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

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 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.

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. 

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.

3 stocks making the revolution possible
Record oil and natural gas production is revolutionizing the United States' energy position. Finding the right plays while historic amounts of capital expenditures are flooding the industry will pad your investment nest egg. For this reason, the Motley Fool is offering a look at three energy companies using a small IRS "loophole" to help line investor pockets. Learn this strategy, and the energy companies taking advantage, in our special report "The IRS Is Daring You To Make This Energy Investment." Don’t miss out on this timely opportunity; click here to access your report -- it’s absolutely free. 

Read/Post Comments (0) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

Be the first one to comment on this article.

Sponsored Links

Leaked: Apple's Next Smart Device
(Warning, it may shock you)
The secret is out... experts are predicting 458 million of these types of devices will be sold per year. 1 hyper-growth company stands to rake in maximum profit - and it's NOT Apple. Show me Apple's new smart gizmo!

DocumentId: 2956246, ~/Articles/ArticleHandler.aspx, 9/2/2015 10:55:24 AM

Report This Comment

Use this area to report a comment that you believe is in violation of the community guidelines. Our team will review the entry and take any appropriate action.

Sending report...

Jason Hall

Born and raised in the Deep South of Georgia, Jason now calls Southern California home. A Fool since 2006, he began contributing to in 2012. Trying to invest better? Like learning about companies with great (or really bad) stories? Jason can usually be found there, cutting through the noise and trying to get to the heart of the story.

Today's Market

updated Moments ago Sponsored by:
DOW 16,160.20 101.85 0.63%
S&P 500 1,924.25 10.40 0.54%
NASD 4,666.04 29.93 0.65%

Create My Watchlist

Go to My Watchlist

You don't seem to be following any stocks yet!

Better investing starts with a watchlist. Now you can create a personalized watchlist and get immediate access to the personalized information you need to make successful investing decisions.

Data delayed up to 5 minutes

Related Tickers

9/2/2015 10:34 AM
BASFY $79.23 Up +0.99 +1.27%
BASF AG (ADR) CAPS Rating: *****
F $13.75 Up +0.03 +0.19%
Ford CAPS Rating: ****