Ken Morgan's car almost always draws a crowd. "I take it to university events, football games, conferences and workshops," said Morgan, director of the Energy Institute at Texas Christian University, "and people line up just to take it for a spin around a parking lot."
Morgan isn't behind the wheel of a sporty exotic or arty concept vehicle. Instead, he's the proud owner of a 2010 Honda Civic GX, a sedan that runs solely on natural gas.
"I heard about when I started the Energy Institute in 2007," said Morgan of TCU's program that examines energy resources. "If I was going to advocate this was a good technology, I needed to get one and drive it around so I could really show it off."
The car (and what it runs on) is a perfect fit for the university's Texas location.
Modern drilling operations for natural gas in Fort Worth started about 15 years ago. The city is on top of the 5,000-square-mile Barnett Shale, a geological formation thought to be the largest onshore natural gas field in the U.S. Also located in Fort Worth, TCU is at the epicenter of natural gas extraction and serves as a repository of information for innovative energy technologies and strategies.
Morgan, who also serves as director of TCU's School of Geology, Energy and the Environment, has dedicated much of his career to exploring the potential use of domestic natural gas. In September, he hosted an international conference at the University with 10 global producers of oil and gas -- including leaders from Russia, Europe, Africa, Australia, Canada and Mexico -- to discuss how and where energy will be produced in the future.
"The reason they came here is because we're now a major energy player," said Morgan of the area's natural gas resources. "And this is where the drilling started, right here in Fort Worth; we have all this expertise within walking distance of the university."
But it's not just industry players who benefit from the proximity. Students in the Geology, Energy and the Environment program are also benefitting. "Our students get a pretty unique perspective because it all started in Texas," Morgan said. "The university is a great access point for students who come from all over the country. We are a leader in understanding the markets for , the new markets that need to be developed and how we need to use this domestic resource."
The benefits of natural gas are clear. It burns cleaner and costs less than gasoline, and the U.S. has an abundance. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that about 90% of the natural gas used in the U.S. is produced domestically and costs between $1.25 and $2 a gallon.
"The nitrous and sulfur oxide emissions are extremely low," Morgan said of his Civic. "Since there are no liquids, nothing gums up the engine and it stays clean. I only need an oil change every 12,000 miles. The tail pipe is as clean as the day I bought it."
Natural gas has gained traction as a fuel source. General Electric estimates there are about 15 million natural gas vehicles around the world, with more than 250,000 in the U.S., most of which are fleet vehicles such as buses and delivery trucks. The Metro bus system in Los Angeles, the largest in the nation, runs entirely on natural gas.
Personal transportation is starting to catch up, with several natural gas vehicles on the market including the Chevrolet Silverado 2500, Dodge Ram 2500 CNG and Ford F-250 pickups. There are about 860 compressed natural gas stations in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
To keep drivers from being tethered to the next fueling station, GE is developing technology to allow folks to fill up from home. "There are 80 million homes with natural gas for heating," Morgan said. "With modifications, you can fill up at home for 85 cents to $1 a gallon."
While the eco-minded vehicles have perks for the environment and pocketbooks, Morgan doesn't see them as the "ultimate car."
The future "might be a hydrogen-fuel cell car, but we're going to get there in stages that we can afford in our economy," he said of advancing vehicle technology.
Morgan sees the next step toward hydrogen as a natural gas-electric hybrid, and TCU's science and engineering students are working to pioneer that technology. "We hope to look at the difficulties and possibilities of combining the two over the next few years with our students," he said.
So the next big gain for natural gas could again start in Texas.