Fill up on gas from garbage? OARDC trying it

WOOSTER, Ohio — The Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, a part of Ohio State University headquartered in northeast Ohio, is converting four of its vehicles to run on natural gas — but not just any natural gas.

Gas produced locally from renewable, plentiful organic waste, such as chicken fat, rotten tomatoes and the byproducts of making potato chips. Even better, the fuel costs only about two-thirds as much as gasoline and, when burned, emits about a third less greenhouse gas.

“I find it fascinating and very cool that we can produce a portion of our energy from what is otherwise today a waste stream,” said Jim Currie, a leader of the project and the director of OARDC’s ATECH program, which works to commercialize the center’s research.

“You don’t have to pump it out of the ground. It’s not taken out of the food supply. This (use to make fuel) is all after the fact.”

Funding

Thanks to $46,000 in funding from the group Clean Fuels Ohio, OARDC is having three Ford Fusion sedans and a Ford F150 pickup truck turned into bifuel vehicles.

They’ll run on either gasoline or compressed natural gas, called CNG.

Partner

The CNG will come mostly from an anaerobic digester that a company called quasar energy group designed, built and operates on OARDC’s campus in Wooster, about 60 miles south of Cleveland. Some may come, too, from a similar quasar facility in Columbus.

Both systems take in food-processing waste and similar materials (corn stalks and cow manure may be other options), break them down under tightly controlled conditions, then harvest the methane biogas that results. Some of that gas runs a generator — quasar’s Wooster digester currently produces about 30 percent of the electricity for the main part of OARDC’s campus.

And a portion of the gas is refined into higher-value CNG, a renewable fuel that quasar markets as qnga and dispenses from stations at its Wooster and Columbus facilities.

Pumps

The pumps resemble regular gasoline pumps. “We’ve been a partner with quasar for a number of years now. They produce CNG as a value-added product, so one reason that the (conversion) project was attractive is because we have a fueling station right on campus,” said Dave Benfield, an OARDC associate director and one of the project’s planners.

That proximity “led us to say, ‘Let’s go ahead and convert a few vehicles, do the experiment, and see how they work,’” Benfield said.

“If the experiment works, we might look at further conversions. If it doesn’t, we might have to look at other alternatives down the road.”

quasar also has digesters in Ohio in Haviland, Cleveland, North Ridgeville and Zanesville, with more than two dozen others planned. Each will have its own qng station. The company itself runs more than half of its 20-plus vehicles on qnga.

OARDC administrators will use the cars for regular travel between Wooster and Ohio State’s main campus in Columbus and to nine outlying research stations.

John Ott, head of OARDC’s facilities services department, which oversees the center’s vehicles, said the cars should be on the road later in April; the truck sometime this summer.

Price

quasar currently sells its qng CNG for $2.25 per gasoline gallon equivalent, according to AltFuelPrices.com, compared to regular gasoline’s March 27 national average price of $3.90 a gallon as reported by AAA.

At those prices, each of the three bifuel cars, if run entirely on CNG, would save about 6.5 cents in fuel costs per mile. This would save OARDC $975 per car per year, or $2,925 total per year, and would have a theoretical payback time of 11.8 years, or about 177,000 miles of driving per car. (The funding from Clean Fuels Ohio doesn’t actually have to be paid back. It’s meant to support real-world testing and demonstrations such as this, Currie said.)

At $5 per gallon of gasoline, the savings rise to 11 cents per mile, $1,650 per car per year and $4,950 total per year, while the payback time falls to about 7 years, or about 105,000 miles per car. At a gasoline price of $6 per gallon, the savings increase to 15 cents per mile, $2,250 per car per year and $6,750 total per year, with a payback time of 5.1 years, or 76,000 miles per car.

The figures are based on a fuel economy of about 25 miles per gallon, which is the combined city-highway mileage expected from a similar gasoline-only Fusion; an annual use of 15,000 miles, which Ott said was typical for the cars that are being replaced; and a conversion cost of about $11,500 per vehicle.

CNG and gasoline get about the same fuel economy, according to a U.S. Department of Energy website. “It’s not just that it’s an alternative fuel,” Currie said. “It’s that it’s bio-derived — that it takes a waste stream and turns it into a useful product.”

Leftovers

What’s left from the process, a liquid, can be used as an alternative farm fertilizer — a good source of plant nutrients and organic matter. Or it can be dewatered and dried, leaving a rich material similar to compost that quasar can sell as livestock bedding or a soil amendment.

Converted bifuel vehicles keep their standard gasoline tank and fuel line, get a separate tank and line added for CNG, and can run on either fuel. (Some bifuel vehicles are set up to run on propane instead of CNG.)

Typically, the second tank goes in the trunk or the truck bed, which, on the down side, adds weight and reduces the vehicle’s storage space. But there’s also no range anxiety.

Running low on CNG? Switch to gasoline. Some CNG systems do it automatically when the CNG runs low. Others have a manual override, and the driver can change fuels any time.

Funding for the project, which came from federal pass-through funds to Clean Fuels Ohio, covers the cost of only the conversions. OARDC bought the vehicles themselves, which were needed either way as replacements, Ott said.

Such conversions must meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards and must be done by an EPA-qualified company, Ott said.

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