Simple-Fill, a startup developing technology to allow vehicles running on compressed natural gas to fill up at home, has received an initial investment from a fund backed by Ohio State University and the Ohio Third Frontier program.
Simple-Fill’s CNG technology came from engineers at Ohio State University’s Center for Automotive Research. Its undisclosed investment came from the newTechnology Concept Fund, a $1 million funding pool for developing technology licensed from OSU. The nonprofit fund is managed by TechColumbus.
“We see fewer major CNG stations on major thoroughfares and more distributed networks in small- and medium-sized businesses and at homes,” Rob Underhill, Simple-Fill’s president, told me.
That would be a big change from existing infrastructure.
CNGs are more environmentally friendly and cheaper than the petroleum-based fuels, and increasing domestic natural gas production is likely to keep it that way. But it is still prohibitively expensive for most people to convert their gasoline-burning vehicles to CNG, and the infrastructure for fueling stations has a long way to go.
A 2013 report from Natural Gas Vehicles for America estimates 2.4 million natural-gas vehicles by 2025, with 480,000 being heavy-duty trucks. Most U.S. users of CNG are fleets in low-priced natural gas regions. Dublin-based IGS Energy, for example, is opening stations throughout the Utica and Marcellus shale play for oil and gas company and state vehicle fleets.
Simple-Fill began its development after employees from the Center for Automotive Research applied for a CNG grant from theU.S. Department of Energy. The center didn’t get the grant but the technology was still of interest to entrepreneurs such as Underhill, who has previous startup experience, most notably as director of finance with Velocys, a gas-to-liquids company. TechColumbus put him in touch with the Center for Automotive Research, which licensed the technology to Simple-Fill, and the company started work about a year ago.
Underhill says the company envisions smaller fleet customers, different from the large fleets that currently use CNG. If his company can make it more cost-effective, smaller fleets – electricians or carpet-cleaing companies, for example – could use the technology.
Worthington Industries (NYSE:WOR) has partnered with Simple-Fill by providing two components and its manufacturing capabilities. Honda is also providing some funding.
“We’re going to outsource the actual manufacturing and most components associated with compressors, and then assemble the components and distribute them,” Underhill told me.
Underhill hopes the compressors are ready for market in two years, although he acknowledges that’s a pretty aggressive schedule.
“We’ve got a lot of intellectual horsepower with CAR and other resources with the university,” he said.