Engineers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel think they have come up with the next best thing to $1-a-gallon gasoline.
It's a midsize, four-door, five-passenger sedan that runs on natural gas selling for the equivalent of $1 a gallon.
The "car," actually it's a fleet of three vehicles - two Dodge Stratuses and a Plymouth Breeze - was developed by APL in conjunction with DaimlerChrysler AG under a U.S. Department of Energy program on alternative-fuel vehicles.
"It will go," said John J. Wozniak, program manager for the Advanced Natural Gas Vehicle Project at APL, as he slipped behind the steering wheel of a shiny fire-engine red 1998 Stratus. "It will squeal the tires."
But the big difference in the car that Wozniak was driving was not readily visible to the untrained eye.
The 2.4-liter, four-cylinder transverse engine looked nearly identical to that of an ordinary Stratus.
Then, Wozniak opened the trunk, reached in the back and unleashed a felt panel exposing a portion of a fiberglass container holding two natural-gas canisters holding the equivalent of 5.5 gallons of gasoline.
If you looked under the car, where the regular gas tank would normally be, there were three more gas canisters holding the equivalent of another 7.5 gallons of gasoline.
"That enough fuel for a 300-mile trip," said Wozniak "and that is what makes this car so exciting."
Vehicles powered by natural gas have been around for years. The shuttle buses at Baltimore-Washington International Airport use natural gas.
But in early models of family sedans, the conversion to natural gas eliminated most of the trunk and still had a range of only about 150 miles.
"Our goal was to make a car that would be cost-effective, have a range that would make it practical and keep the comfort features of gasoline-power cars," said Wozniak, a 54-year-old mechanical engineer who heads APL's 48-member mechanical and aeronautical engineering department.
With unleaded regular gasoline selling for $1.649 a gallon at the Texaco station next to the Hopkins lab, and topping $2 a gallon in the Midwest, Wozniak believes that cars powered by natural gas are moving closer to the assembly line.
Natural gas - available at 16 service stations in Maryland - is a bargain when compared with gasoline prices.
A Shell station on Route 1 in College Park charges the equivalent of $1 a gallon for natural gas. Prices range from $1 to $1.10 at other outlets in the state.
"Natural gas is a terrific fuel," said David E. Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "It's clean-burning and more efficient than gasoline."
Cole said the problem with natural gas has been the inability to store enough fuel to give the car decent range.
"If the guys at Hopkins have come up with a system that offers 300-mile range and the fuel tank is not too big, I would say they have come up with something," Cole said.
Most of the world's major auto manufacturers are working on cars fueled by natural gas, he said. "In my opinion, it is something very do-able. Somebody is going to come up with a system some day."
Although Wozniak is excited about APL's work, he admitted that there are negatives. A Stratus powered by natural gas would cost about $4,000 more than a gasoline-powered model, largely because of the fuel-tank problem, he said.
"At $3,500, the cost of fuel storage is too expensive," he said. "We've got to get that price down, to make the car viable."
A new design
A new design is expected to lower the cost to about $1,800, which mass production could drop to about $1,100.
The natural-gas car requires a new fuel-injection system, redesigned pistons, a special fuel regulator and some changes in the software that runs the engine and tells the transmission when to shift gears.
The piston work and some other changes in the engine were done by Chesapeake Automotive Enterprises in Reisterstown. Other companies involved in the development of the car include Lincoln Composites Inc. and Siemens Inc.
Cole said natural gas is a much cleaner fuel than gasoline. The exhaust emissions of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons are about one-fifth of the California anti-pollution standards.
"We're excited by the technology breakthrough at Hopkins' APL," said Ann Smith a spokeswoman for DaimlerChrysler. "With the Hopkins system, we are able to store more fuel and this makes the car more attractive."
Despite the breakthrough, DaimlerChrysler is not ready to say it is about to rush the natural-gas car into production.
"We don't talk about production plans," said Smith, but added: "The APL technology allows us to begin looking at natural gas for cars."
She said DaimlerChrysler is looking at a variety of alternative-fuel technologies, and natural gas "is an attractive option."
The company produces full-size Dodge Ram vans powered by natural gas. They are used primarily as airport shuttles.
Wozniak said there are only about 1,500 natural-gas outlets in the United States.
Asked if he would consider driving the Stratus to North Carolina for vacation, he smiled and said: "First I would have to check my directory of natural-gas stations."