May 29, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
The Argonne National Laboratory is a leading center for development of advanced technology cars. Its Center for Transportation Research http://www.transportation.anl.gov/ developed the GREET (Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation) modeling tool and many other resources.
Argonne's drive: new fuels for cars
Chicago Sun-Times May 29, 2006
BY TARA BURGHART
It's like a giant rolling Erector Set -- for engineers who really like to play around with automotive components.
Formally called the Mobile Automotive Technology Testbed, the bare-bones chassis plays a vital role in Argonne National Laboratory's research into new ways to power vehicles.
One day, the engineers can test how an electric motor performs with a gasoline-powered engine and a manual transmission. The next day they can substitute an engine fueled by hydrogen. Soon, they intend to place giant batteries on the testbed's rear platform to research a plug-in hybrid vehicle that could increase fuel efficiency and reduce emissions.
Argonne -- located in the far west suburbs and one of the U.S. Energy Department's largest research centers -- is just one of the dozens of national labs, private companies, universities and automaker research facilities around the country working on such projects.
Previous home to nuke research
The building where the testbed is housed illustrates the nation's changing priorities. The structure previously was used for research into magnets necessary for use in nuclear reactors. When that work ended in the 1970s, the building sat empty for years.
Now, it's devoted to the lab's Center for Transportation Research, where -- among other projects -- the staff is working to develop, test or perfect vehicles that can run on everything from ethanol to hydrogen, methanol to wood chips.
"You can almost see the transition in the country's needs," said Don Hillebrand, the center's director.
'A lot of alternatives' to oil.
Hillebrand says he's confident the nation can move away from its dependence on foreign oil, but thinks the solution lies in a combination of new options, not one single answer.
"We are the Saudi Arabia of coal, because we've got all the coal we want. We're the Saudi Arabia of shale oil, tar sands, biofuels . . . solar, wind," Hillebrand said. "The U.S. has got substantial carriers of fuel and energy supplies. The problem the U.S. has is they're not oil; they're in different forms.
"So what our research is really focusing on is giving the U.S. alternatives to just using oil, and there are a lot of alternatives."
Hydrogen fuel cells are often mentioned as one of the most promising. The fuel cell would use hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, with water as the byproduct.
Although Argonne has done work on fuel cells and similar futuristic technologies, Hillebrand says he is most excited about its potential to play a lead role among the national labs in developing plug-in hybrids.
A standard hybrid such as the Toyota Prius uses an electric motor, a small battery and a gasoline motor. With a plug-in hybrid, the small battery is replaced by much bigger battery packs that can be recharged through a standard 120-volt outlet.
With such a car, a driver could travel the first 10, 20 or even 40 miles of a trip on battery power before the vehicle would switch to the gasoline engine, Hillebrand says.
"You've now just, for most people, eliminated . . . half of all the oil they use," he said.
Mass production in 18 months?
Drawbacks remain. Owning a plug-in hybrid would be a challenge for anyone who does not live in a single-family home with a garage or carport and a readily available outlet.
Before the plug-in hybrid could hit the road in mass numbers, the batteries would likely have to become lighter, less expensive and longer lasting. And there is concern about the capability of the electrical grid to support a nationwide fleet of such vehicles -- although supporters say most would be charged overnight, during off-peak hours for utilities.
With a concerted effort to solve the battery problems, Hillebrand says, plug-in hybrids could be feasible for mass production in 18 months.