Natural Gas Fuel Basics

Photo of a natural gas fuel pump.

Natural gas is an odorless, nontoxic, gaseous mixture of hydrocarbons—predominantly methane (CH4). It accounts for about a quarter of the energy used in the United States. About one-third goes to residential and commercial uses, such as heating and cooking; one-third to industrial uses; and one-third to electric power production. Although natural gas is a clean-burning alternative fuel that has long been used to power natural gas vehicles, only about one-tenth of 1% is used for transportation fuel.

In recent years, 80% to 90% of the natural gas used in the United States was domestically produced. Most natural gas is drawn from wells or extracted in conjunction with crude oil production. Natural gas can also be mined from subsurface porous rock reservoirs through extraction processes, such as hydraulic fracturing (see a list of supplemental sources from EIA). Renewable natural gas is an emerging fuel produced from decaying organic materials, such as waste from plants, landfills, wastewater, and livestock.

CNG and LNG as Alternative Fuels

Two forms of natural gas are used in vehicles: CNG and LNG. Both are clean-burning, domestically produced, relatively low priced, and widely available. Because of the gaseous nature of this fuel, when stored onboard a vehicle, it must be in either a compressed gaseous (CNG) or liquefied (LNG) state. CNG and LNG are considered alternative fuels under the Energy Policy Act of 1992.

Natural gas is sold in units of diesel or gasoline gallon equivalents (DGEs or GGEs) based on the energy content of a gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel.

Compressed Natural Gas

To provide adequate driving range for a vehicle, CNG is stored in cylinders at a pressure of 3,000 to 3,600 pounds per square inch. A CNG-powered vehicle gets about the same fuel economy as a conventional gasoline vehicle on a gasoline gallon equivalent basis. A GGE equals about 5.66 pounds of CNG. CNG is used in light-, medium-, and heavy-duty applications.

Liquefied Natural Gas

LNG is produced by purifying natural gas and super-cooling it to -260°F to turn it into a liquid. Because it must be kept at cold temperatures, LNG is stored in double-walled, vacuum-insulated pressure vessels. LNG is good for trucks needing a longer range because liquid is more dense than gas (CNG) and, therefore, more energy can be stored by volume in a given tank. LNG is typically used in medium- and heavy-duty vehicles; a GGE equals about 1.5 gallons of LNG.

To find the fuel, see Natural Gas Fueling Station Locations.