While everyone is waiting for some battery breakthrough to push electric vehicles into the mainstream, GM and Chrysler just announced upcoming bi-fuel pickup trucks, that could have an impact of a different sort. These new pickups won’t use ethanol as their alternate fuel, it will be compressed natural gas and this could be a big deal. While there already are a lot of heavy duty trucks and buses running on natural gas, these new models will be the commercial pickups used by smaller operators, many of which may not have quite the natural gas refueling infrastructure in place of the average bus fleet. Though they can’t yet depend on publicly available natural gas stations, these pickups may ramp up demand for an expansion of those facilities.
Natural gas has a huge advantage over electricity for powering vehicles, you don’t need any new cutting edge breakthrough to make it practical, all of the internal combustion engines we already have can be adapted to run on it. For instance, the engine in the new Ram pickup:
… has been modified to run on compressed natural gas as well as gasoline. Redesigned cylinder heads with specifically designed CNG compatible valves and valve-seat materials allow the engine to burn both fuels. It also gets a second, CNG-specific fuel rail and set of injectors. New spark plugs improve combustion and durability, and a new powertrain control module allows the HEMI to seamlessly operate on either of the two fuel sources.
In other words, once modified, it can simply and cleanly run on either fuel.
Natural gas burns more cleanly than either gasoline or diesel fuel, is far less expensive and, here in the USA, we have enormous reserves of it. The pipelines to distribute it are already in place, the last piece necessary to make it a viable fuel for everyday use is an infrastructure of refueling stations, and that’s where these pickups can make a difference. Other than Honda, who has been manufacturing the Civic GX powered exclusively by natural gas, there are no production vehicles available to the general public that run on CNG. As the number of these vehicles increase, the demand for those stations also increases and as the infrastructure grows, more vehicles will become available.
There are already scooters and small motorcycles in Asia that run on CNG, but none over here that I’m aware of. Whether it would make sense to convert motorcycles with internal combustion engines to natural gas or design them from the start to run on both gasoline and natural gas is open to debate, but refueling has been a question that may begin to go away. Home refueling stations are available for overnight refueling, and though there is an expense when installing the equipment, if all of your vehicles are CNG, you can share the equipment among them.
We talked about this before on The Kneeslider, and there was a wide range of opinions expressed, but I think CNG is a great alternative to current options, and unlike the ever coming, just around the corner, soon to be here, one breakthrough away, electric vehicles, natural gas is here now if we would just get down to the business of using it.