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.

3D Printing, CNG Stations, and Space Spiders

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you have at least heard the term 3D printing by now. 3D printing or additive manufacturing is the process of adding thin layers of a specific material on top of each other to “print” a product.  Each layer is fused together until the finished product is created. This is an alternative to the traditional method of subtractive manufacturing where you would remove material to form a final product. Current 3D printers can print objects out of wood, plastic, and now metal. Historically these systems have been used for rapid prototyping but are quickly making their way into the realm of manufacturing. We are now seeing 3D printers which are actually manufacturing high-end finished components. One of the most impressive products currently in 3D production is jet fuel nozzles. General Electric’s aerospace division has been printing high quality metal fuel nozzles for some time now. The program has been successful enough to warrant a substantial investment and expansion of the program.  

                                                          GE's LEAP engine will use 3D printed fuel nozzles.

                                                          GE's LEAP engine will use 3D printed fuel nozzles.

3D printing on a small scale is fantastic for a several applications. Rapid prototyping using 3D printers allows designers and manufacturers to test a variety of design configurations in real time. Modifying and testing prototypes much faster and more efficiently than ever opens the door to superior products that can be brought to market much faster.  In the realm of Natural Gas Vehicles (NGVs), this technique will be applied to compressors. Gas compressors are single most expensive component of a Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) fueling station. Rapid prototyping will allow compressor manufacturers like IMW, Ariel and GE to develop new, more efficient, and more affordable compressors. 3D printing will also enable the entire fueling station to be serviced much more reliably and cost-effectively. Today, if a compressor component fails, a technician is dispatched to repair the faulty part. Typically the service providers maintaining these systems must stock a huge inventory of critical parts. In the near future, 3D manufacturing will take the place of large parts inventories and allow technicians to simply print the part they need on-demand vs. stocking the component in a warehouse. Taking this concept further, we may very well have fueling stations that one day print their own replacement parts on-site when they sense a failure is eminent. A station technician can be dispatched and coordinated to arrive when the part is complete; he can then perform the repair without ever needing to visit a warehouse to locate the part.  The current barrier to this solution is printing times, which are still very long.  But be assured that production times are improving at a rapid pace.

And that is just the beginning. 3D printers are often thought of as being limited by their size. You can only print an object small enough to fit inside the printer itself. Well…not for long. The next evolution of 3D printing is already underway, and it involves scaling up 3D printers by combining the printers with sophisticated robotics. Researchers at the University of Southern California are developing a robotic 3D printing system that can print an entire house in 24 hours.   

                                                                     The Construction: 3D Printed Houses

                                                                     The Construction: 3D Printed Houses

A system of rails would be installed around the job site allowing the printer to move in three dimensions. Using concrete printers these robots would print a house from the ground up.  This technology will revolutionize every aspect of the construction industry.  In the NGV world, this means fueling stations that once took months to build, could now be assembled and operational in just days. While it is extremely unlikely an entire compressor would ever be printed on site, there are still several benefits to such an approach. The robotic printers would prepare the entire fueling station site in a short period of time, printing the concrete pad, high pressure piping and the electrical systems. For stations with time fill systems where each vehicle has a dedicated fueling hose, the entire time fill system consisting of concrete K-rail, gas lines and plastic-metal hosing is an ideal candidate for robotic printing.   

Once the site is prepared, the core equipment components would be installed.  While real world advances such as this will be implementing incrementally, the end result will be fueling stations that are built in far less time. This will improve costs by reducing construction time and labor, simplifying permitting, and even reducing insurance costs.

                                Finally...Space Spiders.

                                Finally...Space Spiders.

For one last wow factor, I will share with you the ultimate domain of 3D printing: space. Doing anything in space is incredibly expensive, especially construction projects. For this reason you will see some of the most incredible advances in 3D printing occur in space, where the lack of gravity, abundance of raw material and free solar energy create the foundation for technologies that sound like science fiction, but are quite real. SpiderFab is developing 3D printing robots that will be utilized for space-construction projects. These are the enabling technologies that will allow space-based solar energy facilities and orbital fueling depots to become a reality. Companies like Planetary Resources will deliver fuel and raw materials to the resident staff of spider printers…setting the stage for the Trillion dollar commercial space economy. 

Natural Gas Vehicles: 2013 Year in Review and What to Expect in 2014

                Waste Management CNG Garbage Truck

                Waste Management CNG Garbage Truck

The Golden Age of Gas is here to stay proclaims Forbes Magazine. Few will disagree that 2013 was a breakout year for the new premier fuel of the planet. This is no surprise, given the advances in extraction technologies pioneered here in the United States, and now making their way across the globe. Shale rocks formations are some of the most common on earth, meaning we are just now beginning one of the largest energy transitions in history. Here in the US, we continue to see massive reductions in our carbon output due to the transition away from coal fired power plants towards natural gas plants.  Market driven carbon reductions…yes please!

The Natural Gas Vehicle (NGV) industry has finally become a major contender to displace diesel fuel in the next decade.  Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)  are becoming the fuel of choice for commercial fleet operators.  CNG refuse trucks accounted for more than 51% of all new trucks ordered.  Meaning for the first time, CNG is no longer the “alternative” but rather the primary fuel of choice for trash fleets in the country. The over the road trucking industry, supported by the new 400 HP Cummins 12 Liter natural gas engine, jumped into the pool as well.  There were more natural gas powered trucks purchased this year than ever before. Infrastructure providers such as Clean Energy, Trillium, and Questar rolled out hundreds of new fueling stations around the Country, with many more on the way. 

We saw the birth of the new LNG powered Marine industry, with new fueling stations being developed at ports around the globe, and numerous LNG-powered ship orders being placed. The railroad industry also began their transition to LNG, and is now planning for the future with new liquefaction plants and fueling terminals across the country. 

Transient

Caterpillar, which has been eyeing the NGV industry for years, is finally making moves into the market.  The engine giant will be looking to develop high horsepower engine applications for offroad mining equipment.  The first LNG mining trucks will be deployed in Alberta, Canada.  

 So what can you expect in 2014? 

Ozinga' CNG Powered Ready-Mix Concrete Truck

Ozinga' CNG Powered Ready-Mix Concrete Truck

Expect to see further adoption of natural gas in all fleet applications.  Electric vehicles will continue their march into the consumer sector, but in the commercial fleet sector, natural gas will be the fuel of choice.   This will include big moves in marine, rail, trucking, trash, transit, as well as high mileage light and medium duty fleets.  The biggest transition will likely be in the construction services sector. With new engines and fuel tank configurations for ready mix concrete trucks, asphalt trucks, and sand and gravel hauling.  This will be the industry to watch in 2014. In addition to on-road  vehicles, the industry will have access to new off-road mining equipment that is now becoming available. Construction giants like Cemex, Vulcan, Martin Marietta, and Holcim will begin their transition to natural gas.  With both return to base fleet applications, high mileage hauling trucks, and a plethora of mining equipment at their aggregate plants, these companies will be well positioned to take full advantage of lower fuel costs to drive up profits, secure new customers with green trucks, and increase shareholder value.      

On the technology side, expect to see more investment flowing into Absorbed Natural Gas (ANG) fuel tank and storage technology. This has been the holy grail for of the NGV industry for some time.  ANG tanks can be formed into any shape or size, and store gas in a solid carbon honeycomb matrix, as opposed to a cryogenic liquid or pressurized gas.  If companies can bring flexible ANG fuel tanks that accept both CNG and LNG to market at cost competitive pricing, it will set the stage for a commercial fleet industry checkmate.