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Chris Hagen, OSU-Cascades assistant professor in the Energy Systems Engineering program, has received $700,000 from the Department of Energy to lead a major research initiative on new technology for a vehicle-based natural gas refueling system.

We checked in with Dr. Hagen to hear more about the project.

Okay, first of all, what is a vehicle-based natural gas refueling system in non-engineering speak?

We are going to make minor modifications to an automobile, specifically to the internal combustion engine, so that the vehicle can fuel itself with high pressure (3,600 psi) natural gas.

What’s the history of natural gas vehicles (NGV)? What makes this technology challenging?

There was interest in NGV in the early 1990s as evidenced by the US Department of Energy Natural Gas Vehicle Challenge where universities converted a GMC Sierra truck to run on natural gas full time. However, natural gas supply concerns halted further development of these concepts until the recent renewed enthusiasm for natural gas.

Keep in mind that the US has roughly 120,000 NGVs, whereas some countries in the Middle East and South America have NGVs numbering in the millions. Therefore the challenge for mass adoption of NGVs is not the vehicle itself. The true hurdle has been the ability to fuel the cars with compressed natural gas (CNG). CNG stations are not prevalent enough in the US to make NGV practical for the everyday user. Previous attempts at home fueling have been prohibitively expensive and slow.

Why is natural gas a good alternative to the petroleum-derived gasoline most of us use in our cars now?

There are generally three drivers for energy changes in the US: environment, economics, and energy security. In short, natural gas has a high hydrogen to carbon ratio resulting in less CO2 formed per unit of energy (relative to gasoline or diesel) when natural gas is oxidized. Prices for natural gas have plummeted due to overwhelming supply, right now a gallon of gasoline energy equivalent amount of natural gas costs about half as much as the gasoline. So from some perspectives the environmental effects and economics are favorable, we can also count on a secure supply since we can source it domestically.

Why do you think your average Joe/Jane would be interested in this technology?

We are trying to enable home fueling of a vehicle at half the cost of fueling at a gasoline pump, it seems pretty compelling to everyone.

How many students will be helping you with this research? Can we come up and test-drive natural gas vehicles in the near future?

Right now I have two students from our Energy Systems Engineering program working on the project and I am in the process of interviewing graduate student candidates. We are also employing another graduate student for the project at a collaborating university. Can you come up and drive the car...we would love to have you do that, but keep in mind a drivable vehicle is the very last stage of the project. We have several interesting and fun engineering challenges ahead of us before we are driving. Please keep checking in with us though, and we will try to let you know when your ride is ready!

Learn more about the Energy Systems Engineering program at OSU-Cascades.