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How a tank full of powder turns natural gas into fuel for pickup trucks

  • An-Li Herring/WESA
Columbia Gas field operations leader Bill Vanek drives a natural gas-powered pickup truck as part of a pilot program at the utility's recently-constructed Dunbar Twp. office located about an hour's drive southeast of Pittsburgh.

 An-Li Herring / 90.5 WESA

Columbia Gas field operations leader Bill Vanek drives a natural gas-powered pickup truck as part of a pilot program at the utility's recently-constructed Dunbar Twp. office located about an hour's drive southeast of Pittsburgh.

While the drive to ditch gasoline and diesel has fueled the rise of electric vehicles, multi-state utility Columbia Gas is testing a different alternative in its fleet of service trucks: natural gas.

The company unveiled the project Tuesday, although the work began over the summer as part of a collaboration with Ingevity Corp., a chemical manufacturer headquartered in South Carolina.

“This new product that we’re testing out here will help us reduce [our] carbon footprint and give our customers a new option,” Mark Kempic, president and chief operating officer of Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania, said outside the utility’s offices in Dunbar.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection helped to fund the pilot through its Alternative Fuels Incentive Grant Program. Ingevity says its natural gas platform emits about 25% fewer greenhouse gasses than comparable gasoline and diesel systems. But the reduction climbs to between 80% and 130%, the company says, when the fuel is captured from sources of pollution such as landfills, wastewater facilities and agricultural sludge ponds, all of which release methane. Critics note, however, that natural gas infrastructure also leaks the potent greenhouse gas.

As part of the initiative at Columbia Gas, Ingevity equipped a Ford F250 pickup truck with a six-gallon tank full of activated carbon, a charcoal-like sand. The material is made from sawdust, and natural gas molecules attach to the surface of each of its tiny particles through a process called adsorption, according to Ingevity’s managing director of adsorbed natural gas, Robert Friedman.

This method allows tanks to hold the gas at lower pressures than is possible with a more established technique, called compressed natural gas. Heavy-duty vehicles such as buses and waste management trucks have used compressed natural gas for years. While that process requires gas station-size fueling centers, Ingevity’s platform relies on much smaller units, similar in size to electric vehicle charging stations.

An-Li Herring / 90.5 WESA

Ingevity Corp.’s natural gas fueling unit comes with two pumps and is roughly the same size as an electric vehicle charging station.

“A low-pressure environment allows … for the use of a low-cost fuel, [namely] natural gas, which,” Friedman said, “is a cheaper, cleaner, domestically abundant fuel [and] which will cost somewhere between $1 to $1.50 [per gallon], depending on where you are in the marketplace.”

Columbia Gas field operations leader Bill Vanek drives the newly outfitted truck daily to oversee work crews throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.

“The truck runs excellent. There is no loss of power,” he said. “I just pass up a lot of gas stations now, and I run it on natural gas as much as I can.”

He said he can drive between 80 and 100 miles before the vehicle switches to a separate gasoline tank. But to fill back up on natural gas, he usually has to wait three hours because the activated carbon inside the tank needs time to soak up the fuel.

Friedman said it costs $10,000 to convert a vehicle to Ingevity’s system. A fueling station for two vehicles costs $5,000, he said.

He said his company has launched its product in about 25 fleets nationally this year. Aside from natural gas companies, customers include municipalities in Georgia, Nebraska, and North Carolina. Ingevity will install its system in transit vans, sprinter vans, pickup trucks, and box trucks, according to Friedman.

An-Li Herring / 90.5 WESA

Columbia Gas’ converted Ford F250 includes one tank for gasoline (left) and another for natural gas. Columbia Gas field operations leader Bill Vanek says he doesn’t notice when the truck switches to gasoline after exhausting its supply of natural gas.

But while natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than the oil typically used to power cars, Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, said it’s wiser to invest in vehicle electrification than in another fossil fuel.

“I don’t want to downplay any of that potential here,” Mihalek said of Ingevity’s technology. “But at the same time, people have been pursuing this technology for a long period of time, and people have been pursuing electric vehicles. And it’s pretty clear that electric vehicles are right now a clear winner for where things are going.”

He warned, too, that methane is bound to escape when pumped into vehicles. And while today’s electric vehicle batteries typically draw on fossil fuels to charge up, he noted they can also run on renewable sources such as wind and solar, unlike Ingevity’s adsorbed natural gas.

“We have a mix of energy in the Pennsylvania grid, but the key is building out infrastructure that includes more and more renewable energy,” he said. “So it’s widely recognized that decarbonizing through electrification of vehicles is the smartest pathway going forward, paired with renewable energy.”

“It … uses products and technology that are already commercially viable and winning and growing in the marketplace,” he said.

But while transportation technology continues to evolve, Friedman countered, “You need an all-of-the-above strategy to [reduce greenhouse gas emissions]. There is no silver bullet.”


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