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A Fiat Multipla Bi-power car being refueled. Credit: Andreas Geick

America’s presidents can’t make up their minds about how to reduce dependence on oil imports.

President Bush was a enthusiastic support of fuel cells, until he was an enthusiastic supporter of ethanol made from switchgrass. President Obama has come out strong for biofuels and electric cars, but he didn’t mention those in his State of the Union address this week. Now he wants researchers to invent new ways to use natural gas to power vehicles.

The hope is to create a market for natural gas, which is pouring from the ground in record amounts in the United States, and in turn driving down natural gas prices to levels not seen for 10 years. 

It’s easy to use natural gas in internal combustion engines, but it’s hard to store much of it on board a car, so natural gas vehicles typically have a much shorter range than gasoline powered ones. The White House announced today that the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) will announce a research competition for either improving natural gas powered vehicles, or developing a cheaper way to turn the gas into an energy dense liquid fuel. (The announcement referred to ARPA-E’s previous funding rounds as “competitions,” so it’s likely this will just be another funding round, not something like the DARPA challenge competition to develop autonomous vehicles.)

The White House also announced a plan to encourage the use of natural gas in trucks: 

Reducing our dependence on oil by encouraging greater use of natural gas in transportation: The President’s plan includes: proposing new incentives for medium- and heavy-duty trucks that run on natural gas or other alternative fuels; launching a competitive grant program to support communities to overcome the barriers to natural gas vehicle deployment; developing transportation corridors that allow trucks fueled by liquefied natural gas to transport goods; and supporting programs to convert municipal buses and trucks to run on natural gas and to find new ways to convert and store natural gas.

Will natural gas transportation prove a fad? Unlike fuel cells, advanced biofuels, and electric cars, natural gas vehicles are already sold in large numbers, particularly outside of the United States. In the long term, especially if natural gas remains cheap, they will find a market in the U.S., too. But if political support for it depends on quick and widespread adoption, or on breakthroughs in turning the gas into liquid fuel, the support won’t last, and we can look for some other transportation solution to be highlighted in the next State of the Union speech. 

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Tagged: Energy, energy, electric cars, Obama, natural gas, biofuels, ARPA-E, fuel cells

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