21 Dec When Cars First Ran On Natural Gas
The 2020s are a fascinating time when it comes to the development and use of various energy supplies, and sees a shift towards alternative, cleaner fuels than had become the norm for decades.
There will, for many industries, always be a need for gas, and engineers who specialise in installation and hot tapping will never find themselves short of work, but in other industries, natural gas is becoming a fascinating alternative fuel.
One example of this is the use of compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas as a cleaner alternative to currently used fuels in the transportation industry, such as heavy oil, petrol and diesel.
In particular, it is seen as a potential intermediate solution for long-distance lorries whilst electric vehicle ranges improve and hydrogen fuel becomes cheaper and cleaner to produce, which can offset the slightly more limited range compared to other fossil fuels.
However, this is far from the first time natural gas was seen as a potential transportation solution, and to understand where this potential came from, it is worth looking at the first time huge uncompressed gas bags were used as a fuel to power cars and other vehicles for a surprisingly long time.
The Gas Bag Car
In the early 20th century, a lot of the fuel infrastructures that we take for granted today did not exist with anywhere close to the level of sophistication we know them today, and early internal combustion engines were remarkably adaptable for handling different types of fuel before petrol became standard.
This meant that cars could be converted to run on wood gas, town gas or natural gas as easily as such a supply of fuel could be fitted to the vehicle itself.
This became somewhat important when the declaration of war in 1914 led to a lot of disruption in the early petroleum industry in Europe, meaning that supplies of fuel were very quickly sold at inflated prices or outright rationed and supplied only to the military and critical industries.
This was a problem for early car owners, as well as taxis and public transportation that naturally relied on petrol in order to function.
The solution that seemed to be most widely used was fitting a huge bag made from silk or another fabric that was soaked in rubber that was typically strapped to the roof and was filled with gas, inflating as it was added. It was reportedly as easy to fix as a bicycle tyre.
The problem with using gas at the time is that without a reliable or safe way to compress gas at the time, a driver needed a lot of gas in order to fuel a long enough journey to make the vehicle viable as a solution.
For every litre of fuel, three cubic metres of uncompressed gas was required, which meant that a typical 13 cubic metre bag would have a range of around 30 miles.
As well as this, because of how huge the bags were, low bridges became a far more precarious exercise at higher fuel loads than they would have been otherwise, and driving any faster than 30 miles per hour would affect the range if not rip the gas bag off of the vehicle itself.
Windy conditions were also a hazard, and in general the hopeless aerodynamics of fitting what was effectively a giant balloon to the top of a car seriously dented fuel economy.
Also, passengers waiting for buses were strictly instructed not to smoke, as there was often a risk of sparking a gas fire if drivers and passengers were not careful.
The big advantage was versatility and cheapness. Most cars of the era were only used for short-distance driving anyway, so the range was not necessarily an issue, and they could be refuelled anywhere that supplied town gas, a combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide used for cooking.
Whilst it was not practical or affordable at the time to compress, it was usually in plentiful enough supply to be viable even as other fuels were strictly rationed.
This affordability meant that gas bag vehicles came back during the Second World War in many countries alongside gas cylinders, and China would extensively use them for decades longer than the rest of the world.
Unlike the rest of the world, they became popular in China during a time of relative peace and were used purely for their economic benefits. As late as the 1990s, long after the development of LNG and CNG vehicles, gas bag buses were still being used in places such as Chongqing.
Modern CNG and LNG technologies are far more efficient than this, but the benefits in certain industries are no less pronounced.