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  • Staff photo by David Brooks
    The engine of this three-wheeled rickshaw exists beneath the driver's seat. Earlier versions were powered by the front end of a motorcycle.
  • Photo by David Brooks
    Muhammed Jared discusses his rickshaw in Lashore, Pakistan, in February, during a visit by the Milford Rotary Club. Like most of the thousands of these three-wheeled vehicles in the huge city, his can burn either compressed natural gas, on which it has a range of about 60 miles, or gasoline. It cost about $1,900 to buy.
  • Staff photo by David Brooks
    A Honda Civic that has been converted to run on either compressed natural gas or gasoline gets a fill-up of CNG in Lahore, Pakistan, last month.
Monday, March 12, 2012

Pakistan ahead of curve on compressed natural gas

David Brooks

Here, in Nashua, we pride ourselves on being cutting-edge, celebrating cool stuff like trash trucks that run on compressed natural gas. Even the president is impressed with that one.

But maybe he shouldn’t be.

Consider the highly non-cutting-edge rickshaw drivers of Lahore, Pakistan, whom I met when visiting that country with members of the Milford Rotary Club last month as part of an exchange program.

For a decade or more, the drivers have been using compressed natural gas to power their three-wheeled minitaxis, a ubiquitous symbol of low-tech Third World transportation. We’re thrilled at CNG, but it’s old hat to them.

They use CNG to save money. It is so much cheaper than gas or diesel in Pakistan that a majority of cars in the city of 8 million or so people have been converted with special kits so they can burn it.

The result, I was delighted to find when we visited this crowded and ancient (1,000 years old) capital of the Punjab province, is that Lahore is mostly free of the stink of diesel usually found in cities of the developing world.

I wouldn’t call it clean, necessarily, but it was much, much cleaner than I expected. It is a classic demonstration of how different fuels can affect local air quality.

So CNG is an alternative fuel that’s cleaner and cheaper! A real win-win, right?

Ah, but there’s a big “however” – as there so often is in life. CNG is much less energy dense than gasoline.

At 3,000 pounds per square inch, CNG has roughly one-third the energy per gallon as gasoline does, which means you need three times as much to do the same amount of travel. Nashua’s trash trucks use CNG compressed to 3,600 psi, so their fuel has about 20 percent more energy than the Pakistanis’, although still much less than petroleum-based fuel.

CNG conversion units involve pretty small tanks since they have to be tucked into the trunk, so most Pakistani vehicles can’t travel more than about 100 miles before they need a refill.

As a result, all of Pakistan’s CNG vehicles are also able to run on gasoline, switching back and forth when they need to make longer trips or when CNG is not available, as is often the case in that energy-starved country.

Even when the technology is top-notch, range is an issue. Honda’s Civic GX, the only production CNG car sold in the U.S., gets only about 200 miles between fill-ups.

What this means is that despite all its benefits, compressed natural gas isn’t an easy replacement for petroleum as a transportation fuel.

That’s not surprising because from the energy point of view, oil is nearly perfect. It contains huge amounts of easily transportable power, which is why it has become the fluid that drives the world.

Weaning ourselves off oil is not going to be easy. Just ask the rickshaw drivers of the Punjab.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.