FUELSPACE

FuelSpace is a blog focusing on the emerging commercial space economy, space exploration, energy production, technology and innovation. We also cover the skills that enable great achievements in these areas including sales and persuasion, productivity, self-discipline, and leadership.

Swarm Intelligence: Introduction & Applications

 Swarms operate with a greater intelligence than any individual member.  Image Credit: Neels Castillon

Swarms operate with a greater intelligence than any individual member. Image Credit: Neels Castillon

Swarm Intelligence is a new subset of Artificial Intelligence (AI) designed to manage a group of connected machines. We are now entering the age of the Intelligent machines, also called the Internet of Things (IoT), where more and devices are being connected every day. Swarm intelligence is quickly emerging as a way this connectivity can be harnessed and put to good use.

Swarm intelligence (as the name suggests) comes from mimicking nature. Swarms of social insects, such as ants and bees, operate using a collective intelligence that is greater than any individual member of the swarm. Swarms are therefore highly effective problem-solving groups that can easily deal with the loss of individual members while still completing the task at hand -- a capability that is very desirable for a huge number of applications.  Today this concept is being applied in concert with machine learning and distributed computing systems. The result is a group of connected machines that can communicate, coordinate, learn and adapt to reach a specific goal. Check out the video below and its subsequent follow up videos to see how swarm intelligence is applied to a group of drones. 

 Artificial Swarm Intelligence in Nano Robotic Systems. 

The next obvious questions is what can we do with swarms?  Here are a few recent examples of how swarm intelligence is being applied in different technology sectors. 

1. Military Applications

Military applications of swarm intelligence are obvious. The Navy recently announced a program that applies swarm intelligence to autonomous watercraft. The underlying program running the swarms is called Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing or CARACaS. These boat swarms have now demonstrated the ability to escort high value targets and surround potential enemy targets. In the near future, small low-cost swarms of watercraft will engage enemy targets without endangering human lives in the process. These same concepts are already being applied to unmanned aerial drones.  The US military has unveiled plans to have swarms of autonomous drones flown into combat zones by an unmanned tele-operated mothership.  Once released the drones will use swarm intelligence to carry out specific missions as a group without human intervention. 

 Unmanned Naval watercraft operating under swarm intelligence programming.   Image Credit: DefenseTech.org

Unmanned Naval watercraft operating under swarm intelligence programming.  Image Credit: DefenseTech.org

2. Space Exploration 

 See those little grooves?  Yup...robot swarms! Image Credit: Planetary Resources

See those little grooves?  Yup...robot swarms! Image Credit: Planetary Resources

Swarm intelligence is becoming a very common subject in the commercial space economy. There are incredibly high costs associated with doing just about anything in space, and swarms may hold the solution to this problem. We will take asteroid mining as the example. Several firms have emerged in the past few years with the stated goal of enabling asteroid mining. Space mining, while technically feasible, is often dismissed due to the incredibly large cost associated with mining something very far away with large, expensive robotic craft.  However, if we can lower the cost of manufacturing spacecraft through 3D printing, economies of scale, and private innovation, things begin to change. Skybox, PlanetLabs and Planetary Resources are already establishing a new paradigm in low cost spacecraft manufacturing and deployment. Once we have access to low cost spacecraft, we can apply swarm intelligence to make difficult tasks, such as asteroid mining, much more feasible and successful. Swarms of robotic spacecraft can encircle an asteroid deep in space and process raw materials and water for delivery back to Earth orbit. Even if several spacecraft are lost, the mission can still be completed.  Once these resources are delivered back to Earth orbit, swarms of 3D printing spiders working as a collective group can begin constructing massive orbital structures at a fraction of the cost compared to launching them from Earth. 

 Robotic swarms of 3D printing spiders can construct massive structures in Earth orbit.   Image Credit: Tethers Unlimited

Robotic swarms of 3D printing spiders can construct massive structures in Earth orbit.  Image Credit: Tethers Unlimited

3. Biotechnology

The final swarm application I will share with you is a small one. Very small. Nanoparticles are bioengineered particles that can be injected into the body and operate as a system to do things drug treatments cannot. The primary problem with all of our current cancer treatments is most procedures target healthy cells in addition to tumors, causing a whole host of side effects. Nanoparticles by comparison, are custom designed to accumulate ONLY in tumors, while avoiding healthy tissue.  Nanoparticles can be designed to move, sense, and interact with their environment, just like robots.  In medicine, we call this embodied intelligence. The challenge thus far has been figuring out how to properly "program" this embodied intelligence to ensure it produces the desired outcome. Enter swarm intelligence. Swarms are very effective when a group of individual elements (nanoparticles in this case) begin reacting as a group to local information.  Swarm intelligence is emerging as the key to which will unlock the true potential of these tiny helpers. Researchers are now reaching out to the gaming community in an effort to crowdsource the proper programming for swarm of nanoparticles.   

 Nanoparticles, managed by swarm intelligence, may hold the key to targeting tumors without damage to healthy cells.   Image Credit: BioTechGuru

Nanoparticles, managed by swarm intelligence, may hold the key to targeting tumors without damage to healthy cells.  Image Credit: BioTechGuru

So the next time you see a flock of birds, bats or ants, take a moment to reflect on how powerful and impressive nature is. Mankind is unlocking new possibilities in robotics and AI by simply attempting to copy Mother Nature. Swarm intelligence is a powerful force that is opening up new possibilities across the technological spectrum each day. 

The Importance of Space Exploration: Why We Must Press On

Last week was hard for the commercial Space industry. An Orbital Sciences Antares rocket headed to the International Space Station exploded shortly after launch. Then Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two, the first craft built specifically for space tourism, crashed in the desert after firing its main rocket engine, killing the co-pilot and severely injuring the pilot. What followed was a media flurry surrounding the "deep uncertainty" of the commercial space industry, and this article explaining why Virgin Galactic is a apparently a waste of time. So...listen up people. 

 In the distant future, our sun will expand and destroy the planet we call home.  Image Credit: Wikipedia - Future of Earth

In the distant future, our sun will expand and destroy the planet we call home. Image Credit: Wikipedia - Future of Earth

Space exploration is one of the most important endeavors our civilization will undertake. If we are unable to extend our reach into the solar system (and beyond), then humanity is destined for extinction. If humanity cannot develop a method to reliably track and redirect asteroids, we will go extinct. If we find a way not to destroy this planet we call home, and we decide to simply enjoy our time here, we will go extinct.  Earth has an expiration date. Yes, it is (hopefully) true that that date is very, very far into the future, but it is a date regardless. Ultimately we need that time to develop the technologies that will allow us to meet the insanely difficult challenge we are up against. But we have to get started today, and we must keep moving forward, forever.  This is one movement that cannot end. It is the only way to ensure the continuation of our species. The hoard of billionaires investing in space exploration are not doing it because it is some hobby, as the media likes to claim. They do it because they view the world on a longer horizon than only their short lives. They see a civilization with a much greater destiny. 

Virgin Galactic's goal is to commercialize space travel through selling tickets to wealthy individuals. This is very similar to Space Adventures, founded by Eric Anderson in 1998, which helps coordinate visits to the ISS by private citizens.  Space Adventures still operates today and Eric Anderson has gone on to co-found Planetary Resources, one of the first private space mining ventures. Saying that commercial space travel should not involve the sale of tickets to wealthy individuals is one of the most short-sighted statements you can make.  ANY activity that creates a sustainable business around space travel of any kind is worthwhile.  Why?  Do you really think Virgin Galactic has the ultimate goal of "being a roller-coaster ride for the rich and famous"?  Of course not.  That is the same as saying SpaceX's ultimate goal is to put a plant on mars. It is not the goal, it is just the beginning of a much greater journey. The hard part about commercial space activity is developing a business case around something that is incredibly expensive, dangerous, and difficult. We are just now beginning to understand what these industries are and how they will generate a profit for investors. Virgin Galactic focuses on selling tickets to wealthy individuals because this is the path of least resistance.  It is a great place to start, and this is no less noble than the other commercial space endeavors currently underway.  Space-capitalism works just like terrestrial-capitalism. You must start somewhere. Space tourism will play an important role in the commercial space economy for the simple fact that it will be one (of many) economic drivers that enables future space exploration technology.  Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic will continue to push the envelope to make the impossible...possible. Having a rocketplane in humanity's technological arsenal is a good idea, regardless of how we get there and how it is funded.

 The Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two.  Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two. Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

 Robert Zubrin lays out one of the best cases for the exploration of frontiers in his book  The Case for Mars .   Image Credit: Wikipedia

Robert Zubrin lays out one of the best cases for the exploration of frontiers in his book The Case for Mars.  Image Credit: Wikipedia

Space exploration creates incredible business opportunities both here at home and in deep space. History has proven that frontiers and exploration generate waves of technological advancement. The American western expansion was followed by the greatest explosion in innovation the world had ever seen.  In a short 100 years after this frontier was closed,we saw the electrification of cities, telephones and radios were released, and aviation grew from the Wright Brothers to the safe commercial airline travel. We saw the introduction of interplanetary spacecraft, antibiotics, computers, television and nuclear power. A frontier is a core component of human advancement.  Unfortunately, there are no terrestrial frontiers left on this planet, we have colonized the majority of the planet. Looking to history again, we know that civilizations without frontiers fall into stagnation, decline and resource wars. This idea lies at the very heart of commercial space exploration. Having a lofty goal and an unexplored place to expand into is the deepest driver of innovation that exists. Along the way, we will develop new technologies that will enrich humanity on a day-to-day basis. We will set the bar higher than we ever have, and we will find incredible business opportunities along the way. Just look at the moon race, the number of technological spin-offs that resulted from the program is staggering. If a technology is cordless, fireproof, automated, or lightweight and strong, there is a good chance it was born at NASA. 

So tuck yourself in, this is going to be a long journey. The commercial space industry is here to stay. It is led and staffed by people who want to leave a mark on civilization itself and literally reach for the stars. They will not back down due to failures, and we cannot let them. To ensure the survival of our species, we must press on.  

Three Technologies that will Transform the the Natural Gas Fueling Industry

Fueling a fleet of vehicles with natural gas as opposed to gasoline or diesel fuel is often considered an innovative concept. In reality, it is just good business. Using a clean, affordable, domestically-produced alternative fuel makes sense. However, it is important to realize that, compared to the diesel fueling industry, natural gas vehicle (NGV) fueling is still relatively new. It has only been in the last decade that Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) have secured a solid foothold in the US fleet industry.  

 An IMW compressor, gas dryer, and storage system at a garbage truck fueling station. Image Credit: James Orsulak 

An IMW compressor, gas dryer, and storage system at a garbage truck fueling station. Image Credit: James Orsulak 

Natural gas vehicle programs are driven by economics. Lower fuel costs = increased profit margins and a distinct competitive advantage, but it comes with a few headaches. Both CNG and LNG stations require a good deal of maintenance compared to traditional liquid petroleum stations.  A diesel station is a simple liquid storage tank with a fuel pump and a dispenser.  A CNG station, by comparison, involves an industrial compression system powered by an electric engine. This is a substantial uptick in complexity, risk, and ongoing maintenance costs. If your station only has  a single compressor, a major catastrophic failure can leave you without fuel for some time. On the vehicle side we have fuel storage challenges. CNG vehicle storage systems are cumbersome and often add weight to the vehicle. Luckily, we live in age of technological innovation and progress. These challenges have not gone unnoticed by fuel providers and technology partners, who have been quietly sinking money into research and development to solve these problems.  Below are some of the advances that will be coming soon to a fueling program near you. 

1. 3D printing

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is quickly gaining traction in the industrial sector. 3D printing is the opposite of traditional manufacturing, which is subtractive. If you need a steel part, traditionally you would start with a block of steel and then cut the piece out of the block. So we would be subtracting steel to get to the finished part. Additive manufacturing is the opposite. It uses a computer-generated 3D model of the part and then "prints" the object by laying down tiny layers of metal. The metal is applied as a powder (from the print cartridges) and is then fused together using a laser.  3D printing can now be done in plastics, metals, and even carbon fiber. The only limitations at this point are the size of the object. You obviously need a printer that is larger than the object you are trying to print, as seen here. 

 Large-scale 3D printers can now print objects in plastic, metal, concrete, and even carbon fiber   Image Credit: metalworkingmagazine.com

Large-scale 3D printers can now print objects in plastic, metal, concrete, and even carbon fiber  Image Credit: metalworkingmagazine.com

3D printing has two primary uses. The first is rapid prototyping. 3D printing allows you to quickly generate numerous designs and quickly test the results in the real world.  It reduces the time and cost of finding the right solution.  NGV up-fitters can use this to test out different fuel injectors, hose clamps, or nozzles. A compressor manufacturer like IMW or ANGI, can use this technology to test out different compressor components on the fly. The result is better machinery that can brought to market much faster.  

 An infinite variety of metal components can now be made using a  3D printer    Image Credit: Solid Concepts

An infinite variety of metal components can now be made using a  3D printer   Image Credit: Solid Concepts

The second use of 3D printing is on-demand manufacturing. Most fleets and fuel providers who have an on-site natural gas fueling station stock a large inventory of critical parts.  Some parts, such as those from discontinued compressor brands, can be very difficult to find.  3D printing gives us the ability to address this issue. An onsite printer can enable fleets and station providers to simply print parts as needed instead of ordering them. They can download the 3D model of the file and have it printed the same day instead of waiting a week or more for shipping.  A large variety of parts used in station maintenance are relatively simple plastics or metals, and can now be created with a 3D printer.   This technology will allow us to create better station components more quickly, while also giving us the ability to maintain stations with lower inventory costs.

2. The Industrial Internet and Predictive Analytics

 Your CNG station called. It will fail tomorrow at 5pm. We will go ahead and fix it now. Image Credit:  Stephen Bowler via Flickr

Your CNG station called. It will fail tomorrow at 5pm. We will go ahead and fix it now. Image Credit: Stephen Bowler via Flickr

You may have heard of the Internet of Things (IoT). This is the practice of embedding tiny data-collecting sensors in everyday items such as your refrigerator or door lock. When we apply this concept to industrial applications, we call it the industrial internet.  General Electric, Cisco, Google, and a host of other tech giants are pioneering ways to collect, track, analyze and store data from almost any type of machine.  Compressors and LNG liquefaction equipment are perfect candidates for this technology, and many fuel providers are already incorporating this into their operations. So what can it do?  Imagine a compressor that can talk to station technicians in real-time, sending pressure, heat, and fill data by the minute. In a dual compressor setup, one machine can communicate with the other to optimize running hours and wear-and-tear on critical parts. Machines can actually stop catastrophic failures before they happen. Instead of a complete failure -- the system shuts down, informs the operations team, and tells them what parts are needed. The result will be cost savings and vast improvements in uptime. Future stations will be intelligent enough to optimize for temperature, electricity demand, and gas quality without guidance from their human caretakers. We are only limited by our imagination. GE's long term vision is for machines that will eventually be able to perform self-repair, a technology that is science fiction by today's standards, but will one day become reality. Ultimately big data is good data, and natural gas fueling stations are now generating huge amounts of it. The end result will be vastly improved station operations and reduced costs. A plus for fleets and consumers who are filling up with natural gas.

3. Adsorbed Natural Gas Storage Systems 

 Activated carbon is commonly used as the enabling technology for adsorbed natural gas systems.   Image Credit: Wikipedia

Activated carbon is commonly used as the enabling technology for adsorbed natural gas systems.  Image Credit: Wikipedia

If you have followed the NGV industry for a few years, you have likely heard of Adsorbed Natural Gas (ANG) storage systems.  ANG is often referred to as the "holy grail" of gaseous fuel storage systems.  The basic idea is to store natural gas in a carbon honeycomb structure and eliminate the need for high pressure storage cylinders.  As the gas impacts the system, it is adsorbed into the material where it can be stored at a very low pressure in a solid form. This means we no longer need to use high pressure cylinders to store the fuel onboard the vehicle. This reduces weight and allows the storage to be custom molded into a huge variety of shapes and sizes. The real beauty of an ANG system is this: it is backwards compatible. ANG systems do not require the 3,600 pounds per square inch (psi) pressure needed for today's CNG vehicles, but...they can still use it.  An ANG-equipped vehicle can still use the existing CNG network to fill up. While it is true they could dramatically lower the required pressures for an onsite station, they would not be stranded by adopting the new technology -- an important advantage.  ANG systems can also be fueled using LNG. The LNG is simply vaporized and then adsorbed into the system. This gives the technology a clear, forward-looking advantage. Fuel providers could adapt in-step vs. having to retrofit all their existing stations. This would be a true game changer. Here is the latest: a company called BlackPak was awarded $4.6 million last March to further develop ANG technology.  The first commercial installations of ANG systems were installed in May by EnerG2 in the NW natural utility fleet. We will be following the demonstration tests closely!

The NGV industry is still maturing, meaning it is ripe for technological disruption. Keep an eye on these emerging innovations (and others) as they continue to play a role in shaping this growing industry. Don't be afraid to ask your fuel providers what they are working on behind the curtain so you can understand how it will benefit you and your fleet operation. 

Five Ideas to Utilize the Vast Resources of Space

 The SpaceX Falcon 9 is one of the most cost-effective launch vehicles in the world.  Image Credit: SpaceX

The SpaceX Falcon 9 is one of the most cost-effective launch vehicles in the world. Image Credit: SpaceX

The ability to deliver resources from space into Earth's orbit is on the horizon. Technological advances in launch systems, robotics, machine learning, laser communication, and 3D printing are converging to open the final frontier for business. Lifting things out of earth orbit is expensive. No secret there.The SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket can deliver up to 28,000 lbs to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for around $60 million.  An astonishing improvement on the $250 million + price tag of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) launch. In either case this is still very expensive. Reusable rockets will hopefully arrive very soon and will lower launch costs exponentially. However, one of the best solutions to reducing launch costs is this: do not launch things that can already be found in space. Source your resources from the very place you are headed in order to reduce costs. This is called In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) and it is a concept much older than space travel.  Early explorers in every phase of human expansion lived off the land as they traveled.  It is simply not feasible to bring all of your supplies with you when you are exploring the unknown. This concept still applies today, and the commercial space industry is about to take it to a whole new level. 

The sun provides 24 hour power in space, and the extreme cold enables low cost storage of cryogenic materials such as fuel (free AC). It is also technically feasible to source essential materials from both the moon and asteroids. Water is the most obvious target because it can be split into Hydrogen and Oxygen, the two components of high-efficiency rocket fuel. Shackleton Energy has announced plans to mine the water-ice from the permanently shadowed areas of the moon. They plan to use it as a feedstock for orbital fueling depots, which we discuss below. Lunarcrete, which is a form of concrete produced from lunar regolith, could be used as a building material on the moon or elsewhere. Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries plan to mine asteroids for water and minerals that can be delivered to Earth orbit. Many near-Earth asteroids require less energy to reach the moon, and hold immense amounts of water locked away as ice, as well as a huge array of valuable metals and raw materials. Combine these resources with advances in 3D printing and robotics, and you have a recipe for the space construction industry.  Deep Space Industries plans to launch an orbital 3D printer, and SpiderFab is developing robotic spiders that use 3D printing arms to create orbital structures. Made in Space beat them both to the punch by delivering a 3D printer to the International Space Station (ISS) last September. Construction on Earth is big business... one of the biggest actually. By 2020, the terrestrial construction industry is expected to top $4.8 trillion. So just imagine what will happen when this industry is freed from the bonds of gravity.   

Assume that all of these incredible advances in space technology come to pass.  What would you do with affordable raw materials, fuel, 3D printers, and a robotic construction staff available in space? Here are some ideas, but we'd love to hear yours!  

1. Orbital Fueling Depots

"Orbital Fueling Inc., making your space dreams come true since 2020"  This might be the tagline of a future orbital fueling services provider. Orbital fueling depots will be the second greatest leap in space capabilities in the next century, preceded only by fully reusable launch vehicles. Once you can refuel vehicles in orbit, the space game changes substantially. A Falcon 9 rocket uses $200,000 in fuel just to get to LEO.  If you can remove the need to lift fuel from earth, economics begin to change very quickly.  Missions to Mars quickly drop in cost when we can refuel spacecraft in orbit. Exploration missions can increase spending on instrumentation instead of fuel, leading to new discoveries and better scientific ROI. Satellites can be designed for regular service, upgrade and refueling rather than the "one-and-done" method currently used by satellite producers. The possibilities are endless when we begin to fuel in orbit. 

 A concept for an orbital fueling depot.  Image Credit: NASA

A concept for an orbital fueling depot.  Image Credit: NASA

2. Interplanetary Motherships

Once we have a reliable fueling station in orbit, the concept of motherships becomes feasible for the first time. Today we rarely consider this option in favor of launching directly from one planets surface to another. This choice is primarily driven by cost. However, once we have a space construction infrastructure in place, we can begin to build much larger interplanetary craft that are designed to operate solely in space. Motherships could shuttle colonists to Mars on a regular schedule, using reusable rockets and small passenger craft to deliver passengers to the ship prior to departure. Combined with emerging hibernation technologies, such craft would enable much longer manned missions to Europa or elsewhere in the solar system to search for life firsthand.  An alternative method to building a ship from scratch would be to hollow out an asteroid and turn it into a spacecraft. This approach comes with the added benefit of radiation shielding for humans as well as on-board fuel and raw materials to power the 3D printers that will be installed on the ship.

 The Nautilus-X is a multi-mission space exploration vehicle that acts as a mothership in combination with the Orion crew capsule.  Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Nautilus-X is a multi-mission space exploration vehicle that acts as a mothership in combination with the Orion crew capsule. Image Credit: Wikipedia

3. Space Based Solar Arrays

Japan is planning to build orbital solar arrays to produce never-ending power to fuel their economy. The arrays would be positioned to collect power 24 hours a day and then beam the power back to a receiving station on earth via microwaves. This is not a far fetched sci-fi concept. It can be done. Space-based solar has been discussed for years due to its inherent advantages over terrestrial solar power. The sun never stops shining and you can take up huge amounts of real estate. There are only a handful of technological hurdles we would need to address to make this feasible. The single largest reason cited as opposition to space-based solar has been launch costs. Launching such a large structure from earth is simply too expensive. So, with construction crews and raw materials now available in space, is this a technology whose time may finally have arrived?  We think so. 

 Space-based solar power arrays collect the sun's energy 24 hours a day and beam it back to earth using Microwaves.    Illustration: John MacNeill

Space-based solar power arrays collect the sun's energy 24 hours a day and beam it back to earth using Microwaves.  Illustration: John MacNeill

4. Expandable Commercial Space Stations

Bigelow aerospace will soon be delivering an inflatable habitat to the ISS, but this is only the beginning. Bigelow's future plans envision vastly larger depots, such as the 84-person Hercules station. These inflatable facilities are highly modular and can be built in stages. These systems are opening the door to replacing the ISS, selling space honeymoons, and enabling affordable commercial research labs. All of these stations will need water, fuel and supplies to operate.  If water and fuel can be delivered using the the space infrastructure envisioned above, we can further lower costs and improve the feasibility of such projects. 

 The inflatable space station modules designed and built by Bigelow Aerospace.  Image Credit: Wikipedia

The inflatable space station modules designed and built by Bigelow Aerospace. Image Credit: Wikipedia

5. Orbital Server Farms

Big data requires server facilities that are also, well, big. These facilities are in a constant state of expansion in order to keep up with our rampant data production and processing needs. More data means more servers, and servers need power.  Lots of it.  Servers now account for an astonishing 10% of global electricity consumption, and this will continue to grow each year. They also need to be kept cool, leading to such facilities often being cited near water sources that can aid in the thermal management. Developing orbital server farms may be the solution to these problems.  Space based server farms take advantage of the deep cold of space and the near-infinite power of our nearest star.  Data can be processed and returned to earth using secure high-speed optical laser communications systems. 

These are just a few ideas to get the creative juices flowing. My hope is that these ideas are ultimately tame when compared to our future reality. We know from the rise of the internet that predicting the future uses of new platforms is difficult. Innovation requires us to set the table first, then we will see who really comes to dinner. The time has arrived to begin envisioning a future where space resources are readily available. What would you do when the entire solar system is open for business and you have all the resources you could ever need? Share your ideas with us!

CNG vs. LNG for Heavy Duty Trucks: Which One is Right for Your Fleet?

Speaking to fleets and truck dealers on a regular basis, it has become clear there is a large amount of confusion as to which form of natural gas is superior. Both Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) are worthy fuels if you are need to improve your profitability and increase your competitive advantage by moving to a lower cost fuel. I will spoil the surprise by telling you upfront that neither of one of these is superior to the other. They are simply different, and different fleet operations have different priorities. Most natural gas fuel providers have only invested in one technology or the other. For example, Trillium specializes in CNG stations, and will tell you CNG is vastly superior. If you talk to Shell, they will likely pitch you on the benefits of LNG.  People sell what they know, and very few fueling companies in the industry (with the exception of Clean Energy) do both.  This creates a good amount of confusion for fleets trying to determine the best fit.  So what should you do? Simply evaluate your fleet priorities based on the information below and you can quickly decipher which fuel is best suited your needs. 

1. Introduction to CNG & LNG

Let's start with the basics. CNG and LNG are the same fuel, but stored in a different physical form on board your truck. CNG is a gaseous fuel that is lighter than air. CNG stations tap into the local gas utility lines and compress the gas up to 3,600 pounds per square inch (psi).  It is then dispensed into vehicles and stored in a high pressure storage cylinder that looks like this:

On tractor units, the CNG tanks are typically mounted on the frame rails, behind the cab, or a combination of the two, as seen below:

 A Freightliner Cascadia powered by a 12L Cummins engine and equipped with an Agility Fuel Systems CNG storage system mounted behind the cab and on the frame rails

A Freightliner Cascadia powered by a 12L Cummins engine and equipped with an Agility Fuel Systems CNG storage system mounted behind the cab and on the frame rails

LNG is the same fuel, but it is stored in a cryogenic form.  At approximately -260 F, natural gas turns into a colorless, odorless liquid fuel. It is produced at an industrial processing facility and then trucked to the fueling station where it is stored as a liquid.  It is dispensed into vehicles at as a cryogenic liquid. 

2. Fuel Cost

CNG is almost always going to be less expensive than LNG. This is primarily due to the lack of transportation costs to get the fuel to the station. The CNG distribution system is already in place via our nation's natural gas pipeline system. This is not the case with LNG. LNG must be trucked into the station and is therefore more costly.  Costs can vary depending on where you are getting the fuel (onsite vs. retail station).  In general, you can expect to pay around $2.20 for a Diesel Gallon Equivalent (DGE) of CNG and closer to $2.50 for a DGE of LNG. Both fuels provide significant savings compared to diesel fuel, but CNG is typically going to be even more affordable.

3. Fueling Experience: Heat of Compression vs. Boil Off

The fueling experience is a bit different with each fuel. CNG is very similar to fueling with gasoline and diesel fuel.  It requires no special protective gear and minimal training.  There are two types of CNG stations, time-fill and fast-fill.  You can read about those in detail in our previous CNG station blog post here. CNG stations designed for trucking applications tend to be fast-fill, and they have a unique problem known as heat of compression. Heat of compression means that compressed gas shot into the fuel tanks at a high rate gets very hot. The CNG tanks account for this heat by allowing room in the fuel tanks for the gas to expand as it cools. This means if you are carrying 100 DGEs of fuel, you will likely only get about 80 usable gallons of fuel onto the vehicle. The problem is worse on a hot day and less noticeable in cold weather. This leads to a need to increase your fuel storage on-board the vehicle.  I will discuss the impacts of that below in the weight section. 

LNG is cryogenic liquid and therefore requires a bit more training as well as protective eye wear and gloves (see below). This may be a consideration if your fleet already has dedicated fueling personnel. This is not rocket science, it's just basic safety. Keep in mind diesel fuel is also highly toxic -- we are just used to diesel as a fuel because it is so prevalent. No fuel is safe enough enough to bathe in, except maybe solar.  

LNG is not compressed, and therefore it has no issues with heat of compression. Instead, it gets it own special issue -- boil off.  LNG is stored at -260 F and has a natural tendency to heat up.  As it heats up, it begins to boil in the tank and will eventually vent off. If you leave a fully fueled LNG vehicle in Las Vegas in the summer for two weeks, you will lose about 5% of your fuel.  In practice this is rarely a major problem. You don't normally fuel your trucks so you can leave them idle for two weeks. Your fleet is your workhorse, and if you're reading this article, you probably use your workhorses for a specific job.  If you a fueling your truck every day or two, you will not notice any major boil off issues. 

4. Fuel Economy

Regardless of how you are storing the fuel (CNG vs. LNG) , once the fuel hits the engine, it is a gaseous fuel. Speaking specifically about the current Cummins 12 L gas engine, fuel economy is going to be a bit lower when compared to a current diesel engine.  On a DGE basis, you can expect to see a 5-20% loss in fuel economy with natural gas in general. This is true with both CNG and LNG trucks. This impacts the final economics of the program, but it is typically not a deal killer.  As always, transmission choice, driver training, gearing, etc. will heavily impact the final fuel economy. You need to monitor drivers and attempt to improve this in the same way you do with you diesel fleet. You don't get a free pass just to ignore these details just because you are now using an alternative fuel. 

5. Weight, Range & Incremental Truck Price

The primary driver of the choice between CNG and LNG comes down to weight and range. You can simplify this entire evaluation by asking yourself this one question:

How sensitive is your operation to weight and how far do you need to go before refueling?  

Lets start with CNG. CNG cylinders are very safe and very strong due to their pressure requirements, but these attributes come with one downside: weight. Despite numerous advances in material sciences, CNG fuel systems continue to add significant weight to the truck when compared to a traditional diesel vehicle. You get to delete the Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) and the Diesel Emission Fluid (DEF) system on the truck (which your maintenance team will love).  However, if you add 80 DGEs of CNG storage, you can expect to add at least 1,000 lbs of weight.  

Work closely with you dealer and the fuel tank manufacturer to get the exact weight difference between the diesel and CNG platform.  If your trucks have a shorter route and you only need 60 DGEs of fuel to get through the day, this may not be a major issue. If that is the case, then CNG is most likely the best fit. This is also good time to right-size your fuel storage spec. Most fleets these days carry WAY too much fuel.  I think this is a basic driver / range anxiety concern. Are you burning 50 gallons / day and carrying 100? Why? Don't carry fuel you don't need. You obviously want a buffer, but be realistic. Take this opportunity to actually determine the correct fuel storage spec.  You will need to make sure you account for the heat of compression factor we discussed above. If you are burning 50 gallons a day and will be using a fast-fill CNG station, a spec of 70-80 DGEs is very reasonable. 

This leads us to the final factor: incremental truck cost.  Natural gas trucks carry a premium over diesel units. The vast majority of the incremental cost of a CNG truck is due to the fuel tanks. They are expensive. A 100 DGE fuel storage system can easily add $70,000 to the truck price.  So again, make sure you have the right fuel spec nailed down.  If you have shorter routes, and right-size the fuel storage spec, you should see a payback period somewhere between 2-3 years.  Conversely, if you need 1,000 miles of range before refueling, you CAN do this with CNG, but is it cost effective? There are CNG storage systems well above 200 DGE available now.  But this will obviously add a lot of weight and a LOT of cost.  So if you find yourself looking at that option, it may be time to shift over to an LNG evaluation. 

LNG storage tanks are essentially highly insulated diesel tanks.  Fully loaded, they will weigh less than a comparable CNG system. They will also cost less in higher storage specs. For example, a 100 DGE storage system might be a $70,000 premium with CNG, but only $40,000 with an LNG system.  So you get the same basic range, with a lower incremental cost and a lower weight penalty. This may be worth the slightly higher fuel price of LNG. If you are extremely weight sensitive AND you have a long range route, LNG is worth a look. This why you see rail, mining, and marine vessels all going to LNG. They all have extreme range requirements and are incredibly sensitive to weight limits.   

Summary & Resources

I know this is a lot of information, but don't make it too complicated. Trucking firms and logistics providers no longer have the option of simply ignoring this transition. If you competition reduces their fuel cost by 40% and you do not, you lose and they win. Period.

If you have shorter routes and are not ultra weight sensitive, CNG is most likely going to be a better fit. Trash trucks, for example, are almost always CNG because they typically have short routes. CNG works well in this application and quickly improves profitability.  If you are running long routes and max out the weight each and every time, LNG needs to be in your evaluation. A good example might be a sand and gravel hauler running a 700 mile round trip before refueling. This is probably a good fit for LNG. I recommend starting with a CNG evaluation and determining if you would need to run additional routes to move the same amount of product.  If you do, then take a look at LNG and see if you can do it without additional routes.  Put your dealers to work for you and have them work up costs and weight comparisons on both options. Then put your fuel partners to work and take a look at fueling locations already available + onsite fueling options. You can typically justify a new fueling location with 25 trucks phased in over five years.   

For payback, below are links to both a simple payback on the incremental truck cost, as well as a much more advanced calculator that allows you to input the weight of the tractor and trailer.

Simple Payback Calculator

Advanced Payback Calculator 

The Alt Fuels Data Center is a great resource that can show you station locations, as well as financial incentives that may be available in your State. For example, Colorado has a $20,000 tax credit for heavy trucks natural gas trucks, as well as a grant that can supply an additional $22,000 per truck. ($42,000 per unit!)  They also have a 1,000 lb weight exemption for natural gas trucks, making CNG a VERY attractive option. Many other States such as Texas and Pennsylvania also have vehicle incentives currently available for natural gas truck purchases.  

Alt Fuels Data Center Fueling Locations

Alt Fuels Data Center Incentives By State

If you need help during these evaluations don't hesitate to contact me. I am happy to help answer any questions you may have. 

Asteroid Mining Firm Prepares for Historic First Launch

Asteroid mining firm Planetary Resources plans to launch its first spacecraft next week. If all goes according to plan, the company's A3 spacecraft will launch aboard an Orbital Science Corporation Antares rocket on October 28.

UPDATED 10/28/2014:  The Orbital Sciences Antares Rocket carrying the A3 demonstrator exploded shortly after launch. Orbital Sciences is reporting a "vehicle anomaly" as the cause.  The mission is now under evaluation by NASA. Video of the event can be found here.  We wish Planetary Resources the best and hope to see the new A6 on the launch pad very soon. 

The craft is named after the Star Wars droid manufactured by Arakyd Industries, a probe deployed to locate galactic resources. The A3 is being sent to the International Space Station, where it will released into space via one of the station's airlocks. The A3 is a low-cost nanosatellite designed to test the avionics, attitude determination, propulsion, and control systems for the upcoming Arkyd 100 space telescope. The Arkyd is an optical and hyperspectral sensing telescope that will begin prospecting for asteroid mining targets in late 2015. It will mark the first time that a space telescope has been deployed for a commercial purpose. 

 The Arkyd 100 Space Telescope Image Credit: Planetary Resources 

The Arkyd 100 Space Telescope Image Credit: Planetary Resources 

Asteroid mining continues to be a hot topic here on Earth. The European Space Agency's Rosetta probe arrived at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August, and next month will deploy the Philae lander onto the comet's surface. In July we saw the introduction of the of the Asteroid Act -- the first piece of legislation designed to facilitate the commercial exploration of space resources. Now that business enterprises and nations are developing the technologies required to exploit space resources, space lawyers are hard at work laying the legal foundation for the new space economy. Check out the infographic below detailing how this new industry will take shape. 

We will be closely tracking the progress of the A3 launch here on FuelSpace, subscribe to our news feed to get the latest updates!