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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.