Canadian motorists to start 'filling up' on natural gas

Western Canada's plentiful natural gas is going to be used as fuel for automobiles. Compressed natural gas (CNG) will be marketed just like conventional gasoline at service stations run by Petrocanada, the federally owned state oil company.

Essentially a private venture by local oilmen, the development of the convertible fuel injection system for automobiles (gasoline to gas and vice versa) has been going on here for the past 18 months. The new device, sponsored by CNG Fuel Systems Ltd., will be on the market possibly by 1982. The firm is headed by a former senior federal politician, Jud Buchanan.

Gas compression is of course an established technology used in pipeline transportation. Moreover, CNG-powered vehicles are in their thousands on the streets of European countries. There have been experiments with CNG in the United States and elsewhere.

What's new for western Canadian development is the improving range of natural-gas-propelled vehicles and the advent of a national commitment to replace with natural gas as much as possible of either scarce domestic crude oil or expensive imports. Test cars equipped with converter kits under the hood and cyclinders of compressed gas in the trunk have averaged 100 miles on a full charge.

The next model, soon to be tested, is expected to boost the driving range to 150 miles -- a much more practical distance -- or the gas equivalent of about six gallons of gasoline in a medium-size car.

Gasoline now selling here at about $1.10 per gallon (both US) is now regarded as being on par with CNG running costs, excluding the converter kit or the bulky containers. The sponsors point out that the economic attractions of the CNG fuel will increase in direct proportion to the projected gasoline price escalation. What's more, natural gas, unlike gasoline derived from oil, can guarantee long-term security of supply, they point out.

They also admit that the converter kit is expensive now, priced at "several hundred dollars" each, but say it will become cheaper when in mass production. Officials of CNG Fuel Systems are on a shopping trip to New Zealand, Italy, and the United States to pick the best of available equipment for both the car and the distribution network planned for Canada.

Mr. Buchanan, a former minister of Indian affairs and northern development who also served as the last Liberal government's paymaster, said in an interview that, compared with the annual consumption volumes of gasolien guzzled by Canada's 12 million motor vehicles, the CNG system's contribution to conservation will be "quite modest." But it will still displace gasoline, thus providing worthwhile oil savings.

Eventually, service stations and home garages with recharging installations will be able to replenish a CND-driven car in about as much time now as it takes to "fill 'er up" with gasoline.

The important consideration besides costs, of course, is safety in operation as well as recharging of the vehicles. High tensile strength but light steel will be used to produce lighter CNG cylinders that later could give way to purposely built tanks underneath the vehicle's body.

The converter kit allows the vehicle to function on the both fuels and to switch from one fuel to the other instantaneously.

At least one major manufacturer -- Ford of Canada -- has already expressed interest in cooperating in the commercial development of CNG fuel devices.

Several natural gas producers and transmission companies also say the they would be willing to assist in future CNG experiments, obviously with an eye on commercial prospects for themselves, too. Mr. Buchanan says that both the Alberta and federal governments "endorsed" the CNG idea and that Petrocanada's participation as a main outlet confirms Ottawa's "dedication" to energy conservation at the same time.

Mr. Buchanan warns that a greater reliance on natural gas as fuel for motor vehicles alone will not solely avert "our energy crunch which is fast approaching."

He said: "I think CNG refuelling facilities will be a commonplace feature at the corner service station in about three years." Sponsors of the CNG project say that it's "imperative" that the fuel be available to Canadian motorists from coast to coast. Commodity natural gasa produced in western Canada is now mainly used in Ontario.

Petrochemicals being manufactured in growing volumes in Alberta also make increasing use of gas-derived ethane as feedstock. Petrocanada is at present looking at expanding its chain of service stations west of the Great Lakes into Ontatio, Quebec, and the Maritimes.

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