Interest in building a natural gas vehicle (NGV) market in the United States remained in high gear last week with federal and state grant money dispersed for new projects and one operator using a unique three-day free “ride-and-drive” approach to draw new participants.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) last Thursday pumped out another $30 million to advance equipment and technology considered critical for NGVs at its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The funding, which is to focus on methane’s use in transportation, is being dispersed in nine states that will design NGV fuel tanks that are supposed to be more affordable, as well as to model more efficient compressors for compressed natural gas (CNG).

DOE Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman said the ARPA-E grants should “leverage the ingenuity of U.S. scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to develop breakthrough technologies to fuel cars with natural gas.” The announcement was made at a meeting of the National Petroleum Council in Houston. Two of the grants, totaling $7.3 million, are going to two Texas university research centers.

DOE characterized the latest grants as an extension of President Obama’s call for making greater use of domestic natural gas supplies, now estimated to be at least 100 years in duration, which also carries the potential for creating thousands of new jobs. The federal agency said its past research contributed to the advancements in shale gas development that have lead to plentiful gas reserves and it hopes similar advancements can come from the funding for NGV research.

Projects funded in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin would build on efforts under way through the Clean Cities program and National Clean Fleets Partnership, which are aimed at helping large fleet operators nationally, including large companies, cities and states. They all are geared to helping smooth the transition to more use of NGVs.

Poneman said NGV technologies generally “require tanks that can withstand high pressures,” making them often cumbersome, large and expensive for smaller passenger vehicles. A $3 million grant is going to Calumet, MI-based REL Inc. for the development of “foam core” which would allow natural gas tanks to be formed into any shape necessary. “This will enable higher storage capacity than current carbon fiber tanks at one-third the cost”. Other projects will focus on CNG compression technology, particularly related to the development of home-based fueling systems. The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Electromechanics will get $4 million to develop an at-home CNG fueling system that uses a single-piston technology, making it lighter and more cost-effective.

DOE created the ARPA-E program in 2009 (see NGI, March 3, 2010), and so far it has had 11 projects go on to secure more than $200 million in outside private-sector capital. To date, the program has attracted 5,000 applications from various research teams, resulting in what DOE called 180 groundbreaking projects it said are worth nearly $500 million.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) doled out $1.7 million last week for 15 different energy projects, with more than $500,000 for “green transportation” advancements. Two grants went to public school districts trying to expand CNG fueling and vehicles: $300,000 to a school district in Los Angeles County and $83,000 to a school district in Imperial County to upgrade public access to its CNG fueling facility. About $122,000 was directed to three auto dealers for “buy-downs” to help pay for the cost difference between vehicles equipped to run on natural gas or propane versus conventional vehicles using gasoline or diesel.

Ryder Systems Inc. also is continuing to offer through the end of July a three-day free “ride-and-drive” rental of NGVs in the Sacramento area to push for more use in its national fleet truck rental business. Three different versions of CNG-powered NGVs are being offered: Freightliner Tandem Axle, Freightliner Single Axle and a GreenKraft Light Duty Straight Truck. NGVs — either CNG or liquefied natural gas (LNG) — are a good fit for many of Ryder’s 14,000 customers that rent or lease trucks, CEO Greg Swienton said in May (see NGI, May 21).

Ryder offers a “Flex-to-Green Lease” to “ease the transition” of fleet operators to an alternative fuel. Fleet operators can begin with a diesel-powered vehicle and in a year convert to an NGV, keeping the same maintenance services for either vehicle under Ryder’s full-service leases.

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