Stopped Dead in itsTracks

Using natural gas for powering automobiles and trucks has been stopped dead in its tracks by the low price of gasoline and diesel fuel.

When Saudi Arabia decided to maintain its output of oil to keep its market share, it resulted, whether intentionally or not, in stopping, or at least slowing down, the move toward using natural gas as a transportation fuel.

Using compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquified natural gas (LNG) as a transportation fuel, relies on there being a sufficient spread between the prices of gasoline and diesel fuel, and that of CNG and LNG respectively.

Using CNG and LNG requires special tanks and fueling stations, which adds to the cost of using natural gas.

Table 1, based on 2013 data, shows the added cost per vehicle for equipping them to use natural gas.

TABLE 1

Type

Number Vehicles

Fuel Used

Incremental or Conversion Cost for Natural Gas

Heavy-duty long distance trucks (18 wheelers) 3.8 million 1.25 mb/d

$70,000

Heavy-duty fleet trucks1 1.0 million 0.38 mb/d

$70,000

Medium-duty fleet trucks 3.9 million 0.4 mb/d

$32,000

Transit buses 0.07 million 0.04 mb/d

$50,000

School buses 0.7 million 0.6 mb/d

$32,000

Light vehicles 237 million 8.2 mb/d

$6,000 for cars

$11,000 for pick-up trucks2

Notes:

1. Estimate 20% of 4.8 million 18 wheelers and 20% of 1.63 mb/d fuel used

2. Duel fueled gasoline and natural gas, vehicles

Sources: Energy Information Administration and National Renewable Energy Laboratory

The added cost of equipping vehicles to use natural gas must be offset by lower costs for GNG or LNG.

The low price of oil has resulted in the cost differential between CNG and gasoline, and LNG and diesel fuel virtually disappearing.

CNG, Gasoline and Diesel prices From Department of Energy
CNG, Gasoline and Diesel prices From Department of Energy

In addition, there is a woeful lack of CNG and LNG fueling stations.

Currently, there are only 832 CNG and only 73 LNG public fueling stations in the United States. Table 2 shows the high cost of building the required infrastructure for natural gas to become a major factor in transportation.

TABLE 2

Type fueling station

Estimated Cost

LNG (50,000 DGE per month or approx. 10 trucks per day) $2 million each station
LNG (150,000 DGE per month or approx. 20 trucks per day) $4 million each station
LNG (300,000 DGE per month or approx. 40 trucks per day) $6 million each station
CNG (Low volume. 25,000 GGE) $1 million each station
CNG (Moderate volume. 50,000 GGE) $2 million each station
DGE = Diesel Gallons equivalent GGE = Gasoline Gallon Equivalent

For LNG stations, assume truck tank size is 200 gallons of DGE

Two years ago, there was a significant effort to increase the number of fueling stations with companies such as Shell and Clean Energy Fuels saying they would build CNG and LNG fueling stations along major truck routes.

At present, the low price of gasoline and diesel fuel make the use of CNG and LNG problematic.

There will be special situations that favor the use of natural gas, especially in countries where the cost of imported diesel fuel is high and there are plentiful supplies of natural gas. This is an example from Australia where the use of CNG is being evaluated. The fiber glass cylinders, shown next to the truck, are housed in the cabinet between the wheels.

CNG Cylinders and Truck
CNG Cylinders and Truck

Conditions are bound to change as demand for oil increases with a resulting increase in its price.

Even when the price of oil increases, the ever present possibility that low prices will reemerge will remain a threat to those who want to invest in CNG and LNG vehicles.

* * * * * *

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0 thoughts on “Stopped Dead in itsTracks

  1. What about Methanol?

    Converting cars to run on ethanol is pretty easy. Just replace two minor parts and the car could run on both methanol and ethanol, albeit not very efficiently. Natural gas is the main source for methanol, a flexfuel car makes more sense than CNG or LNG, you can always at least be sure of gasoline being available.

    • Methanol has some advantages, but also disadvantages.
      The advantage, as you say, is that an ICE vehicle can use gasoline if methanol isn’t available.
      There are two problems with methanol that come to mind.
      First, methanol is tricky to produce. Not sure of its costs, as i haven’t investigated costs.
      Second, methanol has less energy content than natural gas or ethanol. I am not a fan of ethanol since it uses food to make a fuel that’s burned in a car.
      Here’s the data:
      Methanol 56,600 BTU/ gallon
      Ethanol 76,100 BTI / gallon
      LNG 75,000 BTU / gallon
      Gasoline 114,000 BTU / gallon
      LNG is a clear winner over methanol, except it requires special cryogenic tanks.
      For long haul trucks the issue is distance traveled and cost per mile. LNG has an advantage over methanol and diesel fuel. the article explains this.
      As for CNG, depending on how its measured, the energy content is similar to gasoline on a CGE basis. CNG has the problem of space to store it which is a negative. It’s been stored at 2,400 psi and also at 3,600 psi so the tanks are larger and are specially made, usually of fiber glass.
      As I understand it, methanol also has some health issues, but you probably know more about them than I do.
      I haven’t done an in depth evaluation of methanol, primarily because of the above two reasons.
      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Dan: Here is a more fundamental reason why I haven’t investigated methanol more thoroughly.
    Natural gas, methane, can be altered to produce hydrogen and a diesel fuel as well as methanol. The processes required to alter methane, either with reforming, GTL trains or refining for methanol, are expensive.
    Unless there is a compelling reason to alter methane, I see no reason to do so.
    For example, here are two reasons to alter methane: Qatar has invested heavily in GTL so as to produce diesel fuel for export to Europe. It uses natural gas that would otherwise be stranded. Hydrogen is produced in refineries for use in hydro cracking, and is therefore worth the effort.
    So why invest in refineries to produce methanol when natural gas can be used without investing in expensive processing?
    Hope this provides a more fundamental reason for my not having investigated methanol more thoroughly.
    Perhaps I am wrong, but that is why I have answered you comment the way I did.
    Thanks for your comment.

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