Michigan Tech, Calumet Firm Receive $2.1 Million from Southwestern Energy Company

Cutaway of a computer-modeled conformable natural gas tank under development by REL Inc.
Cutaway of a computer-modeled conformable natural gas tank under development by REL Inc.

Michigan Technological University and REL, Inc., a Calumet-based technology company with a focus on material-process development, have been awarded a $2.1-million, three-year investment from Southwestern Energy Company (SWN) of Houston, Texas.

The grant charges an interdisciplinary team of Michigan Tech researchers and REL engineers with designing, fabricating and testing a conformable, compressed natural gas tank for use in light-duty trucks.

These new tanks will further expand the benefits of using natural gas as a source of fuel for motorized vehicles. The practice of using compressed natural gas tanks to supplement traditional gasoline or diesel is already common, but current designs come with challenges.

“We want to get the tank under the bed,” said John Gargani, SWN vice president and general manager of strategy, performance and innovation. “Tanks today sit in the bed and take up a lot of the space, which is a drawback to the consumer.”

In order to free up space in the truck’s bed, engineers from Michigan Tech and REL have been tasked with designing a tank that fits around existing vehicle components, can withstand the pressure of compressed natural gas and can be easily—and inexpensively—fabricated. Then, research will shift to optimizing the material used for the tank. If existing materials don’t have sufficient properties, new aluminum alloys may be developed.

“By the time all is said and done, we will have a lot of people working on this project,” said Greg Odegard, the Richard and Eliabeth Henes Professor of Computational Mechanics in Michigan Tech’s Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics.  “There will be mechanical engineering and materials science students and faculty working together at Tech. Once the tank is fabricated, REL will give it back to us and we’ll test it—put it on a pickup truck, mount it, drive it around. REL and Michigan Tech are positioned ideally to develop this tank.”

The importance of developing this system further can’t be understated, says Adam Loukus, vice president of REL, a Tech alumnus and principal investigator on the project.

“Natural gas is gaining a lot of attention in the heavy trucking industry,” he said. “We have about 120 years’ worth of natural gas domestically. It’s a cleaner-burning fuel than diesel or gasoline. If we can use natural gas in our vehicles, it would be a great way to get away from foreign sources of oil. It’s crucial that we have an entity like SWN to help take this technology from research to a commercially viable product.”

Gargani agrees that the partnership is a perfect fit.

 “Southwestern Energy Company has an ongoing relationship with Michigan Tech,” said Gargani. “The University has a strong connection with the auto industry and a very strong mechanical engineering program. It’s exactly what we were looking for.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, the University offers more than 125 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.