Nine months after Onboard Dynamics received $3.6 million in grant funding, the Bend company is moving closer to powering cars using compressed natural gas.
For the company, that means continuing to improve the engine prototype while working on a business plan to market and sell the engines commercially.
“Our business model is based on leveraging mass-produced engines, and leveraging an existing infrastructure of natural gas,” said CEO and co-founder Rita Hansen.
Hansen said $2.88 million of the total the company received in September came from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, an agency within the U.S. Department of Energy designed to advance technologies that aren’t ready for the private sector. She added that the grant gave the company 18 months to demonstrate a plan for commercializing the converted engines, with quarterly milestones to ensure that the company is moving toward its goals.
“We’re essentially halfway through,” Hansen said.
Co-founder and Chief Technical Officer Chris Hagen, who was featured in the June edition of Popular Science magazine for his work at Onboard Dynamics, said much of the funding went to the research wing of the business to build up its staff and capabilities.
Onboard Dynamics was founded in October 2013 as a spinoff of research that Hagen was conducting already at Oregon State University-Cascades, research that continues on campus today. He said the company’s focus was initially on proving that compressed natural gas from households could work commercially.
The chief benefit to the system is cost. Hagen said natural gas can cost around $1.50 less than an equivalent gallon of gas.
“You can make the return on investment attractive just because of the differential between fuels,” Hagen said.
While natural gas is easy to find, with an estimated 64 million commercial and residential supply points across the country, Hansen said the gas typically reaches homes at about 0.25 pounds per square inch of pressure, compared to the 3,600 psi that compressed natural gas must reach to be usable for vehicles.
The initial round of tests used a single-cylinder engine to compress and cool the gas as well as powering the car.
“What we found in the first round was that, only using one cylinder, you spend a lot of energy just idling the engine,” Hagen said. “But this time around, we’re using multiple cylinders so that we can compress more gas, do it more quickly and also load the engine more.”
On the business side, Hansen said a commercial launch of vehicle-mounted multi-cylinder compressed natural gas engines could potentially be available by the end of 2017. In the meantime, Hagen said the goal was to compress air, a safe substitute for natural gas, to 3600 psi by September.
“Each one of these steps is moving closer toward a commercial product,” he said.
In the short term, Hansen said the company is targeting organizations with fleets of vehicles because they would get the most value from using CNG over gasoline. Onboard Dynamics will partner with the Deschutes County Road Department later this month for a pilot program that will outfit one of the department’s trucks with a compressed natural gas engine.
“We understand that the endgame is to get to consumer passenger vehicles, but we are absolutely focused on commercial, industrial business owners,” Hansen said.
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