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Underground Des Plaines: Energy Research Nonprofit a Real Gas

Fuel up for $2.35 a gallon.

Underground Des Plaines is a new series of stories about people doing interesting, unusual and extraordinary things you may not have known about.

Making a bit of a detour from O’Hare Airport where he hunted for fares, Sari Shalakhti pulled his smart-looking, sleek Checker cab up to the fuel pump at 1700 S. Mt. Prospect Road in .

At $2.35 per equivalent gallon, it cost Shalakhti just about $22 to fill his tank.

Is someone practically giving away gas that most in the area don’t know about?

Earlier:

It was gas, all right – natural gas, that Shalakhti was pumping. He did business at a nearly-one-of-a-kind filling station in the area at the Gas Technology Institute. Natural gas is plentiful, cheaper than petroleum, technologically up-to-date – and the institute, operating in a low-key manner almost like it was underground in Des Plaines, is busy every day in research and development about how better to apply the natural energy to everyday life.

With gas prices threatening to top last summer’s painfully high levels, the kind of vehicles that pull up to the institute’s two natural-gas pumps would seem awfully attractive to the average consumer. But the public demand is not quite there yet. Perhaps a $5 per gallon threshold could put the institute’s work into overdrive and crank up specialized assembly lines in Detroit and elsewhere for natural-gas vehicles.

It’s human behavior holding it back more than economics, or safety or perceptions,” said Tony Lindsay, director of the institute’s research and development, advanced energy systems, as he conducted a tour of the company’s 18-acre campus.

“It’s just creating demand,” Lindsay said. “The technology has been there. The supply is there. Way back to the first internal combustion engines ran on methane – it was coal gas then. The first [natural-gas vehicle] I drove was in 1979. With the advent of fuel-injection and computer onboard controls and diagnostics of conventional engines, the retrofit over to natural gas is very good and performs well.”

Natural gas heats homes and provides for other vital daily functions. But the highest profile would be if it was mass-produced for consumer vehicle propulsion – a commodity still off into the future, if ever. And perhaps that’s why the institute has quietly done its work in a corner of town for more than 10 years.

Institute settled in Des Plaines in 2000

The Gas Technology Institute was formed through the merger of companies that date back to 1942. The Institute of Gas Technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology on Chicago’ South Side combined with Gas Research Institute on Chicago’s West side. The merged entity, employing 220 workers in Des Plaines, moved to its present location in 2000.

The research done here used to be one-third funded by the federal government. However, the trend has been for more private support in recent years.

Lindsay’s tour went through research and storage areas, the consumer pumping station and a sample home natural-gas dispensing device that would require almost eight hours to fuel a vehicle. With a price tag of $4,000, the latter isn’t quite economical yet for the average consumer.

The institute is strictly for research and development. Motorists cannot simply show up to have their vehicles converted to natural gas on site. There are no fleets of natural-gas powered vehicles in the lot.

However, the company does provide a bi-fuel van, powered by both natural gas and petroleum, to pick up employees at the downtown Des Plaines Metra station in the morning and deliver them back after work. The van stays parked at the station overnight and on weekend.

Natural-gas propulsion is most found in commercial and industrial vehicles along with cabs like the one pulling up to the institute’s pumps. But the population could be expanded with some additional improvements.

“Not to say we can’t do better by bringing the cost down, getting a little more efficient, tightening the emissions even though we’re well below petroleum,” said Lindsay. “That kind of R & D is going on. Tank technology is a big component on costs. The more on-board storage you need, the more expensive it is.”

“Major automakers know what needs to be done,” Lindsay said. “In the early 1990s, Ford, GM and Chrysler all had natural gas offerings right out of the factory. There was a time you could buy the Ford Countour, the Crown Vic, the F-150, the Econoline van out of the factory. GM had the ¾-ton pickup.”

And if the public wants it?

“It’s purely supply and demand,” Lindsay said. “If demand is there, I think they’ll come to market within a model year’s time frame.  Back in the 1990s, when we were working with Ford and GM primarily, it took a couple of years’ tweaking. All of these folks are building (natural gas) product for other parts of the world – GM and Fiat have many offerings going to China and Europe. But it’s tougher to meet the emissions and safety specs here.”

That $2.35 a gallon price, though, might make it a little less tough.

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