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Dr.William Epling - Greater Houston Natural Gas Vehicle Alliance

Dr.William Epling

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We’re in the middle of an energy revolution—and not just oil. Natural gas is only going to get cheaper and some major players are getting into the game. Russ interviews Dr. William Epling, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Houston, and president of the Greater Houston Natural Gas Vehicle Alliance, a group formed to promote greater awareness of the potential for natural gas powered vehicles.

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Russ: This is the BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com. Our guest topic today is natural gas vehicles, and our guest is Dr. William Epling, Associate Chair of the University of Houston Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department and President of the Greater Houston Natural Gas Vehicle Alliance. Check this out. So, connect the dots for us, Professor on one hand and President of the Natural Gas Vehicle Alliance.

William: So, about four years ago, there was a few companies here in the Houston. So Anadarko Petroleum, Southwest Energy, CenterPoint Energy, and Apache got together and wanted to start thinking about the natural gas vehicles use in the area and how to promote those. And they came to the University of Houston and approached UH to ask them about whether they want to be involved.

What they were looking for at the time was a non-biased partner, somebody who would be non-biased, could do the research, and have an opinion there, or do the research behind the numbers that were coming out of the center.

Russ: Without being in the business.

William: Without being in the business.

Russ: Okay, wow.

William: And so those four founding companies and University of Houston are the five founders of the Alliance for the Greater Houston area.

Russ: Okay. So, were you associated with the Alliance from the beginning?

William: So at the beginning, I was not. We had a professor here from the Hobby Center, Jim Granato, who was the first President of the Alliance. And his main area was really in the policy area. And so, that was what they were looking for at the time. This was just now being established. This natural gas thing was just coming online. People were starting to get more confidence behind it.

And so, what they were thinking was, what is going to be the US drive, the Texas drive, the Houston drive? What's going to be promoted by the government sides of things, the company sides of things, etc.? And so, they were interested in what the policies were around natural gas in vehicles specifically.

However, over time, with that confidence, with the evolution and the growth of natural gas vehicles in the area, now they were kind of interested in somebody who might have a more technical side of things to it, and so, I was approached at that point.

Russ: And there you are, cool. So, what do you think about the cause? I mean I'm just - I'm blown away by what the exploration and production people have done and the quantity of natural gas, and the fact that it's pretty clean.

William: It's - I mean you'll hear people call it this. It's an energy revolution going on right now. We've talked about oil. We've talked about coal. We've talked about nuclear. There's a variety of things out there that are the traditional ones. But the sudden boom in the availability of attainable natural gas, so there's natural gas pockets that people have known about that are on tail, but now, all of a sudden, shale gas. You can get it and you can get a lot of it.

And that "lot" part has really changed the landscape in Texas and in the US for energy. Not only for energy, but chemicals as well, which is another part of the chemical engineering side of things.

Russ: Oh, yeah.

William: You could see a CEO of a large chemical company in 2005 saying, "We will never build another chemical plant in the United States."

Russ: Right.

William: Natural gas is just too expensive.

Russ: Right.

William: In 2012, you can see the same company's CEO say, "We are building a plant just south of the Houston area because of the cheap source of natural gas." So, the obvious extension, natural gas has always been used for power. Right? We have power plants that are natural gas based that have been going up all over the place at a much higher rate than coal fire. And I think that traditional use of natural gas will be consistently there over the years and it's only going to be cheaper now.

But now, there are other opportunities for it. Making chemicals is one I just mentioned, but vehicles is the other very large one, and you have some very major players looking at how to get into this game.

Russ: It's been a topic of interest to the energy makers for a little bit more than a year now too. And there's always this discussion about burning it in a vehicle is cleaner. You, being in the chemistry world, might know. Is that true or false, and if it is true, is it significantly cleaner?

William: It's both. The answer is it's true and false. Okay? So, there are some traditional emissions that we worry about from engines. One of them is NOx. One of them is particulate. So, diesel engines are typically the stereotype in terms of that you see the black plume.

Russ: Right.

William: Thos are old diesel engines. The new diesel engines are significantly cleaner. If you see that, they're bad diesel engines. Right?

Russ: Right.

William: Gasoline engines, you don't see the particulate, but there's some there. It's just not visible. So, the particulate side of things is from the combustion of those heavier hydrocarbons. Natural gas, the lighter hydrocarbon, you're not going to see the particulate make that you see from gasoline or diesel engines.

The NOx is from the combustion of the nitrogen in the air and then high temperatures that we have. The NOx numbers coming out of a natural gas engine are also significantly lower. The hydrocarbons that are typically measured are called non-methane hydrocarbons. They're also significantly lower.

The key there is the non-methane hydrocarbons. So, the engine is not going to combust 100-percent of every hydrocarbon molecule going in, and that is true of the natural gas engine as well. Some methane is going to come out. Methane has a very bad name associated with it in terms of global warming. It is 21 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

And so, although its total coming may be not that great, as more and more vehicles hit the road, there is no doubt that the EPA might turn their eye to it, and we're going to see that as an emission that they're going to go after for natural gas vehicles. And it is there.

Russ: Okay. I don't know this about you, but let's just say for a minute that you are a big environmentalist. Would you - and you had to champion that cause no matter what. Would you - and you had to choose between diesel, gasoline, or natural gas vehicles. Which one would you choose?

William: I have a bias. I used to work at Cummins Engine Company, which is the largest independent diesel engine manufacturer in the US.

Russ: Wow.

William: So, I have a bias towards diesel and my specific work there was cleaning up the emissions from diesel engines, so I know how clean they can be.

Russ: Okay.

William: Having said that, the natural gas engines are cleaner.

Russ: Okay.

William: I do think that we should be paying attention to the environmental footprint that we leave in the things that we do for future generations.

Russ: Yeah, sure. Absolutely.

William: We may not - they may not be as significant as we think, but you don't take that risk.

Russ: Okay.

William: So, natural vehicles, I think, should play a role. They're cleaner in that sense and I think that those methane emissions can be mitigated through a very similar technology to the catalytic converter on a gasoline engine.

Russ: Okay. Is there research going on in that category right now?

William: Yes, there is.

Russ: Okay.

William: So, at the Energy Research Park, here at the University of Houston, the Texas Center for Clean Engines Emissions and Fuels used to be the Diesel Research Center.

Russ: Okay.

William: But they've evolved, over time, as have the rest of us, towards this natural gas thing and there is now a natural gas pipeline to the Center. They have engines in the Center where they are looking at emissions and engine performance of dual-fuel, diesel, and natural gas engines.

Russ: Interesting.

William: And so, there is research going on right now at University of Houston doing that.

Russ: Okay. So, when you get to the category of natural gas vehicles, you have LNG and you have CNG.

William: Yes.

Russ: And from my research involvement in this space, I know LNG seems to be ideal for the big 18-wheelers and the big trucks, but there's more and more cars in the CNG category.

William: Yes.

Russ: I mean - do I have that right?

William: You are correct.

Russ: And is there a lot more to that story than what I just said?

William: I don't know that there's more to the story. I mean LNG would be more ideal, I think, for all of them if it was practical.

Russ: Okay.

William: So, the LNG is denser in terms of the energy. It's liquid in terms of - as opposed to the gas. And so, you could get a longer drive out of it if you had LNG. But transporting LNG in a car is not nearly as practical as you have for the big rig. The big rig is on the road all the time.

Russ: Right.

William: Right? And what's happening with the LNG is some of it is vaporizing continuously. So in a car, you drive 20 minutes, you get to work, or in Houston, you drive for 45 minutes and you get to work and you turn your car off. Well, that LNG is continuously wanting to evaporate. And so, you're losing fuel content the whole time. The big rig, you don't have that problem. You're on the road as many hours a day as you can. The blow off is minimal compared to the amount you use.

So, I think for the 18-wheelers you will see - or the big engines in general, mining, shipping, trains, and the big rigs, you're going to see LNG as the primary fuel for natural gas vehicles. For vehicles, you'll see compressed natural gas. The other side of that is it's much easier to get compressed natural gas into something than it is liquid.

Russ: Right, right. Well, I've sort of followed the movement across Texas and know that the - think the State Legislature here has sort of been pushing and is pro natural gas. There's the Texas Triangle, the ____________ to try to -

William: Yes, that's correct.

Russ: And that's both CNG and LNG. Is it not?

William: Yes.

Russ: Okay. And - but I'm particularly fascinated, in the CNG category, by the ability. There already are home compressors available. I think most of them are made in Italy right now, but there's a movement going to improve that category. In fact, there's research that we covered on the show taking place at the University of Texas. Question number one, every time I have this discussion with people, people say, "Man, that sounds dangerous to have a home compressor of natural gas in your garage." Is it?

William: No. I live out in the country a little bit. I have a propane tank in my backyard and I have a generator that's attached to it because I do live out in the country. When a hurricane comes, I've still got power.

Russ: Okay.

William: People attach propane tanks to their grills all the time. Right? Now, this is a little different, but it's not that different. There are some safety issues, but I mean come one. Look at gasoline pumping stations, right? I mean go back to the old days where it was pretty dangerous then too compared to now. The technologies, they can keep up with these things very easily.

Russ: Right. Well, it just seems to be that if there was progress, rapid progress made on home compressors, and if natural gas stays as inexpensive as it is, which I know a lot of people that don't want it to because they're in that business, but it would be such a cool substitute for gasoline or a dual-fuel vehicle. To me, it has huge promise.

William: You're going to see both. I think you'll see at-home stations. There's going to be some cost associated with that, but then you're also going to see fueling stations just like we do today.

Russ: Right.

William: Right? They'll be attached to a convenient store somewhere.

Russ: Right.

William: And the reason for that is with compressed natural gas, you're not going to get the same distance of driving currently that you could out of a liquid fuel. That could change as they come up with new technologies, but if you're going to go on a road trip, you're going to need to fill up somewhere. And so, you'll see both.

The other thing is - when it comes to the fueling stations - is this kind of chicken and egg thing right now. So, you could go down the road and you'll see some pickup trucks that are natural gas vehicles and you've got to see the big stickers on the side. The people are very proud of them. But for a car, you either buy your own fueling station at your home, and you don't take it on road trips, or you've got to find a fueling station in the Houston area. They are there, but they're not on every corner like a gasoline station.

Russ: Right. Do you give up performance in a vehicle if you have a vehicle that's a dual-fuel vehicle?

William: No.

Russ: Not at all?

William: Not at all.

Russ: Okay, yeah.

William: As a matter of fact, the way they're designing them is they're optimized for both. If there's a situation where the liquid, the gasoline or the diesel makes more sense for power or something like that, it will use that. If it's for natural - I mean so they can change fuel mixing ratios and things like that to optimize performance actually.

Russ: Okay. Does that mean, if I'm running a car that's dual-fuel, that it's going to have more horsepower running gasoline than CNG?

William: Uh, no. It doesn't have to. I mean again, it depends on the engines. I think most of them right now, you have a lot of dual-fuel interest out there from - more on the diesel side of things because I think the stigma with diesel is part of it, as well as the fact that there's just a lot of natural gas and it's just cheap.

Russ: Okay.

William: Right? But the other thing with the engine manufacturers are you're seeing a lot of more pure natural gas vehicles coming out.

Russ: Okay.

William: In terms of passenger vehicles.

Russ: Okay.

William: Fleet trucks are - you see a lot of pure natural gas vehicles now, so the dual-fuel, I can't say I honestly know what the ratio is in terms of numbers, but I think the drive it towards the pure natural gas engine as opposed to dual-fuels right now.

Russ: Okay now. I'm curious. In the Natural Gas Vehicle Alliance, do you guys talk about the tipping point, that in some time this is going to happen?

William: They do and I don't know that they're actually thinking that there is a strict tipping point. I think that they see the momentum behind this right now and they know that they've got a good thing going. Right? So, the gas suppliers, the people doing the conversions of engines, the fleet owners themselves seeing the benefits of a natural gas vehicle, I think everybody is seeing these benefits.

And it has taken time. I don't think it's a tipping point in terms of sales or that side of things. I think the tipping point is really when people realize natural gas, it's not 30 years ago.

Russ: Right.

William: Right? There's a difference. Before, it was lack of liquid fuels and so we looked at natural gas.

Russ: Right.

William: Now, it's the abundance of natural gas, right, that's doing it. And so, I think now, the confidence has really picked up and people are really starting to lay some money down in terms of the industries because they have that confidence that's here to stay.

Russ: Really cool. Well Bill, thank you so much for bringing us up to date on natural gas vehicles.

William: Thank you, Russ.

Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Dr. William Epling, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering here at the University of Houston and President of the Natural Gas Vehicle Alliance. This is The BusinessMakers show heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com.

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