In the heart of biofuel country, an engineering professor’s research has identified compressed natural gas (CNG) as the most sustainable among a variety of alternative auto transportation fuels. The findings were summarized in an obscure academic journal article earlier this year that has drawn little interest from the gas industry or alternative transportation sector.

“I know it is just an academic paper, and Congress doesn’t pay attention to what academics come up with,” said Robert Brown, a distinguished engineering professor at Iowa State University and head of its Bioeconomy Institute and Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies. “But there would be some advantage to looking at something like this research because it might help us start spending money in the right areas.”

Brown and a co-author, Joshua Gifford, a graduate mechanical engineering student in the professor’s program, did life cycle analysis for automotive transportation, focusing on four areas they summarized as “cost-water-energy-and-greenhouse-gas” (CWEG). In “Four Economies of Sustainable Automotive Transportation,” published by the Society of Chemical Industry, they analyzed natural gas and gasoline, diesel, biofuels, hybrid electric and fuel cell-power vehicles for their relative costs, water use, energy sources and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

CNG scored the highest with CWEG scores of 71-74 out of a possible 100, “well above the next highest score, which was 45 for conventional diesel hybrid electric vehicles.” Hydrogen fuel cells running on power from the electric grid posted the lowest scores, ranging from 13 to 15.

“The study quantifies the advantages of natural gas for automotive transportation, whether used as CNG directly in vehicles or used to generate electric power for battery-power electric vehicles,” it said.

While noting that his phone hasn’t been ringing off the hook since the publication, Brown said nevertheless he thinks “the concept of doing similar life cycle assessments that includes not only the economics, but the energy, water and GHG emissions, is the wave of the future, and is certainly accepted in the research community as the way we need to be evaluating these issues. I think we are going to see more of it done in places like the U.S. Department of Energy.”

Stationed in Iowa where the biofuels of ethanol and biodiesel comprise a $15 billion-plus industry, Brown said he received no negative feedback in the state from his research conclusion on natural gas. “I have a lot of friends in the biofuels industry, and they recognize this is not a winner-take-all situation and we need lots of winners to meet our future energy demand,” he said.

Brown reiterated that he did not think his research was geared to “picking winners” either, noting that his research points to a “possible role” for natural gas in transportation, but it also doesn’t “dismiss the possibility that biofuels can play a role.”

“One of the reasons to do an analysis like this is not to pick winners and losers as much as to point out to the researchers and people trying to commercialize all of these technologies what kind of challenges they are facing and whether they are up to those challenges,” Brown said. He cited as an example the process of producing hydrogen from the grid as being a technology that faces “enormous penalties” in a life cycle analysis, and thus he questions whether it should be pursued.

Brown said his life cycle analysis also looked at different weightings for the four metrics (cost, water, energy and emissions) because different people would place different emphasis in what they wanted from alternative transportation options. Still the natural gas option was the clear winner, except when higher emphasis is put on emissions, he said.

Brown’s conclusion is somewhat surprising to him also because most of his work is done in analyzing the use of biofuels in both generation and transportation. “We were a little surprised at how well natural gas did in this particular analysis, and that is why I added the caveat in announcing our findings that just because these four metrics look real good doesn’t there aren’t potential barriers.

“One of the biggest barriers for me is our [the United States’] strong reliance on natural gas for heating, and I don’t think consumers will accept the big wholesale price swings that have occurred over the years for transportation. They have accepted it in terms of the cost of heating homes, but not for transportation.”

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