ARPA-E Looks to Natural Gas for New Vehicle Technologies

The Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) announced its latest round of funding recently, with $30 million going toward 13 projects looking into natural gas vehicle technologies. Some buses and trucks already run on compressed or liquified natural gas, but this represents a very small fraction of the overall vehicle fleet.

ARPA-E's new program, called MOVE (Methane Opportunities for Vehicular Energy), will focus on building gas tanks that are lightweight and cheap enough to be commercially viable, along with development of "natural gas compressors that can efficiently fuel a natural gas vehicle at home."

According to ARPA-E, "Today’s natural gas vehicle technologies require tanks that can withstand high pressures, are often cumbersome, and are either too large or too expensive to be suitable for smaller passenger vehicles." Among the newly funded projects looking to solve these issues is the development of a conformable gas tank with a foam core, which REL, Inc. says will allow bigger storage capacities than current tanks at one-third of the cost. The company will receive $3 million for the project.

In the same vein, Texas A&M University will receive another $3 million to develop highly adsorbent materials to be used in low-pressure natural gas tanks. "These low-cost materials enable low-pressure natural gas to efficiently adhere to their engineered porous structures, storing gas at very high energy densities," according to ARPA-E. Other projects will try to develop methods for cheap and safe refueling of natural gas vehicles at home, including a single-piston refueling system out of the University of Texas at Austin.

The Obama administration has expressed support for natural gas vehicles in the past, at least in part because of the huge reserves of shale gas being drilled out at record rates in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere around the country. The DOE points out in a press release that shale gas production has grown from five percent to 30 percent of the country's natural gas production in just five years. Though natural gas is clearly considered a priority by the administration, Obama has also set a goal of having one million electric vehicles on the roads by 2015.

Image: Compressed natural gas pump, via Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz

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