Two topics dominated daily press coverage of the auto industry during 2007: the decline of U.S. automakers and the push for energy conservation driven in response to rising fuel prices.
Not coincidentally, those issues are also at the forefront of research projects at Argonne National Laboratory. The research lab, funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), will spend around $40 million for transportation research this year. Argonne’s research efforts play a major role in determining what projects DOE suggests Congress should consider supporting.
“The government funds a lot of R&D work in technology. Many of our projects are designed to make sure they’re spending that money wisely,” said Don Hillebrand, Director of the Center for Transportation Research at Argonne.
Although Argonne’s researchers look at many aspects of transportation, the 200 staffers are currently putting most of their focus on alternative energy sources ranging from near-term solutions such as ethanol and hybrid vehicles to those requiring more development such as fuel cells. Though a big part of that effort is designed to conserve fossil fuels and reduce pollution, the research also aims to protect the nation by diversifying energy sources.
“We work on different engines running on different sources so if any one fuel went off, the risk to the economy is less. No one point can shut down our transportation system,” Hillebrand said.
Another goal for the government-funded research is to foster American competitiveness. “We will do research programs with foreign companies, but they have to be in areas that don’t impact American competitiveness,” Hillebrand said.
However, the lab works closely with many foreign automotive companies. Underscoring Argonne’s international efforts, BMW’s Hydrogen 7 team demonstrated its fueling technique during a recent Green Transportation open house, and Hillebrand noted that Japanese automakers have been quite open about sharing much information about hybrids.
Argonne’s research spans a range of electric motors and engines, from 0.5-L up to 11.0-L locomotive engines. Scanning electron microscopes and X-ray machines give engineers a way to look at molecular aspects of their projects and peer inside components. Extensive instrumentation systems also help in studies of battery lifetimes and other programs.
Among the lab’s tools are a large dynamometer designed for testing all four wheels. That’s increasingly important with hybrids and other emerging technologies. “With regenerative braking, we need to make sure we fully simulate exactly what’s happening on the road,” said Scott Miers, Research Engineer at Argonne.
Although most efforts are aimed at technologies used by OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers, they also look at such technologies as fuel additives and aftermarket systems. No fuel additives have proven effective for improving mileage, and researchers note that some aftermarket technologies such as plug-in chargers for hybrids consume more energy than a conventional gasoline engine.
Examining the interaction between components becomes more important when various technologies are blended, as in hybrid systems. “All systems are interactive. It’s easy to build a bad hybrid,” Hillebrand said.