Gas prices have increased at record levels this month, with prices climbing for 20 days in a row, and as gas prices rise, interest in more fuel efficient vehicles go up as well. Automakers have continued to focus on hybrids, electric vehicles and more efficient gasoline and diesel engines, but one fuel source has been largely ignored, natural gas. There are several reasons for this (read on to learn more), but the good news is that several companies, like 3M, are working on nanoparticle technology that could make natural gas cars more attractive. While as green transportation supporters, we think it’s important to point out that natural gas is a sort of temporary band-aid that should not distract us from the ultimate goal of getting truly sustainable electric cars on the road, we’re still excited to hear about 3M’s strides to advance this cleaner alternative to gasoline for the time being.
The first reason and probably the main reason why car buyers do not demand more natural gas powered models is because of the lack of infrastructure. There are only 1,000 natural gas fueling stations across the U.S. and some states don’t even have one. Can you imagine taking a trip across the country in a natural gas car with so few stations in existence? Another issue is that even though natural gas costs less than gasoline, the tanks that are needed to store the fuel are not cheap. The expensive tanks translate to natural gas powered cars costing more than an equivalent gasoline powered model. For example the Honda Civic Natural Gas, the only natural gas powered car available to the public, starts at $26,155, while a comparably equipped, gasoline-powered Civic EX starts around $20k. Although it will take some time to increase the number of natural gas fueling stations, there are some efforts to find ways to reduce the cost of the tanks that are used to store it, which would reduce the overall cost of a natural gas vehicle.
As we mentioned before, 3M is reportedly working on a new product that it claims will allow natural gas to be stored at higher pressures in lighter and cheaper tanks. Natural gas is stored at a pressure of 3,500 pounds, but by using a new material, 3M claims that it can allow storage at higher pressures in more lightweight tanks. Natural gas tanks use carbon composites, which are carbon fibers woven into a cloth-like mat, interspersed with an epoxy to hold them together. 3M’s new method is to put nanoparticles into the epoxy, which will increase the stiffness and strength of the composites. 3M is also lining the inside of the tank with impermeable plastic, which should allow the tank technology to eventually find other uses.
3M has an agreement with Chesapeake Energy, a natural gas company, which will pay $10 million for the technology once the Environmental Protection Agency approves the new product. 3M hopes that better onboard storage, thanks to the use of its new technology will improve the acceptance of natural gas vehicles.