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Corncobs Key to Licensing Agreement for Natural Gas Storage Tanks

MU Researchers collaborate with company to take green technology on the road

May 13, 2009

Story Contact:  Christian Basi, (573) 882-4430,

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Ground corncobs, a plentiful agricultural by-product in Missouri and surrounding Corn Belt states, are the main ingredient in a new technology that may soon power natural-gas-powered vehicles on the country's highways. The technology vital to making this a reality was developed by Peter Pfeifer, professor and chair of the MU Department of Physics, and Galen Suppes, professor of chemical engineering. Pfeiffer and Suppes led a team of researchers, including Carlos Wexler, associate professor of physics at MU, who have been involved with ongoing research associated with this project.

MU recently licensed the technology to ANG Containment and Delivery Systems, a Wyoming firm, which is required by the license, to build its first production plant in Missouri. The agreement gives ANG a worldwide exclusive license to produce high-surface-area carbon from the corncobs for ground transportation vehicles. The initial goal of ANG is to utilize the high-surface-area carbon in natural gas tanks for ground transportation vehicles within the next year. The company will employ as many as 50 people and use the technology to replace the gasoline fuel tanks in food and beverage delivery vehicles, garbage trucks, box trucks and short-haul semis with natural gas tanks. Currently, these vehicles are some of the highest emitters of greenhouse gases.

"There are many advantages to using natural gas as an alternative fuel," said David Pape, ANG's executive officer. "First, natural gas is abundant and relatively inexpensive in the United States. There also are much lower operating costs, and natural-gas-powered vehicles emit far fewer greenhouse gasses than those burning diesel. This technology also addresses many of the disadvantages of using higher pressure compressed natural gas, such as the expensive infrastructure required for filling stations, safety in collisions, and integration into existing vehicle designs."

Through their research, the MU team found that corncob carbon briquettes had a very large amount of surface area, capable of storing natural gas at much lower pressures and in greater quantity than current technologies allow. The surface area inside a carbon briquette, which is approximately 3.5 inches in diameter and 1.5 inches tall, is equal to about 60 football fields. In addition, by storing the natural gas at lower pressures, the storage tanks can be virtually any shape, rather than having to be cylindrical when using compressed natural gas.

"An agreement was signed March 17," said Wayne McDaniel, a senior licensing associate in MU's Office of Technology Management and Industry Relations (TMIR) who negotiated the agreement. McDaniel, who operates from TMIR's first satellite office - located in the College Engineering - said ANG's commitment represents the first plant to make this specialized carbon in Missouri and that the project is expected to yield both construction and long-term operation jobs.

"We are very excited to see the adsorbed natural gas technology, which the Alliance for Collaborative Research in Alternative Fuel Technology (ALL-CRAFT, a partnership between MU and the Midwest Research Institute, Kansas City) showcased on a test vehicle in Kansas City in 2007, move to a stage that will make natural gas vehicles a widely attractive alternative to gasoline and diesel vehicles," Pfeifer said.

"Our plans are to develop a scalable production facility to produce high-surface-area carbon and the tanks to hold it, in a cost-effective and reliable manner," Pape said. "Site selection and facility construction planning is an ongoing process."

"Because this is a new and better material, there is an opportunity to build a world-recognized research program that can lead to many breakthroughs," Suppes said. "There is a need for natural gas and hydrogen storage. This same technology also can result in better batteries and super capacitors."

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