Cars That Run on Natural Gas - Alternative Fuels
In the world of alternative fuels, electric, hydrogen and even hybrid vehicles get most of the attention. Not many people are aware of another alternative automotive fuel that burns cleaner than gasoline, is found abundantly in the United States and is already in heavy use around the world: natural gas. Natural gas is by no means a new fuel; it’s been used to heat homes and cook food in gas stoves for more than a century. But only recently have automotive technicians begun exploring the possibility of using natural gas as an alternative to gasoline in automobiles here in the United States.
How it Works:
When used in automobiles, natural gas comes in two forms:
- Compressed natural gas (CNG)
- Liquefied natural gas (LNG)
Both forms require storage in cylinders that are often located in the trunk of the vehicle. When being burned by an engine, natural gas works very similarly to gasoline; vehicles that run on natural gas will have spark plug timing and compression optimized for that type of fuel.
The United States is a bit late to the natural gas party, at least where using it as an automotive fuel is concerned. In 2010 there were approximately 12.7 million natural gas vehicles in use globally, with only about 115,000 of those located in the United States—most being busses. One automaker currently offers a natural-gas-powered automobile in the United States, and other manufacturers are expected to follow suit as domestic demand increases. Conversion kits can be purchased that allow a traditional vehicle to run on natural gas. And while the kits can cost as little as $1,500 in countries such as Thailand, operating costs within the United States can make the conversion of a family car run as high as $16,000.
Benefits and challenges:
Natural gas has several advantages over gasoline as a source of automotive fuel. Since natural gas has the highest energy/carbon ratio of any fossil fuel, it emits less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when burned. Natural gas also tends to erode vehicle components less quickly than gasoline, allowing natural gas vehicles to run much longer than traditional gasoline-powered vehicles. As with any new alternative fuel, the challenge comes with the lack of distribution and refueling infrastructure necessary to transition to natural gas vehicles on a large scale. Houses fitted with natural gas lines could easily refuel a natural gas vehicle with the minor addition of a valve and hose, but refueling away from the home would not be as simple.
It may be difficult to find a natural gas vehicle in the United States right now. If you find one and decide to buy it, or buy any new vehicle, make sure it’s covered by auto insurance.
CNG fueling station credit: Winston Salem Journal.