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№ 6 (June 2009)

VNIIGAZ Road Tests CNG’s Superiority Over Gasoline

One cloudless April morning, a convoy of 22 brightly colored vehicles festooned with flags and placards rolled out of the parking lot at VNIIGAZ headquarters in Moscow. The convoy included domestic and foreign vehicles – passenger cars, coaches, vans and trucks. And all were equipped with engines that run on compressed natural gas (CNG).

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   Thus, the “Blue Corridor” motor rally (Rostov – Krasnodar – Novorossiysk – Sochi) was off and running. The rally, jointly organized by Gazprom, VNIIGAZ, Gazprom Transgaz-Kuban and NGA, sought to promote the use of CNG over gasoline as a vehicle fuel. Because CNG is more environmentally friendly and cheaper, regional and municipal governments are being urged to adopt the technology for public transport and public works vehicles.


   The technology of natural gas powered-engines is nothing new: Belgian inventor Etienne Lenoir created the first one in 1860. For various reasons though, gasoline became the fuel of choice as the internal combustion engine replaced the horse as a way for human beings to get from point A to point b. More than 150 years later though, it appears that Lenoir and his disciples might yet get their revenge.


   For one thing, gasoline is twice as expensive as natural gas, even if you factor in the cost of installing CNG equipment into a vehicle. In Russia, it costs 52,000 rubles ($1,730) to modify a typical VAZ car, and 155,000 rubles ($5,160) to modify a LiAZ-677 coach. Considering the average annual mileage of 30,000 kilometers and 100,000 kilometers respectively, the investment is paid back in 2.3 years for the VAZ car and for the LiAZ coach, payback occurs in half a year. For commercial and municpal vehicles which rack up the miles, the potential savings on the cost of fuel is enormous. In Russia, there’s even an incentive to consider the natural gas/gasoline price ratio. A government decree in 1993 set a price ceiling on CNG at 50 percent of the price of RON-80 gasoline. In Pakistan, which has more CNG powered vehicles and CNG service stations than any other country on the planet, CNG costs only a third of the equivalent amount of gasoline.


   Another plus for natural gas (methane) from the engine viewpoint is its purity. Every city dweller accounts for 100 kilograms of pollutant emissions per year, 80 percent of it vehicle exhaust. Growing vehicle use in big cities results in proportionally higher rates of pollution-related disease within the urban population. Compared to gasoline, CNG fueled cars produce 25 percent less carbon dioxide and 80 percent less carbon monoxide. One of the key advantages of CNG fuel is the absence of sulphur, carbon dust and lead in the car’s exhaust. All in all, CNG engine exhaust is 60 percent less harmful for humans to inhale and has practically no carcinogenic elements. CNG engines contribute much less to phenomena such as smog, acid rain, and the greenhouse effect.
For Russia, there is another advantage of CNG over gasoline – the fact that Russia’s natural gas reserves grossly outstrip the country’s crude reserves. Various estimates suggest that Russia has oil reserves that will last for another 30-50 years while its natural gas reserves will last another 80-100 years. So it seems CNG – in Russia at least – has the edge over gasoline.


    The actual gasification of domestic transport, however, is full of hidden agendas. Currently, Russia is ranked 14th in the size of its CNG transport commitment. The country has 103,000 CNG-powered vehicles and 226 CNG fuel stations. Compare the figures with the leading country, Pakistan, which has some 2 million CNG-powered vehicles serviced by 2000 CNG fuel stations.
In 1999, experts drafted a legislative proposal “On Alternative Fuels Usage”, which outlined bonuses and preferences for CNG-run vehicles (as is the case in all developed countries), but the legislation was sidelined by the government.


   In 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G8 Summit in St. Petersburg signed a strategic plan to ensure global energy security. In particular, the plan says that “we undertake … to initiate the measures required, including measures to set up financial and tax-related incentives aimed at implementing energy-efficient technologies, and on expanding the range of use of technologies already existing.” Such fields also include wider usage of compressed and liquefied natural gas for vehicles and the “Blue Corridor”, a project by the United Nation’s Economic Commission for Europe.


   Last year, Putin received a letter signed by both Alexander Annenkov, Gazprom’s deputy chairman, and Valeriy Yazev, Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Energy, Transport and Communications. The letter asked that a Federal program be enacted to help make the switch to alternative vehicle fuels. The Government sent the letter to the Ministry of Energy, but the Ministry has made no decision.


   Now, Yazev’s committee is working on new legislation in this area. The project is in the discussion stage and could be presented in the autumn session of the Russian Parliament.
Gazprom, as one of the authors of the “Blue Corridor” project, has spearheaded the dedicated industrial program  to develop a CNG fuel station network and public vehicles fleet between now and 2015. Seven new filling stations are to open this year and the number of CNG vehicles is growing particularly in the Southern Federal district (the area through which the VNIIGAZ motor rally passed.)


   Yet, without state support, achieving any serious movement forward is difficult. A first step would be to switch all governmental car fleets to CNG fuel. That’s the opinion at least of Gazprom executive Yevgeniy Pronin. To increase the number of CNG fuel points, the quick solution is to simply install CNG filling blocks at gasoline stations that are currently in operation.
To develop CNG transport, the attitude of local authorities is also important. The latter must support the development of CNG transport however they can, including land allocation for CNG fuel stations, supply of service lines, simplification of reconciliation procedures and designing (jointly with Gazprom) regional and local programs to promote CNG transportation.
“Let’s work together, this is a worthy issue. This would condition the purity of the air which we and our children inhale,” Gazprom’s Yevgeniy Pronin said at a meeting during the road rally in Krasnodar City with representatives of the regional and city administration and car parks’ directors. An example of what could be done is Bus Park No. 11 in Moscow, which has all been switched to CNG fuel. Though the 130 buses stabled there is but a drop in the bucket for a metropolis of 11 million people.


   Gazprom wants to add 200 CNG filling stations to the country’s inventory by 2015, VNIIGAZ General Director Roman Samsonov told a press conference at another motor rally stop in Rostov-on-Don. Samsonov stressed the importance of having factory-made cars with CNG equipment. That is better than conversion, he said, in terms of vehicle quality, reliability, and safety.
Also important is boosting the number of kilometers a vehicle can travel on a tank of CNG. Currently, VNIIGAZ scientists working jointly with designers of KAMAZ cars and Golitsyno buses have raised this range to 550 kilometers per tank for KAMAZ trucks and 600 kilometers per tank for Golitsyno buses. The goal is to increase these results to 1,000 kilometers.
VNIIGAZ’s Samsonov also spoke of a new program to gasify public vehicles in Sochi ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. The fact that Sochi is a resort area makes this region a great example for the rest of the country, he said.


   Work is in progress on switching locmotive engines to  CNG power. Gazprom’s VNIIGAZ jointly with Russian Railways scientific institutes are conducting operational tests of the first of these types of engines. In the future some 50 CNG-powered locomotives would join the fleet of Russian Railways. At the same time, there is a project to also  gasify shunting locomotives at the Adler railway between Sochi and Abkhazia.
Other candidates for CNG power that are currently in the cross-hairs of promoters of the fuel are farm machinery as well as river and sea vessels.


   Using CNG as a motor fuel is a good anti-crisis measure, if you ask Professor Yakov Mkrtychan, a chief research associate at VNIIGAZ with a doctorate in engineering. At the same time, he says that CNG is actually a transition fuel and that ultimately vehicles will be powered by hydrogen.
To speed up the switch to CNG, regional heads must be more active in this issue, Mkrtychan said. The Stavropol region, where CNG transport is much more developed, is far ahead of Central Russia, let alone Siberia or the Far East, in terms of this commitment, he added.
“We need leaders, high profile personalities in the regional administration, who understand the importance of solving the ‘CNG issue’,” Mkrtychan said. “Such leaders could do wonders in solving this problem. They could negotiate both with the car makers on supplying CNG cars and with Gazprom on receiving extra volumes of natural gas and on construction of CNG filling stations. The initiative of local administrators could lead to considerable results.”


   And in any case, says the professor, environmental and economic necessity will push the agenda enough to effect at least a 10 percent change out, though more would be better.
Yuri Panov, a professor at the Moscow Road Transport Institute, noted yet another advantage of CNG fuel. CNG fuel can extend engine-life by up to 30 percent as well as extend by nearly one-third the time between oil changes and lube jobs.
The scientist thinks that CNG has simply not been promoted enough as a fuel. Over the past few years, factory-made CNG equipment has reached entirely new levels of quality and reliability, but many drivers do not even know they exist.


   Also, Russian motor transport companies working with CNG vehicles face outdated and demanding regulations, which complicate things further. In Germany, for example, hazard levels for methane are the same as for diesel fuel. Abroad, gas cylinders must be inspected every 10-15 years, while in Russia, inspection is required every 3-5 years. Understandably, this creates additional headache for those using CNG vehicles. The regulatory framework taught in professional education programs for servicing CNG equipment is also outdated.
All over the world, CNG-powered vehicle fleets are growing 20-25 percent annually, but ostensibly Russia, as always, can be expected to go its own way. In all developed countries governments are looking at incentives to promote CNG. Italy, for example, offers a $1,500 to $5,000 subsidy to purchasers of a CNG car. Also in Italy, Bolciano district authorities won’t approve land allocations for fuel stations unless the station includes CNG dispensers.
France requires municipal buses and waste collectors to use CNG. Japan and Italy banned diesel-powered vehicles from city and town centers.


   In the United States, there is talk of having federally funded organizations buy only CNG cars when they renew their fleets. In London, CNG vehicles are exempt from having to pay the city’s “congestion tax”. The list of benefits and preferences is huge and could run for several more pages. Such laws operate in almost every country.


   Today, many of Russia’s leaders hold that “crisis time” is not the time to worry about CNG. U.S. President Barrack Obama’s “Stimulous Package” to help pull the U.S. out of recession, has however quite a bit of spending allocated to alternative energy projects that would grow the CNG industry. 

   A week after leaving Moscow, the “Blue Corridor” motor rally convoy finally reached the finish line in Sochi. During the journey, cars refuelled their tanks at several CNG filling stations. And there was even a mobile CNG filler available. The last stage of the rally traversed difficult terrain – the Caucuses Mountains, through which serpentine roads curve around hairpin turns and drivers hug vertical rock faces on one side while sheer cliffs drop into canyons on the other side. And then there is the constant up and down motion. Through it all, the CNG equipment was as reliable as a Swiss watch.

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