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Seven trucks being converted to natural gas

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 36 - July 25, 1996

Physical Plant is converting seven pickup trucks to run on compressed natural gas as an alternative to petroleum gasoline, through a $28,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Four trucks already have been converted and in use for about a month. The university built its own filling station for about $12,000, with assistance from United Cities Gas Co.

The trucks can run on either regular gasoline or natural gas. "They will start and run on the natural gas," says John Kuykendall, the university's facility engineer and energy manager. "But if the truck runs out of natural gas, it can automatically switch to gasoline."

Kuykendall believes Tech is the first university in Virginia to implement this kind of alternative fuel. The vehicles will be monitored for 12 months. The findings will be reported back to the Transportation Department, and then the university will decide whether to convert other vehicles.

Ford Motor Co., General Motors, and Chrysler Corp. all produce natural-gas vehicles. There are also kits, which cost around $4,000, to add natural-gas tanks on to other models of cars. A converter and a natural-gas tank are added to the engines the truck receives on the assembly line. A normal car engine burns the liquid gasoline to power the engine, creating exhaust emissions. Natural gas enters this process in a gaseous state instead of a liquid and burns almost completely clean.

About 80 percent of urban pollution is caused by automobiles. Natural-gas vehicles emit 80 percent to 95 percent less carbon monoxide, about 80 percent less hydrocarbons, and considerably fewer nitrogen oxides, proponents say. With more than 500 million cars and trucks around the world, these changes would substantially reduce automotive pollution. Natural-gas vehicles meet or exceed all the federal environmental standards.

"The other advantage, beyond its low emissions," Kuykendall said, "is that concentrated natural gas is actually cleaner internally on the vehicle. You could change the oil and maintain the vehicle at longer intervals than with a gasoline vehicle."

These bi-fuel vehicles have a compact tank in the bed of the truck that can hold up to 3,600 pounds per square inch of natural gas, the equivalent of five to seven gallons of gasoline. The tank is made of durable steel and glass-reinforced plastic.

"It's very strong, in a vehicle collision it is not going to

be affected," Kuykendall says. The natural-gas pickups can be refueled at a compressor, which is about the same size as a gasoline pump, in about five minutes.

The natural gas used for the pickups is no different from the natural gas used to generate heat in homes from existing gas lines.