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What it’s like to drive a car powered by natural gas

Scott Tong Nov 10, 2014
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What it’s like to drive a car powered by natural gas

Scott Tong Nov 10, 2014
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America’s natural gas production shows no signs of abating. And increasingly, the question is: What to do with all of it?

One proposed solution is to drive cars on it, which is possible. But likely?

Marketplace’s Scott Tong conducted a test drive on a recent reporting trip to Michigan:

As soon as I land at the airport, the dual-fuel truck is waiting. This Ford F-150 burns gasoline and natural gas. The vehicle drives the same, except there’s just one switch to flip on the alternative fuel.

The benefit of natural gas? Let’s talk a bit of chemistry. Natural gas is one of several hydrocarbons: ethane, propane, butane…

“Natural gas is the simplest one,” says John DeCicco of the University of Michigan Energy Institute. “It’s just one carbon atom with four hydrogen atoms. And because it just has one carbon, it burns very cleanly.”

When it’s burned, natural gas emits half the amount of greenhouse gas CO2 than gasoline.

DeCicco joins me as we drive to a nearby gas station. There, commercial driver John Duffiny is filling up at a special pump for his natural gas van.

“It drives great,” Duffiny says. “Just like a gas motor. You punch it, you get to 80 miles an hour in [a]  minute. I shouldn’t say 80 … 70 miles an hour.”

And on this day, the fuel costs 30 percent less than gasoline, per unit of energy.

Now here’s the rub: First, I can’t work the natural gas station hose. It looks different. It goes into a different place in the vehicle. And the pump has a problem with its compressor.

To fill a natural gas tank, the fuel has to be pushed in, or compressed. Hence the term “compressed natural gas,” or CNG. It’s like filling a tire with air. Natural gas is similarly gaseous. It’s not a liquid.

“Think about filling up a balloon,” DeCicco says. “You have to blow it up. And what this pump is doing is the same thing.”

Another trade-off: the tank is really big. See, the fuel is less dense, less concentrated.

“The vast majority of people who want pickup trucks aren’t going to want to lose a bunch of their bed space,” DeCicco says.

Today, many buses and large trucks figure all these trade-offs are indeed worth it. They have space for extra-large fuel tanks. And since they often drive long distances, the savings add up.

But the rest of us, not many are sold on the idea yet. Of a billion vehicles in the world, 1 percent or so burn natural gas. 

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