Engineers at the Argonne National Laboratory, a government-funded facility that played a crucial role in developing the battery technology behind many electric vehicles, including the Chevy Volt, have switched gears, focusing their research on the development of natural gas powered vehicles, reports TalkingPointsMemo
Argonne engineer Mike Duoba attributed the shift to the declining cost and domestic abundance of natural gas: “In terms of consumer ownership and use costs, the case to make a switch from current fuels to CNG is much more compelling than for other alternative fuels like ethanol and electricity.”
The U.S. Department of Energy’s February announcement of a $30 million research competition seeking “ways to harness our abundant supplies of domestic natural gas for vehicles” may have provided some of the impetus behind Argonne’s shift. But the more obvious motivating factors are America’s huge domestic supply of gas and the rapid development and deployment of gas procurement technology.
Natural gas vehicles produce significantly fewer emissions than their gasoline-powered counterparts, but are not as environmentally friendly as electric vehicles, which produce no emissions but are charged using an electric grid that frequently relies on fossil-fuel plants.
Duoba described emissions-reduction as a laudable but ultimately secondary consideration, identifying American energy security as Argonne’s primary goal: “Various technologies have been successful at reducing the environmental impact (criteria pollution) over the decades […] To the extent that consumption of foreign petroleum has not been reduced to acceptable levels, this could be viewed as the principal motivation.”
Very few gas stations can refuel natural gas-powered vehicles. This lack of a national natural gas infrastructure could hinder the widespread use of natural gas vehicles, but it may be about to change — industry mainstays T. Boone Pickens and Shell Oil recently announced plans to install hundreds of natural gas-refueling stations nationwide.
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