WASHINGTON — The Energy Department is set Thursday to award $30 million in grants to propel research on powering cars and trucks with natural gas nationwide, including two projects in Texas and two in California.
Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman is to announce the grants in Houston.
He also will tout the benefits of an expiring production tax credit that has helped wind power facilities, during a visit to the Houston campus of turbine manufacturer Proinlosa Energy Corp. and at a meeting of the National Petroleum Council.
Texas A&M University is slated to get $3 million and the Center for Electromechanics at the University of Texas at Austin is expected to win $4.3 million.
SRI International, in Menlo Park, Calif., is slated to receive $875,000 to develop low-pressure natural gas storage systems for light-duty vehicles using porous carbon materials that allow more of the natural gas to be stored densely. If successful, the technique would eliminate the need for an external tank.
OtherLab Inc., in San Francisco, is winning $250,000 for its work developing a high-pressure natural gas tank using small diameter tubes, able to fit into many different shapes for efficient storage. If successful, according to the administration, the so-called “gas intestines” storage tanks could be much cheaper than existing light alternatives.
The grants are aimed at helping overcome a major hurdle in deploying vehicles powered by natural gas: their reliance on tanks that can withstand high pressures and generally are too large or expensive for passenger vehicles.
The new grants — funded out of the 3-year-old Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program — will help pay for 13 projects overall, including work to develop lightweight tanks for natural gas-powered cars that are small enough to fit in today’s passenger vehicles.
Other grant winners are developing natural gas compressors that would allow consumers to re-fuel cars at home easily.
“The tanks themselves are now big and heavy,” Poneman said in an interview, because they must withstand high pressure of compressed gas.
“You can do a couple things that would lighten them up and allow a higher density of gas to go into the tanks,” he said.
That could allow wider use of compressed natural gas in private vehicles and not just for commercial and industrial users that operate most gas-powered fleets now, Poneman added.
Texas A&M University’s research is focused on developing highly adsorbent materials for low-pressure natural gas storage tanks.
At the University of Texas, the winning project is researching an at-home refueling station that would compress natural gas with a single piston in contrast to existing, more costly, four-piston compressors.
Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy was established in 2009 to fund development projects that have high potential but are too risky to win funding from private investors. The focus is on supporting projects that will offer an early demonstration of success or failure.
“Where ARPA-E has been investing is in those transformational technology options that would not necessarily get funded otherwise,” Poneman said. “Where private capital is investing that is a great thing, but if you have things that are more transformational in nature, that’s really the sweet spot for ARPA-E.”
During his tour of Proinlosa’s headquarters, Poneman will highlight the stakes in a congressional fight over renewing the production tax credit that is set to expire at the end of this year.
For two decades, the tax credit has helped wind producers build new farms, driving orders for turbines and gearboxes while putting alternative power on the electrical grid.
Because Proinlosa develops tower parts for wind turbines, its business is tied to the health of wind power nationwide.
Critics have derided the credit as a subsidy that is only propping up expensive wind power that is not commercially viable without a federal handout.
But Poneman said the tax credit has helped make wind power competitive with other sources of electricity, and has helped make Texas the nation’s leader in wind power generation.