A natural gas vehicle (NGV) that can provide its own onboard compression for fueling? That is the concept of some Oregon and Colorado university engineering researchers who earlier this month received $700,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) advanced research projects agency (ARPA-E).

The goal by the end of next year is to build a compressed natural gas (CNG) truck that doesn't need a fueling station because it will carry the capability of compressing its own fuel onboard by tapping into a normal low-pressure household or small business natural gas supply.

Chris Hagen, an engineering professor at Oregon State University, Cascades, at Bend, OR, originated the idea with a plug-in electric vehicle that used CNG as its back-up fuel, but DOE asked him to concentrate on creating a CNG-powered truck instead. He is joined by Tom Bradley, an engineering professor at Colorado State University (CSU) at Fort Collins, CO, who has also brought in some help from Encana Corp.'s NGV experts.

ARPA-E officials wanted to go for a light-duty pickup truck because they feel it has the potential for much greater market acceptance, Hagen told NGI Monday, outlining how in either case the concept is to have one cylinder in an internal combustion engine (ICE) also dedicated to provide compression when the vehicle is parked. "So this vehicle should be able to refill itself using only the ICE," he said.

While running the CNG-powered engine as it is parked and connected to a low-pressure natural gas source, one of the cylinders will be compressing gas and refilling the vehicle's supply. Up to 96% of the CNG being produced will fill up the tank, with about 4% being consumed for the compression cycle, Hagen said. A light-duty truck like this could be attractive to various gas utility and other operators, he said.

There obviously are some added weight and cost considerations for a CNG sector that is already sensitive to both, particularly in passenger vehicles. Hagen said that isn't a problem. "The design, as such, has kept the number of added components to a minimum," he said. "We're going to be using some engine valve deactivation technology and other things."

The only added component to the engine is the equipment needed to have one cylinder capable of compressing gas at low pressures, Hagen said. "One cylinder will have a heavier-duty liner, but other than that, the ICE is the same." He said the added cost is something less than $500 as far as the target for the DOE-funded project.

Current home fueling systems for CNG are generally costly and slow, according to Hagen. "By using the ICE for the compression, we're going to have a pretty robust compressor that should be able to fill the vehicle pretty quickly."

"With this innovation, we can refuel NGVs without having to have a dedicated high-pressure natural gas compression station," Bradley said. How the vehicle will interconnect with a household gas pipeline is still to be worked out. "Actually how you would refuel at home is still a work in progress," Hagen said.

The project has access to an Encana team of experts on NGV economics. "They are going to help us identify all of the [customer interface] issues and how we might address them," Hagen said.

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