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MotorWeek Video Transcript: ORNL Transportation Research

John Davis: Automotive technology has seen great advancements recently in the areas of fuel efficiency, clean emissions and the development of light-weight materials.  And while car companies and their supplier can take credit for many of these breakthroughs, some of the most promising work has been performed in relative obscurity by scientists at the US Department of Energy’s National Laboratories.  We were recently invited inside the Oak Ridge National Laboratory near Knoxville, Tennessee.  One of several sites that worked on the secret World War II Manhattan Project – where today atomic research has taken on a whole new meaning.

While it no longer occupies the entire town of Oak Ridge, this scientific campus is still huge, covering 31,000 acres employing 4,000 people and plays host to over 3,000 guest researchers each year.  It is also home to the nation’s largest single science facility, the 1.4 billion dollar Spallation Neutron Source, and our country’s largest energy lab.

Here, and at the adjacent National Transportation Research Center, work funded by the Department of Energy’s FreedomCAR and Vehicle Technologies Programs is helping the auto industry build tomorrow’s cars and trucks to be safer, cleaner, lighter and more efficient.

Dr. Ray Boeman, Director, Transportation Programs: We actually aid the industry in gaining fundamental understanding of behaviors such as in the combustion area.  So our work is, in some cases, not a widget that gets commercialized and you see it on a car, but it’s more enabling the industry to understand what’s going on

Davis: On the chassis dyno for our visit was this Euro-spec Saab 9-5 bio-power, it’s optimized to produce maximum performance from E85. The Fuels, Engines and Emissions Research team is benchmarking its performance and looking for ways to boost the fuel economy of Ethanol-powered vehicles, long seen as the Achilles heel of FFVs.

Sixty years ago, scientists here were studying how to harness the energy in Plutonium, but Oak Ridge is better known these days for studying the atomic structure of materials with this, the world’s highest-resolution electron microscope.  It can actually track the movement of individual atoms! Researchers anywhere can remotely access this instrument to gain understanding into how materials react to stress and changing conditions.

And that cooperative research is a big part of ORNL’s mission.  Many areas of the lab are designated as “User Facilities” where partners from commercial industry, universities and federal agencies can use specialized equipment; confer with Oak Ridge scientists, and piggyback time on the Jaguar, a Cray supercomputer capable of 170 trillion calculations per second.

Naturally, a computer that size needs a large monitor.  This 30-foot video wall, known as Everest, is able to display 35 million pixels of information, and allows researchers to visualize and discuss finely detailed images with larger-than-life 3D projections.

Anyone who has ever had a fender-bender in their car can appreciate the work done by the T-MAC, or Test Machine for Automotive Crashworthiness.  They don’t crash cars here, but rather crush the materials that make up the cars and testing the strength of advanced lightweight materials.  T-MAC produces the highest dynamic force of any hydraulic test system in existence.  In plain English, that means it crushes a foot-long steel pipe like you or I would flatten a soda can!

Across the hall from T-MAC in the materials lab, this robot is spraying carbon-fibers and a binding agent to make complex structural parts and panels for cars.  Getting the weight savings and strength of carbon fiber at an affordable price is crucial to developing the next generation of fuel-efficient vehicles.

Boeman: A 40% reduction in vehicle mass would translate nominally in a rule of thumb to about a 24% increase in fuel economy.

Davis: Carbon fiber has the potential to do just that, but the cost is still too high, at about $15 a pound.  Scientists here are developing a fiber feedstock from plant lignin, coincidentally a co-product of ethanol production, which could reduce that price to around $4 a pound.

Also being perfected is the use of focused microwaves instead of conventional ovens to create the carbon fiber strands, a move that would demand less energy, create fewer harmful emissions and speed up production.

Many of the recent advances made in automotive design would have been impossible to achieve without knowledge gained at Oak Ridge Labs, and the other DOE National Laboratories.

Dr. Ron Graves, Director; Fuels, Engines, Emissions Research Center: In the case of the heavy truck engine manufacturers, we’ve had heavy concentration over the last few years of helping them with their emissions compliance.  Big changes in emissions regulations happened in 2007, and another round in 2010.  In the automotive sector, we work on vehicle efficiency, engine efficiency, and things like alternative fuels, like E85 ethanol.

Davis: And it’s not just the technology, but the human interaction, that makes this cooperation between government and private enterprise, from small startups to major auto makers, so vital and effective.   Our thanks go to the men and women of Oak Ridge, and all of the national energy labs and FreedomCAR DOE programs, for paving the way towards an even greater driving future.