Innovation at BASF and Ford Is Breaking Down Barriers for Natural Gas Vehicles

Despite being significantly cheaper than gasoline, natural gas vehicles have yet to take off in the United States, Now BASF and Ford are developing a CNG system that could revolutionize how natural gas is stored in vehicles.

May 25, 2014 at 3:26PM

There are more than 15 million natural gas vehicles worldwide, but fewer than 150,000 of them are in the United States. The limitations of natural gas have all contributed to its inability to break into the U.S. market, even with a significant cost break versus gasoline.

But last week at the 2014 Alternative Clean Transportation Expo, Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:F) and BASF SE (NASDAQOTH:BASFY) showed a vehicle with a really innovative technology that could revolutionize the market for natural gas vehicles in the United States. Have a look:

Ford F-550 with BASF Metal Organic Framework CNG system. Source: Jason Hall.

What? Doesn't look very innovative? Well, what's so special about this technology is what you can't see.

And what you can't see are the Metal Organic Frameworks, or MOFs, inside this Ford F-550's CNG fuel tanks. MOFs could drastically alter the landscape for natural gas vehicles, breaking down the traditional barriers in a big way. Let's take a closer look at what they do, and why this is something worth exploring.

What are MOFs? 
There are several problems with natural gas as a vehicle fuel. Natural gas requires a lot more space in a vehicle than gasoline or diesel, because there's less energy in a similar quantity. And since it's a gas, it must be stored at high pressure (3,600 PSI, like a SCUBA tank) to get enough onboard the vehicle. And since it's stored at a high pressure, the tank must be larger to be strong enough to be safe. The result? Big, bulky tanks that take up too much space, sacrificing storage while still not giving the range the average american expects.

Basf Mof

BASF is testing MOFs in everything from heavy trucks to passenger vehicles. Source: BASF.

And even with many American homes having a natural gas connection, the low pressure from the gas utility won't quickly fill the car -- it would take eight hours to fill a tank. Plus you need additional equipment at a high cost. Simply put, it's just too much trouble for too little savings. But MOFs are changing the game by potentially taking the biggest barrier -- the need to store at high pressure -- and cutting it down to size. 

BASF's Joe Lynch explains the details in the following video.


According to BASF and Ford, the same amount of natural gas that requires 3,600 PSI in a traditional tank could be stored at lower pressure in a tank filled with MOFs. This could significantly level the playing field for natural gas vehicles.

C Max Energi

Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid. Source: Jason Hall.

What's in it for Ford?
The reality is, different fuels in different geographies are often used in the same vehicle platform, and Ford wants to be able to supply its customers with the right engine, using the right fuel, for that customer's specific needs. Using Ford's Transit series vans as an example, Ford's Jon Coleman had this to say:

When you have seven different choices of fueling and how you generate propulsion in the vehicle, that's what we mean by "the power of choice," personified in this van. Whatever fuel makes sense for you as a customer, what you're trying to get done, the fuel that's readily available ... whatever makes sense for your business, we can produce for you. Ford Motor Company has no idea which of these fuels will make the most sense. So we need to build vehicles that have the broadest capability and the broadest fuel types, so the customer, and the market, can decide what makes sense. 

Transit Ford

Ford's Transit van can be outfitted with seven different engine and fuel configurations. Source: Ford.

Ford is continuing to leverage its "One Ford" platform, and apparently this includes diversifying powertrain systems in a single vehicle platform like the Transit vans and F Series pickups, all the way down to the C-Max.

While there is some risk that specific engine platforms won't be particularly profitable if the demand is low, this strategy is about making sure fleet customers have access to a Ford vehicle that meets their needs, versus trying to force products of Ford's choosing on its customers. 

Bigger Foolish picture
BASF and Ford are massive and diverse companies, so it's not clear how much of an impact MOFs could have on their results. However, the potential that MOFs bring to natural gas refueling are pretty amazing and could vastly reduce the challenges with tank size and access to refueling. Indications are that BASF will make MOFs commercially available in 2015. If they're cost-effective, they could make in-home and on-location refueling feasible, fast, and cheap, while also significantly increasing the amount of CNG that can be put into a fuel tank. The three big challenges -- refueling infrastructure, range, and vehicle space constraints -- will all be significantly lessened. 

While not offering significant upside, it's great to see Ford and BASF continuing to focus on innovative technologies that break down barriers. Natural gas is domestic, cheap, and cleaner than oil. It's not a perfect fuel, but it's a step toward more sustainable sources, and it does more good for the domestic economy than imported oil does. To me, that's worth investing in.

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Jason Hall has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

4 in 5 Americans Are Ignoring Buffett's Warning

Don't be one of them.

Jun 12, 2015 at 5:01PM

Admitting fear is difficult.

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This past May, The Motley Fool sent 8 of its best stock analysts to Omaha, Nebraska to attend the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting. CEO Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger fielded questions for nearly 6 hours.
The catch was: Attendees weren't allowed to record any of it. No audio. No video. 

Our team of analysts wrote down every single word Buffett and Munger uttered. Over 16,000 words. But only two words stood out to me as I read the detailed transcript of the event: "Real threat."

That's how Buffett responded when asked about this emerging market that is already expected to be worth more than $2 trillion in the U.S. alone. Google has already put some of its best engineers behind the technology powering this trend. 

The amazing thing is, while Buffett may be nervous, the rest of us can invest in this new industry BEFORE the old money realizes what hit them.

KPMG advises we're "on the cusp of revolutionary change" coming much "sooner than you think."

Even one legendary MIT professor had to recant his position that the technology was "beyond the capability of computer science." (He recently confessed to The Wall Street Journal that he's now a believer and amazed "how quickly this technology caught on.")

Yet according to one J.D. Power and Associates survey, only 1 in 5 Americans are even interested in this technology, much less ready to invest in it. Needless to say, you haven't missed your window of opportunity. 

Think about how many amazing technologies you've watched soar to new heights while you kick yourself thinking, "I knew about that technology before everyone was talking about it, but I just sat on my hands." 

Don't let that happen again. This time, it should be your family telling you, "I can't believe you knew about and invested in that technology so early on."

That's why I hope you take just a few minutes to access the exclusive research our team of analysts has put together on this industry and the one stock positioned to capitalize on this major shift.

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David Hanson owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and American Express. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Google, and Coca-Cola.We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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