We often refer to the nuts and bolts of our machines as "guts," but this is taking it to another level. A company called Otherlab is working toward a new kind of natural gas tank for vehicles, based on an "intestinal" design. No, it's not "digesting" the fuel any differently from today's natural gas-powered vehicles, but it does wrap around the car's other "organs" much in the way that the body's digestive organs nestle into whatever space is available in the human trunk.
Essentially, the idea is to have the fuel tank be a series of small, high-pressure cylinders in the place of a single big cylinder. The small tubes would allow for conformability: car makers could shape the tanks to fit in any number of spaces and designs, as opposed to the bulky needs of a standard natural gas tank. Otherlab was at the ARPA-E Innovation Summit last week, where they made their case during the mildly crazy Future Energy pitch session; the company is an ARPA-E awardee, and has received a relatively small $250 000 grant to develop the technology.
Otherlab says the conformable tanks could be made from either stainless steel or carbon fiber, a difference that would change the weight and cost parameters. In general, making natural gas a viable transportation fuel is limited by its energy density: it has about 30 percent less energy by volume than conventional gasoline does, which so far has kept it to a niche part of the vehicle market. According to ARPA-E, "if successful, Otherlab's intestinal natural gas storage system would allow an increase in the storage density, safety, and space utilization and give automotive designers more freedom in vehicle design." They also point out that in theory at least, natural gas vehicles produce 10 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional gas-powered vehicles.
According to the Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels Data Center, natural gas currently powers only about 112 000 vehicles in the U.S. (though it's closer to 15 million around the world). As the natural gas boom continues in the U.S. thanks to Marcellus shale and other deposits, that number is likely to go up, and technologies like Otherlab's will probably be central to that growth.
Image and video via Otherlab