By Scott Hammers

The Bulletin

An OSU-Cascades innovation that could simplify the use of natural gas to power vehicles recently received $3.4 million in grant funding to help bring the product to market.

Onboard Dynamics Inc., a spinoff of research conducted by Chris Hagen, assistant professor in the energy systems engineering program at the Bend OSU campus, has developed a means of using natural gas directly out of the gas lines used to heat homes to power vehicles, cutting the cost of fueling a natural gas powered vehicle roughly in half. If it succeeds, it would be the first commercial venture launched at the Bend campus.

Last week at the Oregon BEST FEST, a Portland conference for clean technology startups, the company announced it has received $3 million from the U.S. Department of Energy and another $400,000 from Oregon BEST and the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute.

Rita Hansen, CEO of Onboard Dynamics, said such a system could provide significant savings. Compressed natural gas, or CNG, is about $2.20 per gallon equivalent, Hansen said, a bit less than half the price of gasoline. The Onboard Dynamics system could cut that in half, she said, bringing the per gallon equivalent cost down to around a dollar.

Hansen said that although bifuel vehicles that can run on either gasoline or compressed natural gas are increasingly common, stations where such vehicles can be fueled are still rare.

Although the natural gas used for home heating and running a bifuel vehicle are chemically identical, the gas used in a vehicle needs to first be compressed to 3,600 psi to be usable. Stations dispensing the fuel are expensive to build, she said, $1 million to $2 million each.

Right now, there are only three stations in Oregon selling compressed natural gas, none of which are in Central Oregon.

Onboard Dynamics’ innovation uses the pistons and cylinders of a bifuel vehicle to provide the needed compression, bypassing the need for a dedicated CNG station.

Hansen said the grants will be used to refine and improve the prototype developed at OSU-Cascades. She said the current model uses one cylinder of a six-cylinder engine to provide the compression, requiring the remaining five cylinders to run for an hour or two to fill the tank. Once the tank is filled and pressurized, the system automatically shuts off the engine.

The company’s next model will employ additional cylinders, Hansen said, in hopes of bringing the fueling time down to around half an hour.

Organizations with a large fleet of vehicles, particularly trucks, are the most likely market for the Onboard Dynamics system. A truck bed provides a place to install a compressed natural gas tank, she said, and a fleet of trucks that all return to the same place every night can be refueled with a system of lines running to each parking space.

Hansen said the company has reached an agreement with the Deschutes County Road Department to outfit a county truck with the Onboard Dynamics system to test the technology once the next model is complete.

— Reporter: 541-383-0387, shammers@bendbulletin.com

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