The California Energy Commission (CEC) on Wednesday approved four grants totaling $3.9 million for separate research projects to advance the development of natural gas onboard fuel tanks and natural gas-powered engines with hybrid electric concepts for heavy-duty fleet vehicles.

A $1.2 million grant was awarded to privately held, San Francisco-based BlackPak Inc. to develop and demonstrate an advanced onboard fuel storage tank suitable for light-duty natural gas vehicles (NGV). Along with partners ATMI Inc. and SRI International, BlackPak is developing “adsorbed natural gas storage systems for automotive and commercial applications with a target system-level energy density.”

“BlackPak plans to build a storage system from carbon materials that will allow natural gas to be stored at a lower pressure,” said a CEC spokesperson, adding that the approach is supposed to reduce both complexity and costs.

The material used by BlackPak can be formed into a wide variety of shapes, allowing designers to integrate the fuel storage system into vehicle designs without sacrificing passenger space, the spokesperson said. CEC funds will help create a prototype, along with earlier funding that came from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy.

Separately, grants of $900,000 each were awarded under the CEC’s Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) program, which distributes several hundred million dollars annually to various natural gas and electricity projects, some of which are part of the state’s clean transportation efforts.

The effort attempts to make headway in combining the best attributes of NGVs with electric vehicle (EV) technology. The recipients and the research varies:

Elsewhere this month, compressed natural gas (CNG) tank manufacturer Xperion signed an agreement with 3M Corp. to develop a new line of 3M-branded CNG tanks for heavy duty transportation industry use. The CNG cylinders are to combine 3M’s matrix resin technology with Xperion’s engineering and proprietary design technology.

Xperion late last year disclosed plans for a CNG cylinder plant in Heath, OH. The Germany-based company said the new 3M tanks will begin production there later this year, and at the same time Xperion will produce its own X-Store brand Type IV cylinders there, too.

“Combine this dedicated facility with 3M’s pipeline of materials and technologies and our skilled engineering and design team in Kassel, Germany, and we believe we have a solution that will deliver superior value,” said Xperion General Manager Sean Ellen.

Another CNG tank maker, Hexagon Lincoln, said this month that it has established a factory-authorized deal with Omaha-based Truck Center Cos. to distribute Hexagon’s Tuffshell brand Type IV all-composite CNG tanks. Truck Center operates 12 Freightliner dealerships.

Truck Center operates in eight cities in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas, from which it will provide tanks, components, systems and value-added services with full warranty support of Hexagon Lincoln components. It also has been working with Trillium CNG and Omaha’s Metropolitan Utilities District on a new facility to include CNG fueling and full natural gas truck services.