How Natural-gas Vehicles Work

From Field to Ford

We extract natural gas trapped in underground reservoirs by drilling wells into the earth. A modern well, equipped with diamond-studded drill bits, can drill to depths approaching 25,000 feet.

Extraction and Processing
Most modern wells extract both crude oil and natural gas at the same time. Some natural gas can be used as it comes from the well without any refining, but most requires processing. Natural gas processing consists of separating all the various hydrocarbons and fluids from the "wet" natural gas until it is "dry." Dry natural gas is pure methane, which is the fuel of choice for many consumer applications, including natural-gas vehicles.

Throughout the 19th century, the use of natural gas remained localized because there was no way to transport large quantities of gas over long distances. In 1890, the invention of a leak-proof pipeline coupling made it possible to transport gas miles from the source. Improvements in pipeline technology continued over the next two decades until long-distance gas transmission became practical. From 1927 to 1931, laborers constructed more than 10 major natural gas transmission systems in the United States, making natural gas a viable energy source for many applications. The oil shortages of the late 1960s and early 1970s brought renewed interest in natural gas as a fuel source, especially for automobiles.

Today, owners of natural-gas vehicles can fill up their cars at one of 1,300 fueling stations located in the United States. Honda also offers a personal natural gas pump to people who purchase its natural-gas-powered Civic. The pump uses a home's existing natural gas lines and can be installed for $500 to $1500.

In the next section we'll discuss how natural-gas vehicles are designed.

Natural gas is not the only source of methane. Methane can also be obtained by fermenting organic matter, such as manure, in low levels of oxygen. In such conditions, bacteria will use the nutrients in manure as a food source and will release methane and carbon dioxide as waste products. This methane, known as bio-gas, can be collected and used as a fuel source.