A Well-Established Technology Meets New Market Demands

    While steel tanks remain significant in smaller sizes, especially in Asia, the growth of alternative fuel vehicles means composite fuel storage tanks are gaining market share. Tanks for compressed natural gas (CNG) and other alternative fuels account for about 90 percent of the current market, while tanks for hydrogen storage make up the remainder.

    While steel tanks remain significant in smaller sizes, especially in Asia, the growth of alternative fuel vehicles means composite fuel storage tanks are gaining market share. Tanks for compressed natural gas (CNG) and other alternative fuels account for about 90 percent of the current market, while tanks for hydrogen storage make up the remainder.

    Globally, about 100,000 tanks are built per year to store CNG for vehicle power, according to John Coursen, Harsco Corp.’s Structural Composites Industries (SCI, Pomona, Calif.) product manager. The North American market consumes about 7,000 to 10,000 of those units, primarily for light-duty and transit vehicles, and 80 to 90 percent are made with composite materials, he estimates. The European market consumes about 15,000 to 20,000 units, in a mixture of vehicles, with composites used in 10 to 25 percent of those tanks. In Asia, many of the CNG vehicles are small passenger cars and taxis, where costs favor steel, says Coursen. In contrast to the strong growth of the Asian markets, the North American and European markets show stable consumption rates, he adds.

    The potential for hydrogen storage tanks is huge, although few analysts have provided quantifiable estimates. Observers predict that a strong mass-market demand for hydrogen storage tanks will develop and, ultimately, surpass the current production volumes for either CNG or LPG fuel storage tanks, though it will take many years to emerge.

    In addition to onboard vehicle tanks, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), the Gas Technology Institute (GTI), and several major oil companies, such as Shell and ChevronTexaco, have invested in high-pressure gas storage systems for hydrogen refueling demonstration stations, which use large composite tanks. Several stations have already opened, in Washington, D.C., at Los Angeles International Airport, Orlando International Airport, Fla., Penn State University (Pittsburgh, Pa.), and other locations, including Europe.