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Is The (Natural) Gas Really Greener?

How LNG and CNG Could Be Replaced By Synthetic Diesel Fuel

Text By Jason Thompson

No doubt you’ve seen some of the TV commercials supporting natural gas—the ones in which all the actors look like they just walked out of an anti-depression medication advertisement. The narrator always paints a rosy picture of compressed natural gas (CNG), and while I would love it if everything were to go according to their plan, the more I research CNG, the more apprehensive I become.

Faithful readers will remember that at one time I was all for CNG. But now, I think my old view needs a course correction—not a full reversal. First, here’s some background on why I think cheap and easy energy might make my job boring—at least when it comes to talking about new and future vehicles.

The Automotive Industry’s 40-Year Dark Age (Revisited)
It’s interesting to look at a 60-year graph following the price of a barrel of oil. From after World War II until 1973, the real price of oil was actually declining. The bad news was cheap oil powered the United States’ golden era, when home ownership and general quality of life skyrocketed. The oil embargo of the ’70s showed us how vulnerable we were to the fluctuation in oil supply, however. Thanks to price controls in the ’80s, the cost of oil eventually came back down to below ’50s prices (when the prices are adjusted for inflation). Cheap oil killed advanced technologies and perpetual fuels that were being developed in the ’70s. Then came the hell storm of oil prices. In 1991, the first Gulf War is marked on our graph by the large spike. When the 9/11 attacks occurred, oil prices spiked higher than ever before.

This next sentence may generate some hate email, but there are a lot of good things that happen when the price of oil goes up. Two of the best things that come from high oil prices are: advanced technology from the manufacturers, and renewable fuels flow into our energy market. Not convinced? Just take a look at the recent progress in internal-combustion technology (common-rail diesels, direct-injection gasoline, compound turbocharging), the likes of which we haven’t see seen since WWII.

But I think future advancement could still die on the proverbial vine, because right now I feel people eyeing the earth’s natural gas supply like my Winona State Rugby team drooled over a keg of beer. When I was on that team we would actually race to see who could finish a keg first, and then go after our opponents’ beer reserves. We would get so intoxicated (literally) by the thought of free alcohol that after one game a teammate of mine dropped a keg on his finger, which quickly removed it. This cheap beer-oil analogy brings me to my next point: how to transfer the energy safely.

Is LNG The Best Natural Gas Choice?
Liquefied natural gas (LNG) has been around for more than 100 years. It’s gone in and out of style because of massive explosions at the places that refrigerate, transport, store, and convert the LNG into less energy-dense compressed natural gas (CNG). CNG, which many of us are familiar with because of diesel fumigation, is then pumped by pipeline to homes. LNG requires expensive, ¼-inch-thick, stainless steel tanks to contain it and is more energy dense than CNG; neither form of gas is as energy dense (or as safe) as diesel.

In 1944, an LNG explosion leveled a section of Cleveland that measured a mile in diameter. Although industry experts now say LNG is perfectly safe because of new technologies, many of which were developed by NASA for its space program. Still, accidents do happen, like one of the latest fires that occurred in Nigeria because a 28-inch underground LNG pipeline burst and incinerated 17 square miles. Regardless of those risks (and new ones posed by terrorist attacks), as a transportation fuel LNG is actually much safer than gasoline because as a liquid it will not explode. Instead, if the LNG tank ruptures (which they say it won’t), the cryogenic liquid turns to gas and floats off into the air quickly. Also, LNG is said to require a very specific air-to-fuel ratio in order to burn, and the gas supposedly needs to be contained for an explosion to take place.

Diesel From Natural Gas
One thing I like better than LNG is Gasoil made by Shell. It’s basically diesel fuel made from natural gas. Some people think of it as synthetic diesel fuel. I say that if we ever do start using natural gas as a transportation fuel, we should burn it in the efficient diesel engines we already have. With a diesel, you can run a combination of diesel and CNG or even up to 95 percent natural gas. Gasoil is where I think our efforts should go instead of LNG, but if all the over-the-road trucks do go spark-ignited LNG or CNG (as is being considered), that could mean more diesel fuel for us—or maybe just more to export?

By Jason Thompson
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