NREL’s Research Legacy Accelerates Transformative Transportation Decarbonization

By Johney Green, NREL Associate Laboratory Director

Sometimes it seems as if vehicles are in my DNA.

To me that’s a good thing, because now is the time to look closely at mindful transportation decarbonization in order to fight climate change. After all, transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the United States.

And I’m in a great place to do that at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

NREL has been a leader in deep decarbonization and sustainability for more than four decades. Today, the accelerating threat of climate change has placed an even greater importance on the deep transportation decarbonization research we’re doing at NREL. In my opinion, figuring out how to reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions through deep decarbonization is among the most critical challenges in our race against climate change.

Transportation, the least diversified energy sector, is particularly relevant because its widespread use of fossil fuels makes it among the most difficult to decarbonize. This is where we excel. Our mission at NREL involves partnering with industry to develop clean energy technologies that impact the market. During my tenure at NREL, we have continued to push technological boundaries to decarbonize the transportation sector, from electrifying our nation’s vehicle fleet to co-optimizing engines and low-carbon fuels that reduce emissions and improve vehicle efficiency.

I was introduced to internal combustion engine research during my graduate studies at Georgia Tech and early in my career at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where I was conducting research to stabilize gasoline engine operation under extreme conditions. Of course, I’m not alone in my fascination with mobility. It’s a global passion. One amazing thing about America’s love of cars, trucks, planes, trains, and even boats is that this attraction to vehicles keeps us constantly innovating. In our drive to get from here to there, we’ve gone from simple combustion engines to electric vehicles (EV), as well as other alternative fuel vehicles.

This changing landscape appeals to me by causing me to constantly wonder “What’s next?” And NREL is uniquely situated to tackle these challenges because of our ability to look at the systemic connections in transportation. It’s no longer sufficient to optimize one technology in isolation-–decarbonizing transportation needs to be carried out in conjunction with building efficiency, renewables production, and grid modernization.

I’m proud to say that by doing this, NREL remains a leader in deep decarbonization transportation research and our capabilities are among some of the most unique in the world.

What makes NREL’s research strategy in this area so innovative is our ability to consider transportation sectors as part of a larger energy ecosystem powered by renewable electrons directly through electrification or indirectly by low-carbon energy carriers, such as hydrogen fuel cells and biofuels. Beyond technological solutions, we also recognize that in order to ensure adoption and lasting change, environmental justice and equity considerations must be tightly interwoven with R&D — another area NREL is helming within the national lab complex through its mobility behavioral science research.

We have plenty to be proud of, but some of our recent successes in the light-, medium-, and heavy-duty vehicle space includes:

· Collaboratively investigating state-of-the-art strategies to manage the grid impacts of high-power, site-integrated EV charging. We do this by considering EVs, buildings, and infrastructure together as key components of a larger electrical ecosystem to meet energy needs for consumers and commercial fleets.

· Modeling and forecasting emerging freight trends and having a way to quantify their impacts on freight and passenger mobility is critical. NREL’s new Freight Mobility Energy Productivity metric does just that by building upon the revolutionary framework established by our Mobility Energy Productivity metric.

· Developing an innovative catalytic process in collaboration with two DOE consortia, effectively enabling the conversion of renewable and waste carbon into sustainable diesel fuels.

· Co-leading the H2NEW consortium with Idaho National Laboratory, which will conduct R&D to enable large-scale manufacturing of affordable electrolyzers that use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

· Leading a team of researchers–in partnership with Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport–since 2018 to identify new transportation technologies that could dramatically improve energy use, convenience, and affordability.

· Researching shifts in long-haul trucking toward hydrogen use, which in turn would necessitate a coast-to-coast network of fueling stations. Our team is looking into ways to ease bottlenecks so that hydrogen fueled trucking could become reality.

Of course, there’s much, much more.

But what really appeals to me is this new capability NREL launched that will allow us to meet these demands: a visionary research platform called the Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems, or ARIES for short. ARIES represents a substantial scale-up in experimentation capability from existing platforms, allowing for research at the 20-megawatt level. This is important because ARIES will help de-risk new technologies within the transportation sector — such as GHG reducing technologies to more rapidly to meet aggressive decarbonization goals.

Building on NREL’s clean energy research legacy, I’m optimistic there is no decarbonization challenge — whether on land, in the air, or at sea — that our elite research team can’t tackle. And the results so far have been gratifying. For instance, our scientists have spotlighted a fast-track solution for net-zero-carbon sustainable aviation fuel made from wet waste — such as food waste, wastewater sludge, and animal manure — that could help large U.S. airline companies reduce emissions across their operations sooner than we think. Soon, we’ll also be sharing information about the potential for biofuels to be used by the shipping industry as a way to reduce emissions.

If vehicles are in my DNA, so too is a dream that we can improve access and availability to clean transportation options for everyone and usher in a new era of deep decarbonization, helping mitigate climate change. For this, NREL is in the driver’s seat.

From breakthroughs in fundamental science to new clean technologies to integrated energy systems that power our lives, NREL researchers are #TransformingEnergy