One of the major obstacles to making natural gas powered cars cheaper is storing the stuff. Natural gas used in automobiles has to be stored at high pressures, on the order of 3,500 pounds per square inch. that requires strong and big tanks.

3M says it may be able to solve part of that problem. Using carbon composite and nanoparticles, the company says it can build tanks that are strong and small enough for use in vehicles.

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The carbon composite is made of woven threads of carbon, like a rug, held together with epoxy. The nanopartices are put into the epoxy to add strength and stiffness. To finish it off, the walls of the tank are lined with plastic. 

Anything that could cut the size of a compressed natural gas (CNG) tank would be welcome, since in most vehicles the tanks are so large that they take up a good portion of the trunk space. The lack of capacity in the average car also limits the range, and since there are only a tiny number of CNG filling stations.

That's been a major reason why consumers haven't taken to natural gas cars and the big buyers have been fleets, such as city bus companies, where range matters less.

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3M has its sights on other technologies, though. Rick Maveus, the company’s global business manager for advanced composites, told the New York Times that 3M is also looking ahead to hydrogen power. That's an even bigger challenge than natural gas, since the pressure to store useful amounts of hydrogen has to be even higher, on top of requiring cryogenic temperatures.

Image: Wikimedia / U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Susan Cornell