Natural Gas, Electric Vehicles & Twilight for the Combustion Engine

Aug 27th, 2012 | By Nicole Rogers

Every month, Sustainable America invites a guest blogger to post on a topic related to food and fuel. This month, we asked Garry Golden to write about how natural gas could be used to fuel electric vehicles. Garry Golden is a professionally trained futurist and President of Forward Elements, Inc. He speaks widely on the future of energy and transportation infrastructure. The following is his take on the subject.

Natural Gas, Electric Vehicles & Twilight for the Combustion Engine:

Could hydrogen-rich natural gas power next-generation electric vehicles?

A favorite saying by the late author and speaker Stephen Covey was, “The way we see the problem is the problem.” What might the future look like if we reframed the problem of oil with a roadmap for natural gas fueling next-generation electric vehicles?

Step One: Reframing the Problem of Oil vs the Combustion Engine

It was energy insider Matthew Simmons’ book Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy which helped to mainstream the policy challenges of petroleum dependency and the potential economic risks ahead as we move beyond the era of cheap oil.

Today, we want to ask if there is another twilight era ahead around the aging combustion engine platform. In a world that is moving from mechanical to electrical, the internal combustion engine could be the new horse carriage buggy whip—a legacy device that is not suited for the next era of transportation.

Across the automotive industry, we see waning interest for the combustion engine. Vehicle designers want to be free of its bulky size; Manufacturing plant managers want to reduce parts and time on assembly. Software and user experience designers need more electrons to transform the car into a computer platform - a connected vehicle. What if we reframed the problem around the cost of design and imagined the century-old mechanical heat engine entering its twilight stage as a technology platform?

The alternative is a path toward scalable and modular electric motors that can offer a lower cost, flexible drive train. The question then becomes how do we power electric motors?

Step Two: Reframing the Problem of Batteries vs Fuel-based Electric Vehicles

There are two main paths forward on how we deliver power to electric motors: storage (battery/capacitor) or molecule fuel conversion (fuel cell/engine).

The most popular vision, promoted by startups such as Tesla Motors and Better Place, is a future where battery-powered electric vehicles allow users to plug-in and recharge rather than refuel their vehicles. [See [Questions below] for critique on battery powered EV scenario]

A lesser discussed, but potentially more viable, path forward is a scenario where electric vehicles convert molecule fuels on-board using fuel-cell technology. Fuel cells convert chemical energy into electricity with no moving parts using the electrochemical potential of thin, aluminum-foil-like membranes. In this scenario, automakers bet on integration of storage (via battery) and fuel conversion to deliver power to electric motors. [See [Questions below] on fuel cells].

Far from fiction or wishful thinking, most signals from the auto industry indicate a preference for integration of fuel conversion and storage to power electric motors. The world’s leading automotive engineering giants from Germany (Daimler, BMW), Japan (Toyota, Honda, Nissan), and Korea (Hyundai) are all preparing for commercial production fuel-cell-based electric vehicles around 2015. This June, Daimler opened a fuel-cell manufacturing plant in British Columbia see video. The takeaway? Electric vehicles might be refueled rather than recharged.

We also see a lack of appeal for plug-in EVs from early adopters in the materials handling sector. In recent months major logistics companies such as P&G, Coca-Cola and Walmart have expanded their warehouse fleets of fuel-based electric forklifts and warehouse trucks.

If the roadmap for automakers is re-imagined around fuel-based electric vehicles, we might then ask how natural gas could fit in to this new transportation fuel market.

Step Three: Natural Gas and Hydrogen-rich Fuels

Natural gas is a hydrogen-rich fuel that is considered to be one of the most versatile feedstocks in the energy and raw materials markets. Yet it is rarely mentioned as a feedstock for the electric vehicle age because most people associate electric vehicles with plugging into the grid.

There are several ways natural gas could be used in the transportation fuel market:

+ It could be adopted by fleet owners who would save on fuel costs by converting their existing fleet to CNG (compressed natural gas).

+ Plug-in battery electric vehicles coming into the marketplace in the near future could tap utility grid power that is shifting from coal to natural gas. This is a positive trend for cleaner molecule fuels used on the grid, but sidesteps the needs and direction of the automotive industry toward fuel-based electric vehicles.

+ In a fuel-based electric vehicle scenario, natural gas is well positioned to deliver hydrogen-rich fuels to fleet owners and consumers. This could occur via reformation of natural gas into hydrogen (for fuel cells) in large, centralized plants or via an energy appliance equivalent fit for a gas station or factory/home environment. With the right breakthroughs, natural gas could be converted on board or used in a solid-oxide fuel cell, which tolerates carbon molecules found in natural gas.

It is too early to tell where natural gas will fit in to the electric vehicle model – and it will not be alone in competing against other sources for molecule fuels. But among our current extraction-based resources, natural gas is in the best position as a hydrogen-rich fuel because of its abundance and lower carbon footprint.

Imagining the Fuel-based Electric Vehicle Scenario

Beyond the technical hurdles of this scenario, there are cultural shifts that must also occur in the marketplace. Today, the public associates “electric” with batteries, rather than the motor. The idea that electric vehicles don’t have to be plugged in goes against most conventional understanding of electric vehicles.

Electric vehicles fueled by natural gas are in line with domestic policy desires to find a new transportation fuel and the growth opportunities in the automotive industry, as well as driver experience and the business models of a connected digital car. None of which can be imagined if we continue to rely on the combustion engine and oil.

Skeptical? Further Questions? Click on the questions below for answers form the author.

+ Why not just improve the combustion engine?
+ Why wait for fuel cells when batteries are ready now?
+ Where are fuel cells today?
+ What is wrong with battery powered electric vehicles?
+ But we already have infrastructure for Electric Vehicles?
+ Why not use natural gas for combustion engine?
+ Isn’t electricity cheaper than hydrogen-rich fuels?
+ How efficient is it to convert Natural Gas to Hydrogen?

Tagged: fuel efficiency cars, improving gas mileage, building efficiency, natural gas vehicles, compress natural gas, how fuel cells work, fuel cell cars, fuel cell energy, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, combustion engine, fuel, Natural Gas, Alt Fuels

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