Printed on: November 26, 2013

LNG buses not new at INL

By ALEX STUCKEY
astuckey@postregister.com

Nearly two weeks ago, Idaho National Laboratory and a Utah-based company unveiled a liquefied natural gas fueling station -- and the three lab buses that will fill up there -- in Idaho Falls.

INL has converted three of its 80 buses to run on a combination of biodiesel and liquefied natural gas, or LNG, a diesel equivalent that burns cleaner and is cheaper because of the country's natural gas abundance. Blu, a company opening LNG stations across the nation, has five stations in Idaho.

This is not, however, INL's first attempt at running LNG buses. The lab did it about 18 years ago as well.

In 1995, the lab entered a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement -- an agreement between a nonfederal partner and the lab to work together on a project -- with Detroit Diesel to convert seven buses to 100 percent liquefied natural gas, said Kevin Brown, INL supervisor of Roads and Grounds.

At the time, INL also had a liquefied natural gas fueling station on the Department of Energy's desert site, Brown said.

During the agreement's nearly 10-year run, the six buses encountered breakdowns because they were equipped with research engines. INL tore them apart to make improvements on a number of occasions, Brown said.

They ran until about eight years ago, when all but two or three died, he added.

The program was shuttered for safety and cost reasons, said Tad Pearson, INL Transportation Services manager.

"(The fleet) was getting old, and the infrastructure we were using to fuel (the buses) was becoming unreliable and outdated," Pearson said.

The 1995 buses are long gone, but the former fueling station sits unused on the DOE site. Blu could take it over if INL's plan to convert all 80 buses to biodiesel and LNG goes well.

In an interview this month, Scott Wold, INL Mission Support Services director, said the lab will collect data for three months and use it to show the necessity of converting the rest of its buses.

If all buses are converted, INL's annual fuel savings would equate to removing more than 40 passenger vehicles from the road, according to INL's website.

Eventually, lab officials hope to convert all buses to 100 percent LNG fuel.

Keeping this new round of buses in tiptop shape, Pearson said, will be more feasible because of Blu. The company is providing the fueling stations, which allows the lab to focus only on maintaining the bus fleet.

There also have been technology improvements since the 1990s, such as several INL vehicle design patents.