Gas is expensive. There’s no getting around it. Gasoline prices are approaching a national average of $5 a glug, and like a great winter storm, it doesn’t show signs of stopping. If this trend is busting your budget, you could always get a hybrid, but these neither-fish-nor-fowl heavies are uninspired, expensive to buy, and just as expensive to own. Replacing a Prius battery will cost you about $3,000, or the cost of a non-riced Honda CRX.
No one was discussing hybrids when I was growing up. Back then our Weekly Readers
were full of ideas about “Green Cars” and speckled with futuristic computer renderings of DOA concept cars. They’d be powered by water, we read with childlike gullibility, or the very sun! Many would be purely electric.
This branch of the alternative fuels conversation river seems to have slowed to a trickle, cleverly clogged with the silt of the latest, flashy hybrids. But hybrids haven’t been the messiah cars we were once promised.
Now Chrysler’s revisiting an older idea, and it has me thinking.
The Ram 2500 CNG Pickup runs on Compressed Natural Gas, and right away, you’ll be able to figure out where that gas is stored. Almost half of the extended bed is crowded out with a large box, this packing a pair of huge cylindrical tanks. Why didn’t Ram put
the CNG storage where the fuel tank was? Because it’s still there. The 2500 CNG can switch seamlessly between gasoline and CNG. They use the same engine, the same injection system, and the same exhaust.
This CNG we’ve been discussing is the basic stinky stuff you burn in your water heater. Since you already have natural gas lines running to your house, you could potentially fill a CNG vehicle right at home, just like you would charge an electric car.
And that tends to give my brain pause, since it’s under the impression that it’s an expert on alternative energy. See, the problem with every alternative fuel option so far has been infrastructure. In order for us to use non-gasoline cars as we use cars today, we need to be able to commute and road trip. We need to be able to drive our cars to work or Wisconsin. We need unlimited range.
For this, hydrogen would need refineries and a full over-the-road delivery system to the gas stations of the future. Battery changing stations are expensive and, as of yet, mostly missing. Even quick charge stations require far greater voltages than most gas stations probably carry now. The tech is there, but the startup is not.
The natural gas infrastructure, however, already exists. The chances that your favorite filling station doesn’t have a natural gas line are fairly slim. And as you well know, your home has one, too.
Now, at this point, if I told you nothing else, you’d think this was a pretty sweet deal. Natural gas is far cheaper than gasoline, offers comparable power, and we make 98% of our own natural gas here in America. If you’re concerned with carbon gasses and greenhouse footprints and such, CNG is the cleanest burning of all hydrocarbon fuels. It’s even completely renewable.
But to call it “natural gas” would be a misrepresentation, because we can’t forget that the C stands for “compressed.” And just as with the air running through your impact wrench, it takes power to compress. Our current natural gas lines are pressurized, but not nearly with enough force to fill a car’s CNG tank. So any home or station unit would require an
external compressor, and powering one could hang another anchor from your power bill.
And while the conventional gasoline engine is properly structured to deal with CNG, and though conversion kits do exist, not every engine can handle the pressures that CNG requires to properly burn. As any boostaholic can tell you, there is a ceiling with cylinder pressurization.
Still, CNG seems a slightly less futile effort than its competitors. And the Ram 2500 CNG will likely draw some attention to the fuel. Naturally, any gasoline alternative will involve a massive startup fund and therefore massive risk. But CNG could involve a little less of both.
What do you think? Is CNG viable?