Grant awarded to UT Electromechanics may result in gasoline-free future

Joan Vinson

The UT Center for Electromechanics, a center which specializes in energy storage and power-generating machines, is expected to receive $4.3 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to further research usage of natural gas to power cars and trucks.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is housed in the U.S. Department of Energy and promotes research on innovative energy, will grant UT funds to develop a natural gas refueling station. UT researchers said the station will compress natural gas with a single piston in homes as opposed to a four-piston compressor, which is inefficient. If successful, this compressor will be fed by the same natural gas line that powers stoves and heaters in homes. In addition, the compressor can also be used to fill cars with natural gas, which is more efficient than gasoline.

Michael Lewis, senior engineering scientist at the UT Center for Electromechanics, said there is a pre-existing four-piston compressor system, but it is bulky and expensive.

“We will be researching to improve its efficiency and decreasing its cost,” Lewis said. “It can run off of power from a normal wall outlet and it is lightweight enough for a homeowner to install.”

Lewis said there are many beneficial aspects for a car to run off of natural gas, such as reducing dependency on foreign oil. Since there are many natural gas reserves on U.S. soil, this conversion can potentially lead to a vast number of jobs, and is also a cleaner source of energy than oil, he said. The Department of Energy will allocate $30 million to a total of 13 research projects across the nation involving natural gas. Texas A&M University is the only other school in Texas receiving funds from the department, and will receive $3 million.

Ray Zowarka, who is also a scientist at the Center for Electromechanics, said enabling a car to run off natural gas instead of gasoline is a fairly simple task. In the future, car dealers will be able to sell cars that have already been developed to run on natural gas.

“This is about a two-and-a-half year effort,” Zowarka said. “We have come up with a new way to build the compressor. We will start researching the ability to build this unit for less cost and less weight.”

Petroleum engineering sophomore William Martin said he is impressed with UT’s interest in pursuing cleaner and more efficient sources of energy.

“I like that people are beginning to have multiple options when it comes to the cars they drive,” Martin said. “We already have hybrids and we are continuing to expand our options.”