New York Times contributor blogs about cars and other interesting ways of getting around.
It's a gas: Propane car sets speed records
The Maxximus LNG 2000 can do zero to 60 in less than 2 seconds, and can run on propane, CNG, LNG or even gasoline. It's a showcase for the vast potential of natural gas, currently running around $2 a gallon.
MAXXIMUS POWER: This road rocket runs on propane. (Photo: Centaur Performance Group)
If you weren’t convinced by the fire-breathing Tesla Roadster that alternative-fuel vehicles don’t have to be boring, consider the 1,600-horsepower Maxximus LNG 2000, which can run on four different fuels — propane, liquefied natural gas (LNG), compressed natural gas (CNG) and gasoline — and set a series of world records on the first one. How does zero to 60 in 2.6 seconds and a 10.28-second quarter mile at 134 mph grab you?
Actually, the carbon fiber-bodied car did even better on LNG, reaching 60 in just 1.96 seconds and burning through a quarter mile in 9.63 seconds at 159.9 mph. The LNG 2000 is powered by an all-aluminum, twin-turbo V-8. And since propane and LNG are liquid fuels that must be stored at super-cold cryogenic temperatures, they can — and are — used to keep the engine cooler. Here it is on video:
Bruce McMahan, a Greenwich-based hedge fund guy, natural gas investor and philanthropist (he runs the National Cristina Foundation to promote technology for people with special needs), is the bankroll behind the LNG 2000, which is based on the Ultima GTR and had an earlier version known as the Maxximus G-Force in 2009.
McMahan is convinced that affordable natural gas will, as he puts it, serve as the foundation of a new American industrial revolution. “It’s happening faster than anyone thinks,” he said. “We’re on the threshold. It will change how we live and work. We’ll be back in the '50s again, and industry will return.” That's only a little bit hyperbolic, because companies are, indeed, relocating their factories in the U.S. after serving time abroad. The reason: we have the world’s cheapest natural gas, at the equivalent of about $2 a gallon.
The LNG 2000 has a range of only 100 miles, says its designer, Marlon Kirby. Natural gas has less energy content by volume than gasoline, but the Dragonfly and its successors will overcome that limitation with lots of tank space. “We’ll have a range of 1,000 miles on $60 worth of natural gas,” he said.
Propane, the same liquid fuel in your backyard barbecue, is becoming surprisingly popular in the South for police car conversions (at right), sometimes funded by confiscated drug money. One of the big problems for any natural gas fleet is infrastructure — there aren’t enough public fueling stations (perhaps only 500 in the U.S.). But there is now a network of propane stations below the Mason-Dixon line, and an increasing number of CNG pumps at truck stops in interstates.
The Maxximus cars are attention-getters, with no production intent. But the Centaur Performance Group does eventually want to build cars and powertrains. Its next vehicle, called the Dragonfly (“four wings, four propulsion systems”) will be a Honda-based, Malibu-sized vehicle that can also run on four fuels. The company could end up being in the right place at the right time.
According to McMahan, “You can always run on gasoline if you have to, but you’re more likely to tap into CNG, propane or LNG.” There are millions of “flex fuel” vehicles on the road now, but they run on the wrong fuel — ethanol — which lacks the lucrative price advantage.
Propane is having a big year. The centennial of the first use of the fuel is 2012, and the propane industry held a celebration in Atlanta April 14-16, complete with a vehicle parade and ride-and-drives. Stuart Weidie, president of Alliance AutoGas, said that propane autogas currently powers 17 million vehicles globally, more than CNG in the U.S., and is increasingly popular in heavy trucks. We may see a CNG vs. propane war unfold, which would be interesting.
CNG makes sense for shorter-range travel. LNG is more complicated because of that cryogenic storage, but the liquid fuel has greater energy density and thus offers more range — that’s why they’re contemplating it for the long-haul tractor trailers. I’m with McMahan in seeing the potential of natural gas, in all its permutations, for transportation — especially trucking fleets, taxis, buses and the like. Once we get a few more stations built, the sky’s the limit.
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