Could graphene make natural gas passenger vehicles more possible?

Cheap abundant natural gas is fundamentally changing the U.S. energy economy, impacting everything from manufacturing to power generation to transportation. And when it comes to transport, there’s long been a play for converting the 18 wheeler long haul transport fleet to natural gas. New natural gas engines have shipped this year and the United Parcel Service has indicated it will expand its fleet of natural gas powered trucks to 800 by the end of next year.

But what about passenger vehicles? One of the problems with the passenger market is that because natural gas must be compressed and held at very high pressures, the tanks in those cars are very heavy and quite expensive. GigaOM’s Signe Brewster reports on a lab at Rice University that is working on using graphene to produce a lightweight tank for natural gas vehicles.

“The idea is to increase the toughness of the tank and make it impermeable to gas,” Rice chemist James Tour said in a release. “This becomes increasingly important as automakers think about powering cars with natural gas. Metal tanks that can handle natural gas under pressure are often much heavier than the automakers would like.”

We’ll see if natural gas passenger vehicles ever really make it. Certainly the fueling infrastructure would need to be heavily expanded, but that’s probably doable, although more difficult than building out an EV charging infrastructure. Natural gas cars also can have smaller ranges. The Honda Civic GX had a range of 170 miles.

Still as fleet vehicles for taxi services or corporate/government institutions, natural gas passenger vehicles might one day get their shot. A lighter, stable gas tank would help, making the vehicles themselves more fuel efficient.

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Adam Lesser

Cleantech Curator Gigaom Research

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