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.

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