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Natural Gas as Transport Fuel Gains Ground

Just how prescient were the recent comments of Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon and T. Boone Pickens about increasing the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel? General Motors Corp. (GM) now is calling natural gas an "enticing alternative" to petroleum, and Honda Motor Co. has begun touting "Phill," a home refueling appliance available to owners of natural gas vehicles (NGV).

In recent weeks, McClendon and Pickens -- who admittedly have different agendas -- have fueled the idea of using more of North America's abundant gas reserves as transportation fuel (see NGI, Aug. 4, July 14). Their ideas now appear to be gaining a lot more attention from Detroit and Japan.

GM's Larry Burns, vice president of research and development, cited natural gas' abundance, affordability and relative cleanliness in a recent GM FastLane blog entry.

"Because GM believes there is no single technology solution to displace petroleum," Burns said GM is "aggressively" pursuing biofuels and "leveraging other efficiencies" that include advanced engines and hybrids.

"In the near term, we can use compressed natural gas (CNG) in internal combustion engines," said Burns. "Mid term, we can leverage natural gas to create electricity for [GM's] Volt and future variants. In the long term, natural gas could be an excellent source for making hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles, either at the filling station or in people's homes."

GM already has experience with NGV, Burns noted. GM's Opel Zafira CNG is "among the leaders in Europe, where gasoline and diesel fuel are costly, and we are exploring a dual-fuel approach with natural gas and gasoline for U.S. customers. While we are not ready to commit to a future production plan, we are taking a serious look at natural gas in the U.S. as yet another way to diversify our portfolio of affordable and sustainable transportation energy solutions."

For natural gas to make a "measurable impact," Burns said, many vehicles need to use it, and "it must be readily available. Collaboration with the energy industry and governments is key. Governments will likely need to provide incentives to encourage early adoption of the technology and to jump-start the fueling infrastructure."

Honda has begun selling Civic GX NGV in the United States for about $24,590 -- $7,000 more than the conventional Civic. It now is available only in California and New York, which both have a network of natural gas fueling stations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has rated the Civic as the cleanest internal-combustion engine. The California Air Resources Board gave the vehicle its cleanest emissions rating.

Honda is offering Phill as part of the NGV package. The refueling station, manufactured by Ontario-based FuelMaker, connects to a home-based natural gas line to allow fill-ups at home. The compact unit (30 inches by 14 inches by 14 inches) hangs on the wall of the garage. According to Honda, Phill is as safe and as quiet as a clothes dryer. A methane detector monitors for leaks and automatically shuts down the unit if necessary.

Refueling a four-cylinder Civic NGV could take up to 16 hours for an empty tank; a full tank would have a driving range of 220-250 miles. CNG mileage is 24 in the city and 36 on the highway, according to Honda. Although not measured in liquid gallons, Honda said the price for CNG may be as low as $1.29/gallon on an equivalent basis.

According to FuelMaker, Phill is available in select areas of California, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington, Texas and Wisconsin.

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