A research team from the University of Missouri-Columbia (MU) and Midwest Research Institute (MRI) recently announced a major breakthrough in natural gas technology that uses carbon briquettes to store the gas in a smaller, low-pressure tank. The new technology has the potential to make methane-powered vehicles an attractive option for American motorists in the not-so-distant future.

carbon briquettes made from

New natural gas technology uses carbon briquettes made from “baked” corncobs to store natural gas in a low-pressure tank. Credit: National Science Foundation

MU Professor Peter Pfeifer has discovered a way to “bake” corncob waste and form it into carbon briquettes. The carbon briquettes are equipped with fractal pore spaces which are capable of storing methane at 180 times their own volume and at one seventh the pressure of conventional storage tanks. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) set the 180 to 1 storage to volume goal in 2000. The carbon briquettes created by Professor Pfeifer and his research team are the first technology to meet the DOE’s goal.

“The research partnership here exemplifies how scientists from very different fields can work together to conduct truly fundamental research in new materials with the explicit goal of having the results of the research solve problems for people,” said MU Chancellor Brady Deaton in a recent National Science Foundation article.

A pickup truck owned and operated by the Kansas City Office of Environmental Quality was outfitted with the new technology in October 2006. The research team has been monitoring the technology and evaluating several aspects of the technology’s performance, including mileage range per fill-up, pressure and temperature of the tank during charging/discharging, and the longevity of the carbon briquettes.

“Having a prototype of this technology operating in the day-to-day work environment is significant,” said James L. Spigarelli, president and CEO of MRI. The relationship between Kansas City and the MU-MRI team is fitting since more than two hundred natural-gas vehicles operate for Kansas City including utility trucks and airport shuttles.

“Although the team’s work is not yet complete, this technology development comes at a fortuitous time as many researchers strive to find multiple alternatives to address the nation’s energy challenges,” said Spigarelli.

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