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The New Natural Gas Vehicle

The Bi-Fuel Car

Written by Brian Hicks
Posted July 10, 2013

There’s a new natural gas vehicle emerging onto the market, but this time it comes without all the burdens that push consumers away from alternative-fuel vehicles.

The Carlab, an advanced automotive consulting firm, has come up with an all-new bi-fuel vehicle that runs on both compressed natural gas (CNG) and your good old fashioned gasoline.

The small California-based firm, working on behalf of organizations like America’s Natural Gas Alliance, is testing its technology on perfectly normal, everyday cars that we drive today – cars like the Hyundai Sonata, BMW X3, Ford Mustang GT, and the GMC Acadia.

carlab bi-fuel vehicles
Source: The New York Times

It is aimed at taking advantage of the low costs of CNG and providing a low sale price to consumers.

For folks that shy away from alternative-fuel vehicles, it takes away the hassle of worrying about where you’re going to find a CNG re-fueling station, which can still prove problematic. You’re always guaranteed a safe and reliable trip because you’ll always have gasoline to fall back on. This is especially true when considering long trips.

Ultimately, the vision of the Carlab is to see consumers with natural gas compressors, where CNG tanks could be filled for pennies on the dollar. They would run on gasoline and natural gas, increasing driving range and saving money; it would be a lot like your hybrid vehicle, only it would use natural gas instead of a battery pack.

Take the Honda Civic Natural Gas, for example, an all-CNG model with a not-so-inviting price tag of $26,000. If you incorporate the Carlab’s technology, you can drive down the price and provide consumer security by ensuring the car will always be able to run on gasoline, stimulating greater sales.

How it Works

Unlike other bi-fuel vehicles, the driver never has to worry about switching back and forth between CNG and gasoline because at any given time, the car can run on a mixture of the two.

The biggest shift in thinking for the Carlab was resizing the natural gas tank. The large size of a natural gas tank never did convert well to the private sector. For one, they are huge and take up most of the trunk space. But there also aren’t many re-fueling stations, and conversion costs are high.

If you look at a large tank system like the Ram 2500 HD CNG, it carries an $11,000 premium for its natural gas system.

For the Carlab to make this work, it needed to make a vehicle more practical and cut costs. The Carlab tank is just big enough for a full day’s worth of driving – smaller than a propane tank you use on your grill and much more economical.

And a home refilling unit is ideal in the Carlab’s quest to reach consumers. In theory, the tank would be refilled every night. But this wouldn’t pose a problem because 60 percent of households already have a natural gas connection, so it would be inexpensive.

A cheap home compressor unit presently in development would cost around $500, which is much cheaper than what is presently on the market.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, the federal government agency better known as Arpa-e, is giving the Carlab $3.4 million to design its new compressor.

The focus will be to find a way to reduce heat created by the compression; the cooler the gas is, the easier it is to compress and fill the tank. Liquid pistons are being used to solve this problem right now.

Comparability

The model is taken largely from what plug-in hybrid manufacturers have done and expanded on using CNG.

The tank goes in the space where one would find a spare tire. The real kicker – it adds between 55 and 75 miles to a driver’s range at about $2 per gallon-equivalent, according to Gas2.org. This is in addition to the gasoline tanks already preloaded in each vehicle, which are unaltered.

To have the system installed in your vehicle, it’s going to cost you $2,600 to about $3,000, so it’s not cheap. But if you consider other premium upgrades and options, it falls right in line.

Plus, these costs could easily be made up in just a couple years of driving.

Based on the Carlab's estimations, and accounting for minor electrical use, the home-based CNG compressor that is still in development would use about 2 kilowatt-hours per month for a daily refill, according to Autoweek. The cost of CNG would be 80 cents per gallon, and the consumer would be looking at a modest 72 dollars per month, or about the cost of a tank and a half of gas. If the driver doesn’t drive excessively, the need for gasoline would go down considerably.

When Autoweek testing was performed on a 2012 Ford Mustang GT with the Carlab CNG conversion, it had a CNG range of 55 miles. It experienced only one unexplained shudder as it switched over to gasoline at 3,000 rpm.

This is a functional part of the switch from CNG to gasoline when taken to high speeds, as CNG is less apt at handling the power load with a smaller fuel tank. But that was the only glitch in the road test, and it was minor at best.

At the end of the day, the Carlab CNG conversion cost would only take 2.2 years to earn its money back – something the Toyota (NYSE: TM) Prius, Nissan (OTC: NSANY) Leaf, or Chevy Volt can’t accomplish.

 

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