WOOSTER, Ohio -- The Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, a part of Ohio State University headquartered in northeast Ohio, is converting four of its vehicles to run on natural gas -- but not just any natural gas.
Gas produced locally from renewable, plentiful organic waste, such as chicken fat, rotten tomatoes and the byproducts of making potato chips.
Even better, the fuel costs only about two-thirds as much as gasoline and, when burned, emits about a third less greenhouse gas.
“I find it fascinating and very cool that we can produce a portion of our energy from what is otherwise today a waste stream,” said Jim Currie, a leader of the project and the director of OARDC’s ATECH program, which works to commercialize the center’s research. “You don’t have to pump it out of the ground. It’s not taken out of the food supply. This (use to make fuel) is all after the fact.”
Thanks to $46,000 in funding from the group Clean Fuels Ohio, OARDC is having three Ford Fusion sedans and a Ford F150 pickup truck turned into bifuel vehicles. They’ll run on either gasoline or compressed natural gas, called CNG.
Industry Partner and Pump Right on Campus
The CNG will come mostly from an anaerobic digester that a company called quasar energy group designed, built and operates on OARDC’s campus in Wooster, about 60 miles south of Cleveland. Some may come, too, from a similar quasar facility in Columbus.
Both systems take in food-processing waste and similar materials (corn stalks and cow manure may be other options), break them down under tightly controlled conditions, then harvest the methane biogas that results.
Some of that gas runs a generator -- quasar’s Wooster digester currently produces about 30 percent of the electricity for the main part of OARDC’s campus.
And a portion of the gas is refined into higher-value CNG, a renewable fuel that quasar markets as qng™ and dispenses from stations at its Wooster and Columbus facilities. The pumps resemble regular gasoline pumps.
“We’ve been a partner with quasar for a number of years now. They produce CNG as a value-added product, so one reason that the (conversion) project was attractive is because we have a fueling station right on campus,” said Dave Benfield, an OARDC associate director and one of the project’s planners.
That proximity “led us to say, ‘Let’s go ahead and convert a few vehicles, do the experiment, and see how they work,’” Benfield said. “If the experiment works, we might look at further conversions. If it doesn’t, we might have to look at other alternatives down the road.”
quasar’s Wooster digester is in OARDC’s BioHio Research Park, where companies and OARDC scientists collaborate on new products and processes. quasar was the park’s first tenant.
“I enjoy the opportunities presented by working with new partners -- partners from outside the university who benefit from the interaction with our scientists and who are bringing new products to market,” Currie said. “Not just new for the sake of new, but new for the sake of better.”
As far as quasar and its biogas production go, Currie said, “It’s gratifying to see their success.”
quasar also has digesters in Ohio in Haviland, Cleveland, North Ridgeville and Zanesville, with more than two dozen others planned. Each will have its own qng™ station. The company itself runs more than half of its 20-plus vehicles on qng™.
On the Road Later This Spring
OARDC administrators will use the cars for regular travel between Wooster and Ohio State’s main campus in Columbus, which are about 95 miles apart, and to nine outlying research stations in such locations as Wood County in the northwest part of the state, Jackson County in the southwest and Ashtabula County in the northeast.
The pickup, which is meant for more local use, will go to the center’s Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering. It will replace a truck wrecked by 2010’s Wooster tornado.
John Ott, head of OARDC’s Facilities Services department, which oversees the center’s vehicles, said the cars should be on the road later in April; the truck sometime this summer.
“As a university research center, we feel like we should be looking at the alternatives -- that we should be doing this experiment,” said Benfield. “We’re doing it to see how well this alternative fuel works in what we call a normal vehicle, a road vehicle.”
Findings will be reported to Clean Fuels Ohio as a requirement of the grant, Benfield said, and “definitely whatever information we gather we’ll share publicly.”
40 Percent Cheaper Than Gasoline
quasar currently sells its qng™ CNG for $2.25 per gasoline gallon equivalent, according to AltFuelPrices.com, compared to regular gasoline’s March 27 national average price of $3.90 a gallon as reported by AAA.
At those prices, each of the three bifuel cars, if run entirely on CNG, would save about 6.5 cents in fuel costs per mile. This would save OARDC $975 per car per year, or $2,925 total per year, and would have a theoretical payback time of 11.8 years, or about 177,000 miles of driving per car. (The funding from Clean Fuels Ohio doesn’t actually have to be paid back. It’s meant to support real-world testing and demonstrations such as this, Currie said.)
At $5 per gallon of gasoline, the savings rise to 11 cents per mile, $1,650 per car per year and $4,950 total per year, while the payback time falls to about 7 years, or about 105,000 miles per car.
At a gasoline price of $6 per gallon, the savings increase to 15 cents per mile, $2,250 per car per year and $6,750 total per year, with a payback time of 5.1 years, or 76,000 miles per car.
The figures are based on a fuel economy of about 25 miles per gallon, which is the combined city-highway mileage expected from a similar gasoline-only Fusion; an annual use of 15,000 miles, which Ott said was typical for the cars that are being replaced; and a conversion cost of about $11,500 per vehicle.
CNG and gasoline get about the same fuel economy, according to a U.S. Department of Energy website.
Renewable, Sustainable, No Drilling
But the potential benefits go even further.
- Vehicles using CNG show significantly less engine wear, need less maintenance, need fewer oil changes and should last longer, says a DOE fact sheet. The project will try to document those savings, which, if they exist, will be over and above the fuel-cost savings.
- A DOE website says running a car on CNG instead of gasoline cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 30 to 40 percent, including, according to a study by the same agency, about 25 percent less carbon dioxide, 65 percent less nitrogen oxide and 90 percent less carbon monoxide. Escaped fuel vapors, which contribute to smog, are eliminated almost entirely.
- quasar’s gas-making process diverts waste from landfills and incinerators, cuts the risk of pollution from that waste, and reduces farmers’ and businesses’ waste disposal costs, the company says.
- quasar’s gas-from-garbage isn’t a fossil fuel, doesn’t need drilling and comes from a renewable, abundant, sustainable resource, Currie noted.
“It’s not just that it’s an alternative fuel,” Currie said. “It’s that it’s bio-derived -- that it takes a waste stream and turns it into a useful product.”
In fact, into more than one.
- What’s left from the process, a liquid, can be used as an alternative farm fertilizer -- a good source of plant nutrients and organic matter. Or it can be dewatered and dried, leaving a rich material similar to compost that quasar can sell as livestock bedding or a soil amendment.
No Range Anxiety
Converted bifuel vehicles keep their standard gasoline tank and fuel line, get a separate tank and line added for CNG, and can run on either fuel. (Some bifuel vehicles are set up to run on propane instead of CNG.)
Typically, the second tank goes in the trunk or the truck bed, which, on the down side, adds weight and reduces the vehicle’s storage space.
But there’s also no range anxiety. Running low on CNG? Switch to gasoline. Some CNG systems do it automatically when the CNG runs low. Others have a manual override, and the driver can change fuels any time.
Funding for the project, which came from federal pass-through funds to Clean Fuels Ohio, covers the cost of only the conversions. OARDC bought the vehicles themselves, which were needed either way as replacements, Ott said.
The cars are being converted by Wooster’s Pallotta Ford Lincoln dealership; the truck, by Fleming Engine in Utica, Ohio.
Such conversions must meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards and must be done by an EPA-qualified company, Ott said.
‘Worth the Experiment’
The center has previously tested some of its fleet cars on E85 ethanol, and the campus’s Secrest Arboretum employs an electric truck.
“The main thing is we’re a research organization, and we’re trying to look at different value-added products -- bioproducts, and CNG would be one of them -- to see what their value is to us in terms of being more energy-conscious, in terms of alternative energy, in terms of being conscientious of the carbon cycle and global warming,” Benfield said.
“The price of fossil fuel is not going to get cheaper. We want to look at what possible alternatives might be out there for fuels for our vehicles, because we don’t want to be held hostage by gasoline prices in the future and not be able to operate because of the high cost of fuel,” he said. “We think it’s worth the experiment.”
Clean Fuels Ohio is a statewide nonprofit organization that promotes using cleaner, domestic fuels and more fuel-efficient vehicles, especially by government and the transportation industry.
OARDC is the research arm of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and is the largest university agricultural biosciences research center in the U.S. The center works not just on food and farming but on, for example, biofuels, nutrition, renewable energy and the environment.
Read the college’s sustainability blog at http://sustainability.cfaes.ohio-state.edu/.
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