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From the Gut: "Intestinal" Design for Vehicle Natural Gas Tank

A glut of natural gas in the U.S. is spawning ideas for using the theoretically cleaner fuel for transportation

2 min read
From the Gut: "Intestinal" Design for Vehicle Natural Gas Tank

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

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Chinese Joint Venture Will Begin Mass-Producing an Autonomous Electric Car

With the Robo-01, Baidu and Chinese carmaker Geely aim for a fully self-driving car

4 min read
A black car sits against a white backdrop decorated with Chinese writing. The car’s doors are open, like a butterfly’s wings. Two charging stations are on the car’s left; two men stand on the right.

The Robo-01 autonomous electric car shows off its butterfly doors at a reveal to the media in Beijing, in June 2022.

Tingshu Wang/Reuters/Alamy
Purple

In October, a startup called Jidu Automotive, backed by Chinese AI giant Baidu and Chinese carmaker Geely, officially released an autonomous electric car, the Robo-01 Lunar Edition. In 2023, the car will go on sale.

At roughly US $55,000, the Robo-01 Lunar Edition is a limited edition, cobranded with China’s Lunar Exploration Project. It has two lidars, a 5-millimeter-range radar, 12 ultrasonic sensors, and 12 high-definition cameras. It is the first vehicle to offer on-board, AI-assisted voice recognition, with voice response speeds within 700 milliseconds, thanks to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8295 chip.

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