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Natural-Gas Testing on Agenda for Major National Laboratory

June 28, 2012

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The Energy Department national laboratory that developed the battery technology for the Chevrolet Volt and other hybrid-electric vehicles has set its sights on another potential player in the alternative-fuel market: natural gas.
Expanding the number of natural gas vehicles on the roads could provide a number of benefits, including cheaper fuel prices, fewer emissions and domestic production, and some trucks and buses are already on board.
Expanding the number of natural gas vehicles on the roads could provide a number of benefits, including cheaper fuel prices, fewer emissions and domestic production, and some trucks and buses are already on board.


According to published reports, researchers and engineers at Chicago-based Argonne National Laboratory, which helped develop the lithium-ion battery technology used in some modern cars and trucks, wants to use its facilities for natural-gas vehicle testing.

"Our hope is that there will be a bunch of technologies that need testing," says Mike Duoba, an engineer at Argonne's Transportation Technology Research and Development Center. "Certainly that's the way it has been for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids and hybrids at the vehicle level and the systems level. That was pretty much our thing: an all systems level, vehicle-level testing for DOE."

Argonne has served as the main testing site for DOE hybrid and advanced-vehicle researchers. The lab includes testing equipment such as machines to allow stationary engine testing and powertrain testing, as well as equipment to test a vehicle's electrical energy consumption and fuel consumption.

The lab has also tested AT&T's fleet of natural gas vehicles for Clean Cities, a DOE program supporting efforts to decrease petroleum use in cities.

Argonne says in the future, it would like to be known as the go-to place for natural-gas-vehicle testing.

"We have all that equipment, so we are looking forward to this stuff being made available, and we are hoping DOE will be in a position to say 'We need to validate these, we need to benchmark these,' and maybe even come up with some standard test metrics, standard test procedures too, which is something we are also involved in," Duoba says.

Wider adoption

Expanding the number of natural gas vehicles on the roads could provide a number of benefits, including cheaper fuel prices, fewer emissions and domestic production, and some trucks and buses are already on board. However, there are a few obstacles when it comes to passenger cars. Natural gas takes up more space in a car's storage tank per mile than gasoline, meaning shorter range. Also, the fueling infrastructure is not yet in place. Home refueling is an option, although the necessary compressors are expensive.

Argonne researchers are starting to tackle some of those hurdles.

Research has begun on an improved "bi-fuel" engine that uses both gasoline and natural gas. Engines such as this already exist, but Argonne is designing from scratch instead of modifying a gasoline engine to run on natural gas as well. Doing this could lead to higher efficiencies.

Another way to achieve more more efficiency is with "direct injection," a technique used in gasoline cars - and studied at Argonne for hydrogen vehicles - that Argonne researchers are hoping to use with natural gas. In most fuel-injected vehicles, the injector mixes the fuel with air as it is moves into the combustion cylinder, but with the use of direct injection, the fuel is sprayed directly into the cylinder, which allows it to burn more efficiently.

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