Last updated August 6, 2019 at 4:16 pm
From rockets to race cars, natural gas is being developed to replace conventional fuels in unexpected ways.
Most people think of natural gas as the gas in their kitchen cooktop, hot water heater, or home central heating.
However, it is increasingly being used as a fuel for transport – and not just for cars. Here’s seven unexpected uses for natural gas fuel.
Methane natural gas could be powering humanity to Mars in the future if SpaceX and Blue Origin have their way. Both game-changing companies are developing their next generation rockets to use methane as fuel instead of kerosene which is currently used.
Methane has many advantages when it comes to rockets – they can be made about 20 per cent more efficient, burn cleaner which means easier and quicker reuse, and are lighter and cheaper to run. SpaceX’s Raptor engine has already produced lift-off power during a test firing, with Elon Musk wanting to use it to launch humans to Mars onboard Starship.
Read more about the future of methane powered rockets.
Huge ships use huge amounts of diesel, but AIDA Cruises have unveiled the first liquid natural gas (LNG)-powered cruise ship.
Measuring over 300 metres long and carrying up to 5200 passengers, the AIDAnova is powered by four massive dual-fuel hybrid engines running on LNG.
The first of a family of seven next-generation cruise ships, AIDAnova can currently be found plying around the Mediterranean with its bars, restaurants, beach club and luxury spa.
Not only were running costs for the small two seat plane lower than using normal aviation fuel, but the company says it was less polluting as well, as aviation fuel used in small planes still contains a small amount of lead. The company also said the plane ran better than on normal fuel, with lower engine temperatures while running natural gas.
Qatar Airways has also flagged the potential of natural gas-powered commercial flights, with aircraft engine manufacturer Rolls Royce already certifying some of its engines for the fuel. The airline says that natural gas’s better efficiency means the planes would need to burn less fuel, and with natural gas not containing sulphur (unlike the fuel large jets use) engines that do use the fuel will need less maintenance.
It’s often said that racetracks are laboratories for the road, and that’s been the case for natural gas cars too. In 2009, 2010 and 2011, Volkswagen entered compressed natural gas (CNG)-powered cars in arguably the world’s toughest endurance race, the Nürburgring 24 Hours.
The slick looking Scirocco coupes produced a handy 243kW of power while, according to Volkswagen, producing 80 per cent less CO2 emissions compared to a normal petrol-powered engine. The gas powered the two team cars to 40th and 49th overall out of approximately 200 cars in their first year of competition, winning the alternative fuels category.
They repeated the feat in 2010, winning the alternative fuels category and coming 15th overall in the hands of female ace Vanina Ickx, battling with Porsches and Ferraris along the way.
The team then completed a historic three-peat, with the Scirocco-CNG taking out the class again in 2011 – leaving many petrol-powered cars in their wake in the process.
Public transport is a major emitter of greenhouse gases, so are gradually being replaced with natural gas-powered alternatives. CNG-powered vehicles emit far less pollutants such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides (NOx) than diesel engines over the same distance travelled.
For over 15 years, Barcelona has been purchasing large numbers of CNG-powered buses. After studying their performance on routes around the city, they found that the natural gas buses emitted up to 16 times less pollution than the diesel buses they replaced. The drivers and passengers also loved them, saying there was less noise and vibration on the new buses – giving them a resounding thumbs up.
One of the biggest truck engine builders in the world, Cummins, has developed a dedicated offshoot called Cummins-Westport just for developing gas-powered engines. The company has already sold over 80,000 natural gas engines for everything from delivery trucks and school buses to heavy duty trucking.
In 2018, an LNG-powered truck built by Iveco set a new distance record, travelling over 1700km across Europe without needing to refuel.
The Canadian state of Ontario has also launched a program to encourage trucking companies to swap their trucks to natural gas. With one-third of the state’s emissions coming from transport, and trucks and cars being responsible for 70 per cent of that, the local government says trucking makes an ideal target for making a dent in total emissions.
Pulling 100-cars of freight requires a lot of power, and a lot of diesel. Each year in the US around 3.7 billion gallons of diesel are used on the railroads, costing around $9 billion dollars.
Canadian National rail company have two freight locomotives converted to use the cleaner fuel. Behind the 3,000 horsepower locomotive is a 100,000 litre natural gas fuel tank. However, only around 40,000 litres of natural gas are needed to provide the same range as a diesel locomotive, meaning long-distance haulage is no problem.
A fleet of 24 natural gas freight trains are also being used in Florida for hauling goods up and down the east coast. The Russians have also been testing natural gas in Siberia, successfully hauling trains weighing up to 9000 tonnes.
Spanish rail company Renfe has even been examining natural gas for passenger trains, the first time that a mainline passenger service has been powered by the fuel in Europe.
This article is sponsored by Bright-r.