HOUSTON, TEXAS —
While many Americans want to reduce both pollution and energy costs, the nation's automobile-based transportation system undermines these goals by being largely dependent on petroleum.
But in the western state of Oklahoma, Ethel Clayton drives a truck that can run on much cheaper and cleaner compressed natural gas (CNG).
"Not just because you save a whole lot of money, but it is also good for the environment and it also keeps your engine in better condition," Clayton said.
Thanks to support from local natural gas producing companies, there are plenty of CNG filling sites around Oklahoma, and Clayton says online guides also show places to refuel when traveling out of state.
"They will actually route your destination where there will be CNG filling stations," she said. "So it is getting better."
The dramatic increase in U.S. natural gas production has made the fuel cheaper and driven projects that would use this resource to replace far dirtier fossil fuels. Companies are experimenting with various ways to use natural gas as a transportation fuel.
Still, some experts remain wary. The American Petroleum Institute's chief economist says CNG cannot be viable as a transportation fuel without a nationwide expansion of infrastructure.
"The problem is that, for example, if you look at the 170,000 service stations around the country, they are owned by small businessmen, who simply don't have the money... say, $200,000... to set up a natural gas fueling opportunity," said John Felmy.
The use of liquid natural gas, or LNG, would provide great savings for long-haul trucking companies, but the up-front expense is discouraging, according to Felmy.
"The typical heavy-duty truck running on LNG will typically cost something on the order of $80,000 more,” he said.
But what if you could make a cleaner burning liquid fuel directly from natural gas that would work in normal vehicles and be supplied through already existing infrastructure?
That's the goal of companies like New Jersey-based Primus Green Energy, which has successfully tested its fuel and is now building a plant to produce it for commercial sale.
“The key to having alternative fuels be accepted, both on a financial basis and an economic basis as well as by consumers, is to have them not change their behavior at all,” said George Boyajian, the company's president of business development.
Boyajian says there is no need to alter engines and drastically change current fuel systems to bring this fuel into widespread use. And, because the catalyst used in the process eliminates pollutants like sulphur and benzene, he says it is far cleaner.
“The tier-three standards that the EPA has put out for transportation fuels going forward, the Primus gasoline already surpasses those standards,” Boyajian said.
Although natural gas is the best feedstock now, Boyajian says synthetic gas produced from biofuels also could be used.
It could take more than a decade for such fuels to significantly reduce the use of petroleum for transportation, but each small step brings that future closer.