Hypercomp Engineering Inc. (HEI), located in Brigham City, has been a key member of Utah's Advanced Composites Industry Group since its founding in 1996. Today, HEI is supporting the collaboration of 3M and Chesapeake Energy Corporation in the design, manufacture and marketing of a broad portfolio of compressed natural gas (CNG) tanks for use in all sectors of the United States transportation market.
Tom Hannum, director of business development for HEI, says the company will provide design and certification services for the tanks, while 3M will manufacture the tanks and focus its capital on future operations and production. 3M expects the new tanks to be available for sale during the fourth quarter of 2012.
HEI currently employs a dozen people at its Brigham City location and plans to hire an undisclosed number of additional employees to meet the demands of this new project. EDCUtah President & CEO Jeff Edwards says the engineering and development work represents a timely boost for the hard hit northern Utah economy and also for Utah's aerospace cluster.
"Tom has been the tireless advocate for alternative energy projects and the benefits of using advanced composites to make vehicles safer and more fuel efficient," Edwards continues. "We are excited to see HEI get this work."
According to a recent 3M press release, the CNG tank solution combines the company's proprietary liner advancements, thermoplastic materials, barrier films and coatings, and damage-resistant films to transform the pressure vessel industry. "Using nanoparticle-enhanced resin technology, 3M™ Matrix Resin for Pressure Vessels, 3M will create CNG tanks that are 10 to 20 percent lighter with 10 to 20 percent greater capacity, all at a lower cost than standard vessels," the press release says. "In addition to these benefits, the 3M technology produces safer and more durable tanks than those currently on the market. This tank innovation builds on 3M's proven history of developing and introducing pioneering technologies to the market."
$10 Million Pledge
For its part, Chesapeake has pledged an initial $10 million toward design and certification services, market development support and a commitment to use the new tanks for its corporate fleet conversion to CNG, according to the release.
"The company's investment will be provided by Chesapeake NG Ventures Corporation (CNGV), established in 2011 to identify and invest in companies and technologies that will replace the use of gasoline and diesel derived primarily from foreign oil. CNGV has committed $1 billion over the next 10 years to help fund various initiatives to increase demand for natural gas, including investments totaling $300 million in Clean Energy Fuels Corp. and privately-held Sundrop Fuels, Inc.," the release says.
Hannum says developing highly engineered carbon fiber pressure vessels for challenging requirements and applications is one of HEI's core competencies. The company has a background in the aerospace industry (its founder, James Patterson, and senior managers all came of Thiokol). Further, HEI's primary customers have been in defense, aerospace, automotive, industrial, oil and gas infrastructure and offshore oil and gas industries. The company also has a strategic relationship with Chesterfield Cylinders in Europe for the development of specialized cylinders.
3M and HEI
Concerning this new opportunity, Hannum says HEI has been working with 3M for several years doing material evaluations. "A result of this relationship is that we have been contracted to provide design and certification services for pressure vessel applications using 3M materials," he adds. "We've been involved in the development of this technology since the late 90s. We've been a known entity in this industry since then in terms of design and engineering services."
The trifecta of economics, politics and environment are driving the macroeconomics surrounding alternative fuels and seems to be bringing this opportunity to the forefront right now, Hannum explains. "The circumstances seem to be converging in favor of this technology for alternative fuel more than at any time in the recent past. We think things are aligning in a way that should definitely allow us to leverage the investment we have made in time and energy in composites pressure vessel design. This has been a process for many years. We are optimistic to see the environment take shape right now that favors this technology.
Governor Gary Herbert's office has focused on expanding Utah's advanced composites cluster due to the Wasatch Front's heritage in composites industry and large population of industry, academia and skill sets that are very familiar with advanced composites. For that reason, Edwards says Utah has a significant advantage recruiting both composites work and composites companies. Hence, Utah will be in a favorable position to compete for the final manufacturing of 3M's CNG tanks.
3M says in its press release that increased political support and private investment have made natural gas a viable automotive fuel alternative with large growth potential. With more than a 100-year supply of natural gas in the United States and an average price per gasoline gallon equivalent of $1.00 to $2.00, the fuel is plentiful, affordable and domestic. The fuel also burns more cleanly than gasoline, cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent and particulate matter by 95 percent.