Michigan Tech, Calumet Firm Get $2.1M To Develop New Natural Gas Tank

HOUGHTON — Michigan Technological University and REL Inc., a Calumet-based technology company with a focus on material-process development, have been awarded a $2.1-million, three-year investment from Southwestern Energy Co. of Houston, Texas.

The grant will ask an interdisciplinary team of Michigan Tech researchers and REL engineers to design, build and test a new compressed natural gas tank for light-duty trucks that takes up less cargo space.

The main idea, said SWN vice president John Gargani, is “to get the tank under the (truck) bed. Tanks today sit in the bed, and take up a lot of the space, which is a drawback to the consumer.”

In order to free up space in the truck’s bed, engineers from Michigan Tech and REL will seek to design a tank that fits around existing vehicle components, can withstand the pressure of compressed natural gas, and which can be fabricated easily and inexpensively.

Then, research will shift to optimizing the material used for the tank. If existing materials don’t have sufficient properties, new aluminum alloys may be developed.

“By the time all is said and done, we will have a lot of people working on this project,” said Greg Odegard, the Richard and Elizabeth Henes Professor of Computational Mechanics in Michigan Tech’s Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics. “There will be mechanical engineering and materials science students and faculty working together at Tech. Once the tank is fabricated, REL will give it back to us and we’ll test it — put it on a pickup truck, mount it, drive it around. REL and Michigan Tech are positioned ideally to develop this tank.”

Pictured above is a cutaway of a computer-modeled conformable natural gas tank under development by REL Inc.

The importance of developing this system further can’t be understated, says Adam Loukus, vice president of REL, a Tech alumnus and principal investigator on the project.

“Natural gas is gaining a lot of attention in the heavy trucking industry,” he said. “We have about 120 years’ worth of natural gas domestically. It’s a cleaner-burning fuel than diesel or gasoline. If we can use natural gas in our vehicles, it would be a great way to get away from foreign sources of oil. It’s crucial that we have an entity like SWN to help take this technology from research to a commercially viable product.”

Gargani agrees that the partnership is a perfect fit.

“Southwestern Energy Company has an ongoing relationship with Michigan Tech,” said Gargani. “The university has a strong connection with the auto industry and a very strong mechanical engineering program. It’s exactly what we were looking for.”

More at www.mtu.edu.

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