The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratory, Argonne, has been preoccupied with hybrid-electric vehicles, but now it is refocusing upon vehicles powered by natural gas (NGVs), according to an article on Argonne’s website. ”Our hope is that there will be a bunch of technologies that need testing,” said Mike Duoba, an engineer at Argonne’s Transportation Technology Research and Development Center.
The lab has a suite of testing apparatus, including machines to allow stationary engine testing and powertrain testing, as well as to test a vehicle’s electrical energy consumption and fuel consumption. It has done testing on AT&T’s fleet of natural gas vehicles for Clean Cities, a DOE program aimed at supporting efforts to reduce petroleum use in cities.
Argonne is said to have opened its door to what it anticipates will be a new wave of NGV technologies. That anticipation is built upon the growing reserves of natural gas in the USA, low prices for natural gas, and President Obama’s emphasis on using domestically produced natural gas as a transportation fuel. At a recent visit to a UPS center in Las Vegas, Nevada, he called for tax credits to support commercial natural gas vehicles, and grants to help build fueling stations.
In March, President Obama said, “We should be investing in the technology that’s building the cars and trucks and jets that will prevent us from dealing with these high gas [conventional fuel] prices year after year after year.”
Thomas Wallner, an Argonne engineer who works on advanced engine technologies, said ”There seems to be a new wave of [compressed natural gas] interest coming.”
Expanding the number of natural gas vehicles on the roads could provide a number of benefits. Natural gas is cheaper and it is a domestic source of fuel, unlike much of the oil imported into the US from the Middle East and other regions. In addition, burning natural gas produces fewer greenhouse gases and other pollutants than gasoline and diesel fuel.
Argonne’s attentiveness on the fuel was demonstrated in February 2012, when DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency offered $30 million in funding to support research into advanced CNG tank and compressor technology.
Argonne researchers are also tackling some of the hurdles it perceives as standing in the way of wider adoption of natural gas vehicles, such as through research on an improved “bi-fuel” engine that can run on both gasoline and natural gas. Such engines are already used, but according to Wallner, designing an engine from the ground up to run on both fuels, rather than simply modifying a gasoline engine to also run on natural gas, could lead to higher efficiencies.
One way to get at more efficiency is through the use of “direct injection,” a technique used in gasoline cars – and studied at Argonne for hydrogen vehicles – that researchers at the lab are looking 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 direct injection, the fuel is sprayed directly into the cylinder, which allows it to burn more efficiently.
Those efficiencies could in turn result in longer range for the vehicles.
(This article compiled using information supplied by Argonne National Laboratory)