During 2017, the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium (NAFTC) will highlight resources from alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicle industry organizations in the Let’s Clear the Air column.

These resources provide fuel-specific information that may be useful to automotive technicians, automotive students, and others who are interested in the technical aspects of these vehicles.

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This month, we highlight the Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA), a trade association promoting battery, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and fuel cell electric drive technologies and infrastructure. EDTA conducts public policy advocacy, provides education and awareness, and enables industry networking and collaboration. Organization members include vehicle and equipment manufacturers, energy companies, technology developers, component suppliers, government agencies and others.

One of EDTA’s projects is “Go Electric Drive” (www.goelectricdrive.org). The site provides useful resources for those interested in purchasing an electric vehicle (EV), including an overview of different EVs, details about charging equipment, and a charging station locator.

Because EVs and their related infrastructure can be puzzling to the novice, the site provides key terminology. Here’s an example from the site:

Terminology

Level 1
Charging a vehicle at “Level 1” means plugging in to a standard 120 volt outlet. All drivers can charge their EV at Level 1 and this requires no extra equipment or installation. On average, a full charging time is about 8 hours—but varies by model. Consult the automaker’s website for more information.

Level 2
Charging a vehicle at “Level 2” means plugging into a 240 volt outlet. Home owners may decide to install a charging station—also known as Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment (EVSE)—in their home. This requires professional installation and an outlet type commonly utilized by home appliances like refrigerators and dryers. There are also many Level 2 chargers across the United States in public areas. On average, full charging time varies from 2 to 6 hours, but times vary by model. Consult the automaker’s website for more information.

DC Fast Charge
Charging your vehicle using a CHAdeMO, SAE Combo plug or a Tesla Supercharger allows drivers to plug into “DC Fast Charge” networks where they are available. These types of chargers provide about 80 percent of a vehicle’s potential battery power in about 15 minutes. Again, times vary by model. Consult your manufacturer for more details.

Wireless Charging
Some of the latest models of plug-in vehicles have wireless charging capabilities that use “inductive charging”—allowing drivers to charge without plugging in. While this is a newer service under development, many manufacturers are beginning to focus on this convenience. Additionally, the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is currently demonstrating that high levels of efficiency can be achieved with wireless EV chargers.

Key Considerations
What are my driving patterns? Decide how far you travel each day and what your all-electric driving needs will be. This will help you decide if a plug-in hybrid or battery EV is right for you.

Where will I charge?
At home? At work? On the go?

What resources are available to help me find and use charging stations?

Are there financial resources to help me install charging?

The site also provides details about EV tax incentives in the U.S. and Canada.

The NAFTC has materials and training about electric vehicles, including the Petroleum Reduction Technologies: Electric Drive and Electric Drive Fleet Applications workshops, the Electric Drive Automotive Technician Training, Electric Drive Vehicle Career and Technical Education Training, and the Electric Drive Vehicle Infrastructure Training classroom courses, and the online Electric Vehicle First Responder Safety Training.

Contact Micheal Smyth at Micheal.Smyth@mail.wvu.edu or 304-293-7882 for information about these classes or other NAFTC training.




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February 28th, 2017

Let's Clear the Air February 2017


Let’s Clear the Air—Natural Gas Vehicles for America

In the coming months, the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium (NAFTC) will highlight resources from alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicle industry organizations in the Let’s Clear the Air column.

These resources provide fuel-specific information that may be useful to automotive technicians, automotive students, and others who are interested in the technical aspects of these vehicles.

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This month, we highlight Natural Gas Vehicles for America (NGVA), an organization dedicated to creating a profitable, sustainable, and growing market for compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas-powered vehicles.

The NGVA website features a “Technical and Safety Documents” section that includes reports and white papers, a technical bulletin, incident investigations and root cause analyses, and safety advice.

Included in this section is a Guideline for Determining the Modifications Required for Adding Compressed Natural Gas and Liquefied Natural Gas Vehicles To Existing Maintenance Facilities, which should be of interest to technicians who are considering work on natural gas vehicles.

This comprehensive document walks readers through the considerations and process of converting an existing automotive repair or maintenance facility to one that is able to safely service natural gas vehicles. The report includes existing code requirements (from 2012), an explanation of methods to research code requirements, guidelines for modifications of both major and minor facilities, plans for coordinating with authorities having jurisdiction, training considerations, and fuel properties and hazards of natural gas.

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The Guideline for Determining the Modifications Required for Adding Compressed Natural Gas and Liquefied Natural Gas Vehicles To Existing Maintenance Facilities includes this Flow Chart for Modification Analysis to indicate the basic decisions that need to be made in order to determine what modifications may be required to add CNG and/or LNG vehicles to an existing maintenance facility. The decision points are discussed in more detail in the balance of the document. Credit: Natural Gas Vehicles for America.

The U.S. Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center also has a wealth of information about natural gas vehicles, including availability and emissions information.

The NAFTC has materials and training about natural gas vehicles, including the Petroleum Reduction Technologies: Natural Gas video, Petroleum Reduction Technologies: Natural Gas workshop, Compressed Natural Gas Vehicle Fuel System Inspector, and Light-Duty Natural Gas Vehicles courses.

Contact Micheal Smyth at Micheal.Smyth@mail.wvu.edu or 304-293-7882 for information about these classes or other NAFTC training.




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In the coming months, the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium (NAFTC) will highlight resources from alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicle industry organizations in the Let’s Clear the Air column.

These resources provide fuel-specific information that may be useful to automotive technicians, automotive students, and others who are interested in the technical aspects of these vehicles.

This month, we highlight the California Fuel Cell Partnership, an organization that is committed to promoting fuel cell vehicle commercialization as a means of moving toward a sustainable energy future, increasing energy efficiency, and reducing or eliminating air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

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The California Fuel Cell Partnership website features a “resources” section that includes a blog, FAQs, job postings, industry links, events, downloads, and safety information.

Included in this section is the “How It Works” guide to fuel cells, fuel cell electric vehicles, and hydrogen production. This document provides a detailed explanation of fuel cells and includes diagrams to help readers visualize the process.

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The downloads also include a link to a hydrogen fueling station list.

The U.S. Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center also has a wealth of information on fuel cell vehicles, including availability and emissions information.

A few pieces of information from the NAFTC about hydrogen and fuel cell vehicles includes a fuel cell animation which shows the process of a fuel cell producing electricity, the hydrogen episode of the Amped Up AED Vodcast, and the Petroleum Reduction Technologies: Hydrogen video.

The NAFTC also includes hydrogen and fuel cell information in the Petroleum Reduction Technologies: Hydrogen and Hydrogen Fleet Applications workshops. Contact Micheal Smyth at Micheal.Smyth@mail.wvu.edu or 304-293-7882 for information about these workshops or other NAFTC training.




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Throughout the year, the “Let’s Clear the Air” column of the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium (NAFTC) eNews provides articles and other materials about specific issues of a technical nature designed for automotive technicians, students, and others with a technical interest in the alternative fuel vehicle (AFV) industry. These articles delve deeply into AFV issues and processes.

Many of these articles are drawn from the NAFTC materials, members, and partners. The articles are meant to clarify complex procedures for those that may not be able to attend current training, or simply for those with inquiring minds. The articles can also be used to spark discussion or further exploration in automotive classes or training sessions.

For the first several months of this year, “Let’s Clear the Air” covered various AFV topics. In January, the column covered the cold weather performance of AFVs. The February column explained some of the information available in the new NAFTC Propane Autogas Vehicle Technician Training with an overview of propane autogas fueling systems. Next, the column showed a video of the importance of seeking qualified technicians to install conversion systems. The April column showed how a new automotive comparison app shows fuel economy of vehicles, and the May column showed a video about electric vehicle racing. For the ensuing six months of 2016, “Let’s Clear the Air” hosted an in-depth discussion of alternative fuels production and source materials. The column covered biodiesel, natural gas-, propane autogas, ethanol-, hydrogen-, and electricity, as a vehicle fuel. These articles are based on the Clean Cities Learning Program Petroleum Reduction Technologies curriculum. For more information, visit the Clean Cities Learning Program or contact the NAFTC.

If you are an alternative fuel or advanced technology vehicle expert interested in contributing to “Let’s Clear the Air” in 2017, please contact the NAFTC at 304-293-7882 or e-mail naftc@mail.wvu.edu.




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December 5th, 2016

Electricity as a Vehicle Fuel


This article is the sixth in a series examining alternative fuel production and source materials. Previously we looked at biodiesel, natural gas, propane, ethanol, and hydrogen. This month’s article is the last in this series, and covers electricity as a vehicle fuel.

Electric drive refers to vehicles that use electricity to either power or improve the efficiency of a vehicle. According to the Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC), electricity used to power the vehicle may be provided by the electricity grid and stored in the vehicle’s batteries. However, onboard generation of electricity is common in some electric drive vehicles.

The U.S. Department of Energy groups electric drive vehicles into three categories: hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), plug in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and battery electric vehicles (BEVs), all-electric vehicles that use an energy storage device such as batteries to store electricity for use by the electric motor. BEVs are the only vehicles that use rechargeable batteries as the only source of energy for the vehicle. They do not require a fuel, such as gasoline or diesel. Instead, they need to be plugged into the electrical supply system for refueling.

Another category of vehicle sometimes referred to as an electric drive vehicle is the fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV). The U.S. DOE groups fuel FCEVs into the hydrogen category. Consequently this series of articles covered FCEVs last month in the article on hydrogen as a vehicle fuel.

HEV Functions and Components

HEVs are the most common of electric drive vehicles. These vehicles have an internal combustion engine alongside one or more electric motors, and typically run on conventional or alternative fuels. This vehicle is aptly named because it is a hybrid between the two technologies. An HEV uses more than one power system, combining an ICE with an electric motor and one or more power sources, typically a battery pack.

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HEV Components. Credit: Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC).

Battery (auxiliary): In an electric drive vehicle, the auxiliary battery provides electricity to start the car before the traction battery is engaged and to power vehicle accessories.

DC/DC converter: This device converts higher-voltage DC power from the traction battery pack to the lower-voltage power needed to run vehicle accessories and recharge the auxilliary battery.

Electric generator: Generates electricity from the rotating wheels while braking, transferring that energy back to the traction battery pack. Some vehicles use motor generators that perform both the drive and regeneration functions.

Exhaust system: Channels the exhaust gases from the engine out through the tailpipe.

Fuel filler: A filler or “nozzle” is used to add fuel to the tank.

Fuel tank (gasoline): Stores gasoline on board the vehicle until it’s needed by the engine.

Internal combustion engine (spark-ignited): In this configuration, fuel is injected into the intake manifold or combustion chamber and combined with air, and the air/fuel mix is ignited by the spark from a spark plug.

Onboard charger: Takes the incoming AC electricity supplied via the charge port and converts it to DC power for charging the traction battery. It regulates battery characteristics such as voltage, current, temperature, and state of charge while charging the pack.

Power electronics controller: This unit manages the flow of electrical energy delivered by the traction battery, controlling the speed of the electric traction motor and the torque it produces.

Thermal system (cooling): This system maintains a proper operating temperature range of the engine, electric motor, power electronics, or other components.

Traction battery pack: Stores electricity for use by the electric traction motor.

Transmission: Transfers mechanical power from the engine and/or electric traction motor to drive the wheels.

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The Toyota Prius is a commonly-known hybrid electric vehicle. Credit: Toyota Motor Sales.

These vehicles may be refueled at conventional fueling stations and may travel any distance, provided there are ample fueling stations along the way. HEVs do not have a plug-in battery instead they charge the onboard battery using regenerative braking and the ICE. Energy from the battery provides extra power during acceleration.

The electric motor that helps to drive the wheels is referred to as the motor/generator or traction motor. The motor/generator captures energy that is normally lost during braking by using the electric motor as a generator in storing the energy in the battery. The DOE highlights that HEVs combine the benefits of high fuel economy and low emissions with the power of conventional vehicles.

PHEV Functions and Components

PHEVs are similar to regular HEVs. PHEVs have extra battery capacity and the ability to recharge by plugging in their batteries. When running in EV mode, PHEVs have greater MPGe than HEVs. When out of battery range, PHEVs have similar miles per gallon equivalent and range as HEVs.

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PHEV Components. Credit: AFDC.

Charge port: The charge port allows the vehicle to connect to an external power supply in order to charge the traction battery pack.

Note: The remaining components are the same as within an HEV.

BEV Functions and Components

BEVs, or all-electric vehicles, are the most simplistic of electric drive vehicles by design. These vehicles typically consist of little more than batteries and motors in their drivetrains. BEVs receive almost double the MPGe of an HEV, or about three times the MPGe of a conventional vehicle. BEVs can be recharged through charging stations or by being plugged in for 30 minutes to 12 hours, depending on the charging equipment. These vehicles are the least expensive to run of all vehicles currently on the road. However they suffer from limited battery range, as they do not have an internal combustion engine or generator to recharge them or provide energy for motion. Most BEVs can travel a distance between 50 and 200 miles, depending on the vehicle, weight, and driving conditions.

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BEV Components. Credit: AFDC.

Note: As BEVs are the most simple of electric drive vehicles, all of their components are included in the descriptions of HEVs and PHEVs.

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The Nissan Leaf (left) and Toyota Prius Plug-in (right) are examples of battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Credit: NAFTC.

This article is based on the Clean Cities Learning Program Petroleum Reduction Technologies curriculum. For more information, visit the Clean Cities Learning Program or contact the NAFTC.

Vehicle component images and definitions were sourced from the U.S. DOE Alternative Fuels Data Center.




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October 27th, 2016

How is Hydrogen Produced?


This article is the fifth in a series examining alternative fuel production and source materials. Previously we looked at biodiesel, natural gas, propane, and ethanol. Next month’s article will be our last in this series, and we will study electricity as a vehicle fuel. This month, our focus is on hydrogen.

Types of Hydrogen Vehicles

There are two ways hydrogen may be used as a fuel. Hydrogen can be burned in an internal combustion engine (ICE) or it may be used to produce electricity in a fuel cell. In both cases, the main byproducts are heat and water. This makes hydrogen-powered vehicles an environmentally conscious option for consumers.

Hydrogen ICE

The internal combustion engine of a hydrogen vehicle burns hydrogen gas as its fuel to create energy. This energy then powers the vehicle.

Designers of conventional ICE vehicles do not need to completely redesign conventional engines to create vehicles powered by hydrogen. However, some modifications are necessary to burn hydrogen efficiently.

The combustion chamber and cooling system of conventional ICE engines require modification to control problems with premature ignition. Hydrogen ICEs require the use of superchargers or turbochargers to supply sufficient quantities of air in the combustion chamber to allow the hydrogen to burn. Special fuel injectors and fuel delivery rails are needed to efficiently transfer hydrogen gas into the combustion chamber.

Fuel Cells

A fuel cell is a device that electrochemically produces energy by separating the protons and electrons in a hydrogen molecule and channeling their flow to create an electrical current. The electricity can be used to power the vehicle’s electric motor. Fuel cells are extremely efficient, even more so than hydrogen ICEs and can greatly reduce air pollution.

There are different types of fuel cells. In vehicles, the typical fuel cell is a proton exchange membrane (PEM). The type of fuel cell creates electricity by using a combination of hydrogen, oxygen, electrodes, a catalyst, and a special polymer membrane. A FCEV uses a fuel cell stack that is made up of multiple PEM fuel cells.

In the operation of a PEM fuel cell, hydrogen from the storage tank flows into the fuel cell where it contacts a catalyst on the anode side that splits the diatomic hydrogen (H2) into hydrogen protons (H+) and electrons. Oxygen molecules attract the hydrogen protons and electrons. The hydrogen protons pass through the PEM while the electrons travel around the membrane creating an electrical current. On the other side of the PEM, hydrogen protons and electrons combine with oxygen to produce water and heat.

The electrons produced in the first step travel from the anode to the cathode in the second step, producing electrical power.

Hydrogen Manufacturing, Infrastructure, and Sustainability

Hydrogen is the most abundant element on earth, but the majority of hydrogen is bonded with other elements in compounds. In fact, “free” hydrogen does not exist on earth for very long, because hydrogen binds so easily with many other elements, such as oxygen and carbon.

To produce pure hydrogen, it is necessary to release it from these compounds and is the only way to use it as a fuel.

Renewable Fuel Sources

Hydrogen may be produced from any substance with hydrogen content. However, there are issues with cost versus yield when producing hydrogen. To produce hydrogen from renewable sources, it is best to use substances that have very high hydrogen content.

Biogas Gasification

Biogas is typically about 60% methane, which makes it a fantastic source of hydrogen. Biogas can be made from any organic waste material. Biogas is produced by anaerobic methane digestion. This allows for methane gas to be made from organic waste materials. Biogas may be processed and made into hydrogen in almost the same fashion as natural gas. While natural gas is about 85 to 95% methane, biogas is only about 60% methane. This means that it will take more biogas than it does natural gas to make hydrogen. However, organic waste is just that- waste. The methane from biogas sources could be steam-reformed into hydrogen. Recent reports suggested that biomass may be able to produce 12 quadrillion BTU/year of energy by 2050. Current personal transportation energy consumption occurs at a rate of 16 quadrillion BTU/year.

Electrolysis

The process of creating hydrogen from water is called electrolysis (water splitting). Hydrogen is produced via electrolysis by passing electricity through two electrodes in a water electrolyte such as potassium hydroxide, which is used because of its high conductivity as an alkaline electrolyzer. A membrane is placed between the cathode and anode, which separate the hydrogen and oxygen as gases are produced, but allows the transfer of ions.

Electrolysis cells are connected in a series. Hydrogen is produced on one side of the cell, oxygen on the other. The water molecule is split, releasing oxygen at the anode electrode and hydrogen at the cathode electrode. The hydrogen is then captured, compressed, and stored by a high-pressure system awaiting vehicle refueling. Oxygen is usually released into the atmosphere.

Non-Renewable Fuel Sources

Hydrogen can be produced using a number of non-renewable fuel sources, including natural gas and coal gasification. Of those two courses, natural gas is arguably the best options since it contains more than 85% methane. However, coal gasification, followed by chemical conversion of the resulting fuel gas, is also a highly feasible option as it can yield large quantities of hydrogen at relatively low cost.

Producing Hydrogen from Crude Oil Refining – Naphtha

Hydrogen can be produced from catalytic reforming of naphtha—a process used in oil refining that produces significant amounts of hydrogen along with high octane gasoline.

Producing Hydrogen from Natural Gas (Steam Methane Reforming)

One of the most common and energy-efficient ways to produce hydrogen gas is known as steam-methane reforming. In this method, methane is pumped into a heat pressurized storage tank. A boiler is typically used to produce high-temperature steam. The boiler is fired by some of the methane gas. In the heated pressurized storage tank, steam and methane are mixed together in the presence of a catalyst, such as nickel. The steam combines with the methane to form carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

The carbon monoxide created in the above reaction can then be reacted with more steam to produce carbon dioxide and more hydrogen. The only waste products from the steam reforming process is stored in a pressurized tank to be purified, stored, and later used as a vehicle fuel.

This article is based on the Clean Cities Learning Program Petroleum Reduction Technologies curriculum. For more information, visit the Clean Cities Learning Program or contact the NAFTC.




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September 29th, 2016

How is Ethanol Produced?


This article is the fourth in a series examining alternative fuels production and source materials. Previously we have taken a look at biodiesel, natural gas, and propane. In the next couple of months we will cover hydrogen, and electricity, as a vehicle fuel. This month, our focus is on ethanol.

What is ethanol?

Ethanol is an alternative fuel made from corn, sugarcane, wheat, and other agricultural products, and is produced by the fermentation of carbohydrates such as sugar, starch, and cellulose.

Ethanol Feedstocks

All plants contain sugars that can be fermented to make ethanol in a process called biochemical conversion. Plant material can also be converted to ethanol using heat and chemicals in a process called thermochemical conversion.
Sugarcane is one of the most promising agricultural products to convert into ethanol due to its high sugar content. During the fermentation process, these sugars are turned into alcohol, or ethanol. Sugar beets are also very high in sugar content and are second to sugarcane in their ability to produce ethanol. In the U.S., sugarcane is planted and harvested in Hawaii, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. Grains like wheat, oats, rye, rice, and barley also may be used to produce ethanol.

Corn, one of America’s most widely produced agricultural products, is a carbohydrate—meaning that it is especially high in sugars—making it an ideal feedstock for producing ethanol. In fact, corn is the feedstock used for more than 90% of the current U.S. ethanol production.

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Ethanol plants commonly produce ethanol through a process called dry milling. Credit: NAFTC.

Ethanol can also be produced by breaking down cellulose (sugar) in woody fibers. This type of ethanol is called cellulosic ethanol. Plants and trees contain cellulose and hemicelluloses, and these polymers form the structures of plants, including their stalks, leaves, trunks, branches, and husks.

Dry Milling

Dry milling is the most common ethanol production method in the U.S. This process involves grinding up corn or other grains into a flour or meal, and then mixing it with water to form what is known as mash.

Once the mash is heated, enzymes are added to break down the starch, producing a simple sugar. Yeast is added during the fermentation process, causing the simple sugars to convert into ethanol and carbon dioxide.

Upon fermentation, the raw material is distilled to separate the ethanol from the remainder of the mash, which is now called silage. Finally, denaturant is added to ensure that the product is not mistakenly used for human consumption.

This article is based on the Clean Cities Learning Program Petroleum Reduction Technologies curriculum. For more information, visit the Clean Cities Learning Program or contact the NAFTC.




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This article is the third in a series examining alternative fuels production and source materials. Previously we have taken a look at biodiesel and natural gas. In the next couple of months we will cover ethanol, hydrogen, and electricity, as a vehicle fuel. This month, we will focus on propane autogas.

Propane, called propane autogas when used as a vehicles fuel, is a colorless, odorless heavier-than-air gas that, when compressed, can be stored as a liquid. Propane autogas has been in use since the 1920sas fuel for light-duty and heavy-duty vehicles. Today, 3% of propane produced is used as transportation fuel.

Fuel Sources
Nearly all of the United States’ propane autogas is produced domestically. Propane is a byproduct of the process of refining oil (petroleum) or natural gas (methane). More than half (55%) of the propane autogas produced is a byproduct from natural gas purification from wet gas wells and the rest (45%) comes from crude oil refining. These two sources are very different. But once refined, there is little difference between the propane autogas processed from these sources. As nearly all natural gas is produced domestically, the production of propane autogas is an important advantage for the U.S.

Manufacturing and Production
Natural Gas Refining
The processing of natural gas involves removal of propane, butane, and large amounts of ethane from the raw gas, which prevents condensation of the volatile elements in natural gas pipelines.

Raw natural gas consists mostly of methane, but not at the desired level of purity. A variety of substances must be removed, some of which are hydrocarbon gases like propane. Propane, along with butane and ethane, are made of heavier hydrocarbon chains. These heavier gases are removed from natural gas in the final stage of processing.

The still-raw natural gas is cryogenically distilled. Normal distillation works by heating a compound to a set temperature where the desired elements will vaporize and boil off for later collection. Cryogenic distillation, however, uses low temperatures to cause the gas to condense into a liquid.

The raw natural gas is cooled to the point at which the heavier hydrocarbons liquefy, while the lighter methane remains gaseous. Finally, the butane, ethane, and propane are separated from one another in a similar manner using a distillation device called a fractionator.

Crude Oil Refining
Oil refineries produce some propane as a byproduct of cracking petroleum into gasoline or heating oil. Cracking is the process of breaking down hydrocarbon gases into simpler ones with lower boiling points. During the oil refining process, the propane and other impurities are pulled out through a boiling process. In modern fluid catalytic cracking, the residue from previous refining is pumped into a chamber with heated catalyst, which vaporizes the petroleum residue and breaks apart certain complex carbon chains. The result is a variety of lighter hydrocarbons, including propane. Many fuels and other products are created from oil refining and a small percentage is propane. The volume of total refined products may be larger than 42 gallons. Typically, the propane volume produced from a 42-gallon barrel of crude would be just over 4.5 gallons.

The propane is then separated using a fractionator or distillation column. Different gases have different boiling points, and as they rise in the distillation column, they cool. Once they cool enough to return to a liquid state, they are trapped at that level in compartments.

Once refined and processed, propane is stored in large pressurized tanks and transported to retailers all over the U.S. From there, it is distributed to consumers at retail stores, campgrounds, and fuel stations across the country.

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Schematic of a typical propane distribution route. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Propane that is used as a vehicle fuel is commonly referred to a propane autogas. Propane autogas is one of the world’s most common engine fuels. It burns cleanly and can run at higher compression ratios than conventional vehicles. This results in a high energy output, while producing lower emissions levels than conventional vehicles. While the cost of a gallon of propane autogas fuel varies, it is typically less expensive than a gallon of gasoline.

This article is based on the Clean Cities Learning Program Petroleum Reduction Technologies and Propane Autogas Technician Training curriculum. For more information, visit the Clean Cities Learning Program, Propane Autogas Gateway, or contact the NAFTC.




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This article is the second in a series taking a close look at alternative fuels production and source materials. In the next few months we will cover propane autogas, ethanol, hydrogen, and electricity, as a vehicle fuel.

This month, we will focus on natural gas.

Natural gas prices are influenced both by fluctuations in petroleum prices and by supply and demand. For example, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecast of U.S. total natural gas consumption averages 76.5 Bcf/d (billion cubic feet per day) in 2016 and 77.7 Bcf/d in 2017, compared with 75.3 Bcf/d in 2015. Alternative methods for producing natural gas, including using organic waste to produce biogas with methane recovery, also are being explored to meet the increases in demand.

Natural Gas Formation and Source Materials
Natural gas is believed to have been formed from organic matter (animals and plant biomass) decomposed by heat and pressure; organic matter decomposed by microorganisms; or oil, coal, and other heavy hydrocarbons that have released methane by heat and seepage.

Over millions of years, dead plants and animals sank to the bottoms of lakes and oceans. These remains were covered by mud, sand, and other debris. Over time, the accumulation of this debris exerted high pressures on the buried organic matter. These pressures created high temperatures. Chemical reactions occurred, and the organic remains converted into natural gas and crude oil. At the same time, mud and sand deposits turned into rocks, many of which were porous. Oil and gas seeped into these porous rocks to be stored under high pressure beneath layers of additional solid rock. Geological movements created underground domes and cavities where oil and natural gas were trapped.

There are usually several layers of rock on top of oil and natural gas deposits. Over long periods of time, the earth’s crust moves and the layers become mixed with each other. A “cap rock” layer that is not porous helps keep the oil and gas underground. Oil and natural gas are usually found in porous rocks called shale, although not all deposits of shale contain oil. Deposits of limestone and sandstone are often found above oil deposits. Underground water sometimes mixes with oil, making refining more challenging. Faults in the Earth’s crust move these various layers of rock in several directions, which concentrates oil and gas in pockets deep underground and sometimes allows them to escape to the surface.

New gas fields are located by many of the same methods used to search for petroleum. Sometimes, there are obvious surface indications, such as gas or oil seeping up through the ground. Otherwise, geologists perform surveys on the ground by airplane and satellite to look for rock formations such as sandstone. These formations may indicate the presence of porous rock overlaid by solid rock—the condition necessary for oil or gas pool. Gas and oil wells are also drilled off-shore from platforms built into the ocean floor. Oil and gas exploration and drilling are highly developed technologies.

Gas and oil often lie in porous rock formations that must be pressurized or stimulated from above to encourage fracturing. Fracturing involves creating and enlarging cracks through which oil and natural gas may flow more freely. Chemicals are pumped into the casing to clean the horizontal hole that gets contaminated by debris mixed in with the gas or oil; aggregate materials called “prop” are injected into the seams to help support and encourage fracturing into the gas or oil zone.

Cross section of natural gas wells. Credit: EIA.

The operation of a gas well is much like the operation of an oil well. Gas is always under pressure that developed during its formation. The gas can easily flow to the surface from natural pressure (often greater than 30,000 pounds per square inch (psi). Natural gas is gathered from multiple wells. Some well fields may contain a few thousand wells. A gathering system typically includes small-scale field compressor sites where the gas is filtered through oil to remove dirt particles, then compressed and forced through a glycol dehydrator to remove water and impurities. (The glycol is then recycled after evaporating the water.) The gas pressure must be sufficient to transport the gas through miles of pipelines.

Natural gas drilling well pad. Credit: Bureau of Land Management.

Renewable Natural Gas
Biogas is a methane-rich gaseous product similar to natural gas that is made from anaerobic digestion (decomposition without oxygen) of biomass, or organic matter. Examples of organic matter include manure, sewage, and municipal waste. Once biogas has been cleaned and decontaminated to a higher standard of purity, it can be called renewable natural gas and be compressed for use as an alternative fuel source for vehicles, just like naturally occurring natural gas.

Methane Recovery
Natural gas itself was formed over millions of years by the anaerobic decomposition of organic materials and trapped under layers of sediment. The same types of anaerobic bacteria that produce natural gas also produce methane, which is the main component of natural gas. Methane can be domestically produced as biogas through the decomposition of organic matter and harvested from landfill waste, in a process known as methane recovery. This is a promising technology to aid in the production of natural gas for years to come. As long as organic waste matter is available, natural gas can be considered a viable alternative fuel option.

Transport and Distribution
Natural gas is delivered to consumers through 300,000 miles of transmission pipelines, and is available in the lower 48 states, with an additional 1.9 million miles of distribution pipes transporting gas within utility service areas.

This article is based on the Clean Cities Learning Program Petroleum Reduction Technologies curriculum. For more information, visit the Clean Cities Learning Program or contact the NAFTC.




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This article is the first in a series that will take a close look at alternative fuels production and source materials. In the next several months we will cover natural gas, propane autogas, ethanol, hydrogen, and electricity, as a vehicle fuel.

This month, we will focus on biodiesel.

Methods for creating fuels from renewable biomass feedstocks have been used since the 1800s. Vegetable oils were used in diesel engines until the 1920s. At that time diesel engines were redesigned to use a low grade of petroleum that was much like heating oil- used today. A political and economic struggle between petroleum-based fuels and fuels created from biomass ensued. At the end of the struggle, petroleum products became the main fuel supply for the United States, while biofuels were forced into obscurity.

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Early diesel engine. Source: NAFTC.

As the price of petroleum-based products rises in the United States, alternative fuels, such as biodiesel are being looked at with renewed interest.

+Note: Neither the Engine Manufacturers Association nor the National Renewable Energy Laboratory recommends the use of raw vegetable oil in modern diesel engines. +

Let’s take a look at some of the ways that biodiesel producers create the fuels for today’s vehicles.

Transesterfication

Bio diesel is produced from the process called transesterification. During this process the triglycerides are separated from the glycerin molecules and combined with alcohol in the presence of the catalyst. The alcohol commonly used is methanol, while the catalyst is sodium hydroxide. To accomplish the process, plant oils are heated to a given temperature and then the alcohol and the catalyst are added. At this point the combined materials are mixed for a time and then allowed to settle. When the product settles, three layers develop. The top layer will become biodiesel. The middle layer will contain a soap compound, and the bottom layer will be glycerin. The bottom layer is drained off and the biodiesel is washed to remove any impurities and then dried to remove any remaining water. The middle layer is sometimes used in the cosmetics industry.

Algae Biodiesel Production

Algae can produce up to 300 times more oil per acre than conventional crops such as grapeseed, palms, soybeans or jetropha. Algae has a short harvesting cycle of only one to 10 days allowing it to permit several harvests in a short time. Algae can also be grown on land that is not suitable for other established crops; for instance arid land, land with excessively saline soil, and in drought stricken land. This minimizes the issue of taking away acres of land from cultivation of food crops.
There are three ways that algae can be grown: open pond method, covered pond method, and vertical enclosed method.
The open pond method is when water circulated around a shallow trench arrangement using paddlewheels to expose as much algae as possible to sunlight. Nutrients and carbon dioxide are constantly fed into this system, and algae containing water is harvested for biodiesel production.

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Open pond method. Source: NREL.

Using a covered pond method the pond is enclosed within a greenhouse that offers greater productivity and safety. Contamination by wild algae is limited allowing a wider range of algae species to be grown. The amount of carbon dioxide can be increased and monitored safely.

The vertical enclosed method occurs where the algae is fully grown in a managed environment limited through connected vertical plastic sleeves with precise carbon dioxide and nutrient levels. Because there is little danger of contamination, specialized algae, producing lipids tailored to create a particular type of fuels, can be grown successfully. (For example fuels suited for plane use.)

Waste Vegetable Oil

While straight vegetable oil, waste vegetable oil, or synthetic fuels are not considered biodiesel and thus not suitable for engine use, residential or commercial waste vegetable oil are recyclable and suitable for biodiesel. Today there are many cities that set up recycling programs where waste oil can be collected and reused. Cooking oil, such as vegetable, corn, peanut, sunflower, canola, olive, soybean, flaxseed, or any edible cooking oil can be recycled and made into biodiesel.
Some states, like Georgia, have a curbside recycling company that hands out buckets to participants to fill up with unwanted oil and on a scheduled day the company comes to pick up the buckets. People who throw unwanted oil down drains and sewers are costing states thousands of dollars in cleanups and repairs to the sewer systems. By recycling the used oil it reduces landfill disposal, cleans up the sewer systems, and makes a usable alternative fuel – biodiesel.

Many biodiesel companies are happy to haul away oil used in restaurants or other food business industries. Haul away companies can even supply waste cooking oil bins for the supplier to use. Often the haul away is free of charge, and they may even pay the supplier for the donation. Participation in commercial oil recycling creates opportunities to earn money, cut waste, help the economy, and reduce air pollution.

Much of the wasted oil ends up in landfills, while some is used in the soap and cosmetics industry. Waste cooking oil could meet only a small percentage of total U.S. diesel demand. Yet by converting this waste into a low cost resource, it reduces the environmental degradation and cost of disposal in landfills.

Animal Fats

Different types of animal fats can be used to produce biodiesel. The most common types are tallow, lard, grease, and fish oil. Each product takes a special process that breaks it down, separates fats and turns them into biodiesel.

Tallow is a form of animal fat that is processed from marrow beef or other bovine facts. Tallow also has the ability to burn cleaner because of the higher cetane number. Yet there are some disadvantages of using tallow in biodiesel. One is that it tends to crystallize at much higher temperatures than biodiesel made from plants. Thus biodiesel made from tallow is not good to use in colder temperatures.

Lard can be used in production of biodiesel, yet some modifications are needed since lard solidifies at room temperature. A winterizing additive needs to be part of the production process. The winterizing additive makes winter-biodiesel and keeps the fuel from becoming thick and clumping in the engines. Biodiesel made from lard could be used in warmer climate areas because it will avoid thickening.

Brown Grease

Brown grease is grease collected from sewer systems, which are often contaminated with water, trash, wasted food, and other unwanted materials. Since the rise in feed stock prices, biodiesel producers are looking for lower-cost alternatives such as brown grease.

Anything flushed into the sewer system can contain brown grease. After the brown grease collection, it is run through a process that removes unwanted materials and then made into biodiesel.

Fish oil

Fish oil can be used to make clean burning biodiesel. There are some complications with using biodiesel made from fish oil. First it has a higher viscosity so it does not flow well in fuel systems. Secondly, straight and refined fish oils do not burn as cleanly as biodiesel. This is from impurities and will cause carbon buildup on fuel injectors and inside other parts of the engine. Lastly, there is yet to be any tax incentives in place that encourage the use of fish oil biodiesel as an alternative fuel for vehicles.

This article is based on the Clean Cities Learning Program Petroleum Reduction Technologies. For more information, visit the Clean Cities Learning Program or contact the NAFTC.




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