Labs start ‘Edisonian’ quest for perfect future fuel 

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Department of Energy will soon launch an effort involving 10 national laboratories that aims to find the perfect fuel and engine combination of the future.

The program will involve screening types of fuels for both engines that are on the road today and engines of the future. It’s meant to help the country achieve fuel efficiency gains and meet greenhouse gas reduction goals, said Reuben Sarkar, deputy assistant secretary for transportation in DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

At DOE’s annual bioenergy conference in Washington, D.C., last week, where officials outlined the new program, Sarkar called it a “very provocative and challenging paradigm shift” that will force fuel producers and car companies to work together in ways they haven’t in the past.

“Bringing a new fuel to market is a very challenging thing, to say the least, yet we’re quite aware there’s gains to be achieved,” Sarkar said. “It’s on our shoulders to help find pathways that get those efficiency gains in the marketplace.”

President Obama requested $27 million for the new program, called “Optima,” in his fiscal 2016 budget request for DOE. Over the last year, the national laboratories and DOE have been working to lay the groundwork. The department is aiming for an October start date.

Optima will take place in stages, with the first consisting of a survey of the types of new fuels being developed and which look the most promising. The team plans to develop a framework and multiple screening procedures for testing the properties of fuels to develop a sort of library.

“We want to create a predictive knowledge base where for any combustion environment we can predict what fuels are best available to go into that cylinder,” said Blake Simmons, biofuels program leader at Sandia National Laboratories, “so we never have to repeat the Edisonian approach of what we’re doing today and over the next 10 years.”

“We know that this is very ambitious — and dare I say nothing like this scale has ever been attempted before,” Simmons added.

Researchers will first focus on finding the best fuels — defined as those that are most sustainable and maximize performance — for spark ignition engines that are on the road today. According to John Farrell, a laboratory program manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the goal is to introduce into the market the best fuels for those engines by 2025.

A second research effort will focus on developing new, more efficient engines and the fuels by which they can be powered, Farrell said. The researchers’ target for introducing a new engine-fuel combination is 2030.

“There’s a simple question that really is at the heart of what we’re looking to do here. That’s to identify what fuel properties are really important,” Farrell said. “In the case of spark ignition engines, there’s been a lot of work over the past several years focusing on identifying what properties are important. But technologies are changing and technologies are improving.”

Along with biofuels, the effort will also examine the roles natural gas and hydrogen fuels can play in boosting the performance of car and truck engines.

Officials last week acknowledged that the success of their venture will depend on the extent to which they can get stakeholders in the fuels and auto industries to work together.

“Typically, Big Energy and Big Auto sort of don’t talk to each other,” Simmons said. “And I think that’s been an opportunity lost in terms of advancing the field in the state of the art in terms of performance. … I think bringing these two sectors together and these two efforts together will give us something that is unprecedented.”

Earlier this month, DOE held a first listening session with stakeholders.

James Anderson, a technical expert at Ford Motor Co., last week said automakers have previously treated fuel “as a kind of noise factor” when it comes to developing engines. He said DOE’s role should extend beyond developing new engines to helping car manufacturers transition to using them in vehicles.

When it comes to rolling out new engine-fuel systems, a big challenge will be getting consumer buy-in, according to John Eichberger, vice president of government relations at the National Association of Convenience Stores, which represents gas stations.

Although consumers have expressed support for more environmentally sensitive fuels, they tend to make purchases at the pump based on their wallets, he said. Persuading consumers to buy a new type of fuel might require a “herculean” public education effort, he said.

“They want their performance; they want cleaner air; they want all these things that we’re talking about, but will they pay for it?” Eichberger said. “We need to figure out how to get it to market in the most cost-efficient manner as possible.”

Eichberger cautioned that gas stations would be hesitant to invest in equipment for new fuels if they’re not sure the investment will pay off.

“Putting in a new fuel is a lot different than trying a new candy bar. You have to do a lot more,” he said. “If you put a candy bar on the shelf and it doesn’t sell, you pull it off. Once you make the investment in a new fuel, you’re stuck.”

NREL’s Farrell acknowledged the heavy lift. He said the DOE project would take into account how easy it is to commercialize different types of fuels.

“Given the complexity of introducing both new fuels and vehicles, we also recognize that we probably only have one shot at this,” Farrell said. “And so we want to make sure that we really have covered all the bases and done all the work necessary to define what that fuel should be.”