ARPA-E grant helps start Colorado State University natural gas truck project

SPRINGVILLE, PA - JANUARY 18:  A Cabot Oil and...
SPRINGVILLE, PA – JANUARY 18: A Cabot Oil and Gas natural gas station stands near a hydraulic fracturing site on January 18, 2012 in Springville, Pennsylvania. Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, stimulates gas production by injecting wells with high volumes of chemical-laced water in order to free-up pockets of natural gas below. The process is controversial with critics saying it could poison water supplies, while the natural-gas industry says it’s been used safely for decades. While New York State has yet to decide whether to allow fracking, economically struggling Binghamton has passed a drilling ban which prohibits any exploration or extraction of natural gas in the city for the next two years. The Marcellus Shale Gas Feld extends through parts of New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia and could hold up to 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

Most of the struggle to develop alternative energy vehicles is a “chicken and egg” problem between vehicles and infrastructure. If scientists don’t develop the infrastructure, there’s no point in having vehicles. But if the vehicles don’t exist, why build the infrastructure?

CSU associate professor Thomas Bradley and former CSU assistant professor Christopher Hagen, now an assistant professor at Oregon State University Cascades Campus, are hoping to solve both problems by building a truck that runs on the natural gas from someone’s home.

“To refill a natural gas vehicle like the Transfort buses you need compressed natural gas from a dedicated natural gas station. This is really inconvenient – there aren’t any public ones in Fort Collins,” Bradley said. “Our idea is to put the compressor in the car so that you can fill it up from your home or office.”

In order to make this happen, the pair applied for and received a $700,000 grant from the US Department of Energy as part of the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E) Methane Opportunities for Vehicular Energy (MOVE) project. The ARPA-E grant will be the sole funding source for the project.

The Department of Energy was unable to comment because contract negotiations have yet to be finalized, according to an email from Public Affairs Support Contractor Andrew Gumbiner.

From here, Bradley and Hagen have divided the work between their two campuses. Bradley and CSU will handle the software and modeling aspects, while Hagen will deal primarily with building test cells and hardware at OSU-Cascades.

“We’re able to do a lot of our work virtually sharing concepts,” Hagen said. “It makes the separation easier to manage.”

Currently Hagan has two senior students working with him and Bradley has enlisted a CSU grad student, but Bradley expects the team to grow to as many as 10 CSU students when the project gets into full swing in the fall.

“This is really hard to do. We could go out and hire experts, engineers with 50 years of experience, but it’s all tied in with the education mission of CSU,” Bradley said. “It takes hard work, creativity and a spark that, sometimes, these kids really provide.”

And if the students continue to stay involved with the project, they could have the opportunity to be a part of a startup company, according to Hagan.

Right now the project is scheduled to last for 18 months with the final goal of creating one truck that can compress the natural gas from a home or office and use it for fuel.

From both sides, the most challenging part is having to rebuild the engine.

“Over time the internal combustion engine has become really sophisticated,” Hagen said. “We have to crack into it and do a lot of re-engineering.”

“Corporations like Chrysler and GM have teams of hundreds of engineers and take years to make these changes,” Bradley said. “We’re trying to do it in a year and a half.”

But the end result makes it all worth it.

“This is one of the top priorities of our country right now. It can help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil. It burns cleaner,” Bradley said. “What everybody’s striving for is a more sustainable future.”