Running on empty

Mar 5, 2010

Three Kettering/GMI alums collaborated to retrofit the Wood County District Public Library in Bowling Green, Ohio, bookmobile to use compressed natural gas as fuel, to save the library some green while going green.

Black gold. Texas tea. Crude.

Just about every adult in the U.S. recognizes these nicknames for petroleum oil. For a society that depends so heavily on vehicular transportation, all of us have felt the tight squeeze that oil prices have exerted on our wallets. In fact, when gas prices spiked at more than $4.20 nationally a few summers ago, people reduced their driving significantly and organizations that fielded fleet vehicles worked to identify new ways to limit the amount of driving necessary in order to maintain business.

But the Wood County District Public Library Bookmobile Project that brought three Kettering/GMI grads together in 2009 shows that compressed natural gas is not only a viable solution to reducing U.S. dependency on foreign oil imports, but a cleaner, more cost-effective alternative.

Steve McEwen ’54, a resident of Bowling Green, Ohio, recently helped the Wood County District Public Library develop the specifications for a replacement of their 30-year-old bookmobile, which travels around the rural areas of the county where there are no local libraries to offer access to library books. But the most intriguing aspect of this bookmobile is that it will use compressed natural gas (CNG) as fuel.

“The project required a lot of research, arm twisting and coordination to get all the innovations incorporated. There was resistance to every change we asked for,” McEwen said.

This particular bookmobile replaces the generally accepted vehicles used in the past and satisfies the library’s needs. For example, the vehicle, which is a 2010 model 4500 GM van, is lighter, able to accommodate a truckload of books and is accessible according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The air suspension on all four corners also allows the vehicle to kneel. In addition, the bookmobile is powered with a GM six-liter Vortec engine that was converted to run on CNG that offers an ultra low emission rating and no on-board internal combustion engine driven generator. It’s also equipped with four large sealed glassmat batteries, which allow the vehicle to be silent with no engines running when exchanging books and allowing for on-board book browsing. An inverter converts the 24-volt battery power to standard 120-volt AC power, which provides electricity to RV air conditioners, heaters, lighting and power for the computers—and the use of smaller wiring. All lighting is handled with low power efficient LED lights and an 8 kilowatt main-engine-powered alternator will recharge batteries between bookmobile stops.

But for McEwen, the one element that makes this specific bookmobile project a success is the combined efforts of Kettering/GMI alums Rebecca Royer ’81 and John Prikkel ’66.

Royer is the founder and president of Baytech Corp., based in Los Altos, Calif. ( Baytech is an industry leader in engineering and manufacturing of high performance CNG fuel injection systems for Chevrolet, GMC, Isuzu and workhorse custom chassis vehicles that meet stringent emissions standards.

“Natural gas is the only automotive alternative fuel that can significantly displace petroleum imports, since 98 percent of gas used in the U.S. comes from North America,” she explained, adding that the infrastructure for distribution of this fuel “is already in place.”

Another important aspect of using CNG is that an equivalent gallon of CNG vs. regular gas or diesel is 30 to 50 percent cheaper. Additionally, Royer explained that CNG offers more than a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline or diesel engines. “Baytech engines have lower NOx and HC emissions than gasoline or diesel, and CNG has extremely low particulate emissions,” Royer said.

In order for CNG to work in the Wood County bookmobile, McEwen and the group that designed the truck required a CNG compressor fueling unit (there are no public CNG fueling Stations in Bowling Green). After some exhaustive research, McEwen stumbled onto Liteflex LLC (, founded and owned by John Prikkel ’66. The company is based in the Dayton/Englewood area of Ohio and the company’s main product is fiberglass/epoxy composite springs in addition to CNG filling stations and vehicle conversion services.

Liteflex has also made all of the springs for the Chevrolet Corvette since 1981. For the bookmobile project, Prikkel’s company refurbished the CNG compression unit for refueling the bookmobile after each day’s deliveries. This is critical, since an original manufacturer of CNG fueling systems for the states recently moved from Canada to Italy, where the use of CNG is mandated in many areas of Europe. This move also created a temporary shortage of this equipment in the U.S. 

The compressed natural gas field is one ready to explode, explained Prikkel and Royer. Royer became involved in this industry more than 20 years through a contract with a major fleet in the late 1980s to develop a lean-burn, turbocharged heavy duty CNG engine for an R & D company. Today, Baytech Corp. is the only company to have earned the California Air Resources Board (CARB) certification for CNG systems on GM vehicles and engines. 

“Although the technology was not commercially available at the time when I first started in this industry, I saw an opportunity to develop more advanced, cleaner natural gas vehicle engine technology than was available in the marketplace using throttle body fuel injection and more sophisticated engine control system calibration,” she explained. “As a result, I founded Baytech in 1991,” she added.

For McEwen, the opportunity to provide Wood County with a bookmobile that is efficient and environmentally friendly is exceptional, but the chance to utilize the services of companies owned and operated by Kettering/GMI alums is truly amazing. 

“When we started the bookmobile project, I was surprised to learn that the two companies I needed help from were owned and operated by Kettering/GMI alums,” he said. “Most importantly, these companies are quite successful. With the continued use of CNG, Baytech and Liteflex are on the cusp of some potentially new opportunities that will make a positive impact on the transportation and automotive industry in the very near future,” he added.

To learn more about Baytech Corp., visit the website at For more information on Liteflex LLC, visit the website at

Written by Gary Erwin