Forget gasoline - this car runs on gas

November 14, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

If you believe the ultra-clean car of tomorrow will run on batteries, think again. Think gas.

Natural gas, that is.

How about a peppy compact that puts out a fraction of the pollution of a gasoline-powered car, has a range of 300 miles and costs you $5 and change to fill 'er up?

Meet the "Advanced Natural Gas Vehicle," a Geo Prizm modified run on compressed natural gas by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Better known for its work on satellites, missiles and other high-tech defense projects, the Laurel lab teamed with a small Reisterstown racing car builder and several other companies to craft a prototype for what they hope is a new generation of automobiles.

Among its gee-whiz features: "run-flat" Goodyear tires that will go for up to 250 miles with no air in them, and space-age, lightweight fuel tanks that can survive a dynamite blast.

"We're thrilled about it," said Julie Puckett, spokeswoman for the Natural Gas Vehicle [NGV] Coalition, representing gas utilities, pipeline companies and related firms.

Don't rush to the showrooms just yet. The car cost $650,000 to develop, and Hopkins engineers say it still needs to be crash- and field-tested for safety and reliability. Major funding comes from the U.S. Department of Energy and from gas companies. Initial plans call for a limited number of vehicles to be road tested in the fleets of those companies.

While debate continues on whether electric cars are the ultimate answer to the smog affecting Baltimore and the rest of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, proponents of natural gas vehicles say they may hold more immediate promise for slashing air pollution -- and the Hopkins project represents a potential breakthrough.

About 30,000 natural gas-powered autos -- mostly vans, trucks and buses -- already cruise the nation's highways. The total worldwide exceeds 1 million. If Maryland and 11 other East Coast states have their way, many more should appear in this part of the country in the next few years. The states from Maine to Virginia have petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to require sales of progressively cleaner cars and light trucks, including at least some "advanced technology" vehicles beginning in 1998.

NGVs fit that description. While not pollution-free, natural gas burns much more cleanly than gasoline.

Auto manufacturers, however, have lobbied EPA to let them build a somewhat cleaner gasoline-powered car, without any required sales of "alternative" vehicles powered by batteries or natural gas. Seeking to broker a compromise, the EPA last week let a deadline for deciding the issue slip until mid-December.

Auto manufacturers contend that batteries aren't light or powerful enough yet to power an electric car for 300 miles or more without re-charging. As for natural gas vehicles, Chrysler Corp. has two on the market: a full-size van and a minivan, but they aren't selling well, said Jason Vines, a spokesman for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association.

Such older designs have drawbacks: sluggish handling, trunks crammed with heavy steel fuel tanks, and the need to fill up every 150 miles or so; not to mention prices $3,000 to $5,000 above comparable gasoline-powered cars and trucks.

That's where the Hopkins car comes in. Identical in outside appearance to a standard Geo Prizm, the natural gas car was designed to be reassuringly familiar to the driving public while overcoming the NGV's customary handicaps of limited range and lack of cargo space.

"We changed the 'black metal,' stuff that people really don't see -- unless you're a mechanic," explained John Wozniak, a mechanical engineer at the Hopkins laboratory and project manager. Under the hood is a four-cylinder, 1.6-liter engine from a Toyota MR-2 sports car, chosen because its combustion chamber design was deemed the most efficient for burning natural gas.

Chesapeake Automotive Enterprises, a small, four-person auto shop in Reisterstown with 25 years of experience in building and racing cars, modified the engine and outfitted it with a customized fuel mixer to get more power and fuel economy.

The result is a power plant with 130 horsepower, 30 percent more than the original Prizm. The car accelerates from zero to 60 miles per hour in 12.5 seconds, just a half-second slower than the gasoline-powered model.

The natural gas Prizm gets the equivalent of at least 32 miles per gallon of gasoline, compared with 29.5 miles per gallon for the original.

The improved efficiency of the engine, coupled with the cleaner fuel, means the Hopkins car exceeds the emission standards set by California. That state's stringent limits on auto pollution have been embraced by the East Coast states. The natural gas Prizm emits a fraction of the smog-forming hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides allowed under California's requirements for an "ultra-low emission vehicle."

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