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Fuel of the Next Generation of Clean Vehicles Is in Missouri's Soil

MU researchers developing more practical natural gas storage tanks using corncob waste, landfills

April 9, 2009

Story Contact:  Kelsey Jackson, (573) 882-8353,

COLUMBIA, Mo. -Natural-gas-fueled cars would be more eco-friendly and cost efficient than current petroleum-fueled cars. However, natural-gas-fueled vehicles face a few road blocks before they can cruise on every U.S. highway. The Alliance for Collaborative Research in Alternative Fuel Technology (ALL-CRAFT), a partnership among the University of Missouri, the Midwest Research Institute (MRI) and nine other institutes, is working to make natural-gas-fueled cars a reality by using existing Missouri resources, such as corncob waste and methane from landfills.

"Missouri's corn can supply raw material for natural gas tanks for all the cars in the United States," said Peter Pfeifer, professor and chair of the Department of Physics in the MU College of Arts and Science. "The recovery of natural gas from Missouri's landfills would turn a pollutant into renewable energy and could provide an opportunity for economic growth in rural areas."

Although natural-gas-fueled cars would reduce smog, greenhouse emissions and dependence on foreign oil, challenges remain. Currently, natural gas stations are not widely available and storage tanks are bulky.

To make a smaller storage tank, MU researchers have developed carbon briquettes, nicknamed
"Missouri hockey pucks." These "hockey pucks" are made from waste corncobs that are abundant in
Missouri. When corncobs are reduced to carbon briquettes and "activated" they develop a space-filling network on nanopores, which are responsible for their unique ability to store natural gas with high capacity at low pressure, a discovery that allows for more flexible and less bulky fuel tank designs.

In 2007, researchers manufactured 300 disk-shaped briquettes, loaded them in a prototype tank and fueled delivery system constructed by MRI, and installed the system on a natural gas vehicle on loan from the Kansas City Office of Environmental Quality. The tank, in a road test that began in January 2007, is performing flawlessly.

"For the same amount of energy, combustion of natural gas produces significantly less CO2 than combustion of gasoline, reducing the production of greenhouse gases," said Carlos Wexler, associate professor of physics in the MU College of Arts and Science. "Ultimately, hydrogen-fueled cars are the goal, but natural gas can serve as a stepping stone to move the economy in the direction of hydrogen by setting up natural gas fuel stations and pipelines, which could be later converted to hydrogen."

The production of natural gas tanks could bring economic opportunities to Missouri, including: 

  • Producing natural gas tanks for 10 million cars per year: approximately $10 billion per year.
  • Producing and operating natural gas tanks from corn cob for 2,500 landfills: approximately $10 billion per year.
  • Producing natural gas tanks for large-scale natural gas shipping: approximately $5 billion per year. 

Partners of the project include MU; Lincoln University; Midwest Research Institute; DBHORNE, LLC; Renewable Alternatives, LLC; Missouri Biotechnology Association; Clean Vehicle Education Foundation; Missouri Department of Natural Resources; City of Columbia; Kansas City Office of Environmental Quality/Central Fleet; and EMPA Materials Science and Technology.

The research is funded by the National Science Foundation, California Energy Commission, U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Pfeifer will speak about ALL-CRAFT at the 2009 Missouri Energy Summit Campus held on the Columbia campus. For more information, visit