Journalism at Columbia University Journalism School 2013. Five years experience reporting in the U.S., the U.K., and the Middle East.