Decarbonization Pathways for Transportation | Epsiode 28

  June 29, 2021

The US Department of Energy has 17 different national laboratories around the country with various missions. We spoke with Steve Przesmitzki, laboratory program manager with one of the oldest national labs, Argonne National Laboratory, to hear how the new administration will address climate change. A major focus in meeting the challenge is the decarbonization of transportation. Listen-in as Steve lets us look behind the curtain on some of the new initiatives and projects Argonne is now focused on to assist in that goal.

Transcript

John Eichberger:
Hey everybody, welcome back to Carpool Chats. I'm John Eichberger with the Fuels Institute. Today, we're joined by Steve Przesmitzki with Argonne National Laboratory. Steve is a member of the board of the Fuels Institute. I've known him a long time. Steve, thank you very much for joining us today.

Steve Przesmitzki:
Oh, thanks a lot, John. How is it going?

John Eichberger:
How long have you been at Argonne now?

Steve Przesmitzki:
I have not been at Argonne very long. I've been there since October of last year. So that's just about nine months.

John Eichberger:
Can I say you finally found out where the bathroom was?

Steve Przesmitzki:
You know what, it's funny you mentioned that. I don't have a badge yet because I haven't physically been there. I'm working out of my basement in Northville, Michigan.

John Eichberger:
That's right.

Steve Przesmitzki:
If you don't know, it's about 20 minutes north of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

John Eichberger:
Yeah. I guess starting a new job during the pandemic changes the whole onboarding process, doesn't it?

Steve Przesmitzki:
Yeah, it's a little tough, to be honest. But luckily I had a lot of experience working with Argonne. I used to work at the Department of Energy. I used to work for one of their competitor labs. And when I was working at Aramco, the oil company, I actually also had projects running with Argonne. So I already knew most of the people there and familiar with it. That made it a lot easier.

John Eichberger:
So, for those out there in the audience watching that don't know what Argonne is, can you give us the quick boiler plate of who Argonne National Laboratory is? 

Steve Przesmitzki:

Yeah. So Argonne National Lab is one of the US Department of Energy's national laboratories. For those of you that don't know, there's 17 different national laboratories around the United States with different missions. Argonne happens to be one of the larger ones. It's also one of the oldest ones that maybe, I think it actually is the original one. We're celebrating our 75th anniversary this year. It was originally born out of the Manhattan Project and it was for developing nuclear energy. But now we've got a lot of work. We do basic science work. We're actually from the Office of Science. So we work on materials, some more fundamental things, science-based. And I'm on the applied side. So I'm in a division called energy and global security, which is much more applied work, and that's how we get into the transportation technologies.

John Eichberger:
Okay. So what are some of the key things that Argonne's worked on? Now I've worked with Argonne quite a while through the Department of Energy's co-optimization project, but now that you're there and you've got the lay of the land in terms of the workload that's going on, what are some of the projects that seem to be the most exciting for you from a transportation perspective?

Steve Przesmitzki:
So, on a transportation perspective, I think the excitement is more of the new focus has changed. The new administration has come in and the focus has shifted. Right now they've made a big push towards tackling climate change. So part of the way to do that is what is the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the United States is transportation. So they have a goal to decarbonize transportation. There's no simple solution. There's no silver bullet. So it's really all hands on deck, every technology we can get, and it's still an incredibly difficult task. So some of the things we're working on, and it's not just battery technology, developing new batteries or electric vehicles, there's hydrogen fuel cell vehicles connected, and autonomous vehicles actually play a role.

Steve Przesmitzki:
So one thing that we're going to do at Argonne is just also think about it a system of systems. So it's not just I develop a technology by itself because that leads to some diversity in technology, which is great, but that doesn't mean it's the most optimal system. You may actually put technology to the wrong positions. So one of the things that Argonne's very, very good at, probably one of the leading labs at, is the modeling of such things, all the way down to single component level, vehicle level, local traffic level. And then you start integrating in beyond traffic, electric grid, some of these other city planning, new city ideas. How can you distribute parking spaces when you have autonomous vehicles, things like that.

John Eichberger:
I think you said the key thing for me is there's no one solution. There are some out there who think electrification is the only thing we need to be talking about, but there's so many different sectors of the transportation market that can't all be electrified, at least not easily, that could benefit from other technologies and other solutions, whether they be even liquid fuel solutions or whatever. I think it's important that we continue having a discussion, where we're exploring all of our options. Because once you put all your eggs in one basket, that basket's going to fall and break. You can't do that. What are some of the other things you guys are working on? I mean, you mentioned hydrogen, but what other things? I mean, I know Argonne's got their fingers in almost everything going on.

Steve Przesmitzki:
Yeah. So one thing is you mentioned battery electric vehicles. So a lot of people think that, yeah, I'm just going to electrify and I'm done. Well you have to remember, electric vehicles, they work pretty well in light duty. They work very well if you don't have to go very far. And as the batteries get cheaper and you've put more batteries into a vehicle for the same cost, because I think that's actually the trend, it's not to lower the cost of the vehicle. We're going to get to a certain range, probably about 300 miles or so. So eventually that may be a very good solution for a vast majority of people in the United States.

Steve Przesmitzki:
There's always going to be outliers, but the areas that are a little tougher is heavy duty, aviation, marine, locomotives. Quite frankly, a lot of people, I don't want to say neglected them, but they didn't put as much thought into them because light duty was a bigger problem at the time. And they also just thought, oh, it's impossible to electrify an airplane and it's impossible to electrify a heavy duty truck. I would never say it's impossible. There's greater challenges, which means you're going to have to do different things.

Steve Przesmitzki:
So for instance, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, you can refuel them quickly on par with gasoline. Still have a little bit of a range issue because it's compressed gas. We're not going to use liquified hydrogen on road, most likely, but maybe in other areas. But there are some things you can do. Really the primary problem right now is cost. A lot of what we're working on is to try and make the technology more robust and more cost-effective. And a lot of that comes down to also the hydrogen production. That's not necessarily a big focus area for Argonne, but it is for other national labs as well.

Steve Przesmitzki:
You get into aviation, two exciting areas that we're really focusing on, sustainable aviation fuels, and then there's one that people don't really talk too much about, low carbon aviation fuel. So sustainable aviation fuels is the ones where you want to get the really, really large carbon reductions. These are from biofuels. You can call them synthetic fuels, e-fuels, which is from a CO2 or some other source, converted into a hydrocarbon. So that's exciting for us. There's also low carbon aviation fuels, which is basically from conventional sources how are you going to lower the carbon footprint? And this could be different carbon sources. This could be mixing with biomass. This could be just different crude oils processed differently. So, that's all exciting.

Steve Przesmitzki:
And then also when you want to talk about fuels, you go into marine. For a while there I'd say everyone thought, okay, I'm just going to go to natural gas. I'm going to put LNG in my tankers because at the time everyone thought, LNG, we're just going to be transporting LNG around the world for power. As the cost of other renewable electric or the cost of any renewable electricity has gone down, such as solar and wind, the need to transport large amounts of LNG, liquified natural gas around the world, is decreasing. And also the greenhouse gas benefit you get from natural gas in marine is actually not very small. In some cases it's arguably worse than the alternative heavy fuel.

Steve Przesmitzki:
So one thing people talk about a lot is hydrogen, putting hydrogen on a ship. This one, you're most likely going to liquefy it. You're going to burn some of it to power the ship. That's one option. Another one is a green ammonia. They call it green because it's ammonia made from renewable sources. High energy density, easy to liquefy. For on ships, other off-road applications, it's probably a viable option. Not really recommended for in city centers as such, because of the dangers of handling ammonia if there's an accident. But at Argonne, we're lucky, we get to work on a broad range of things, including all the way down to the very fundamental projects of say electrolyzer electrochemistry, if you want to get really down into the weeds.

John Eichberger:
Yeah, I think it's interesting you bring this up because I just saw an article this weekend about hydrogen and the use of ammonia in transportation, especially for marine transportation. And it comes down to, you mentioned cost earlier. One of the things that I brought to the Fuels Institute when we first kicked it off was this concept that no matter how green or how sustainable an initiative is, if it's not cost efficient, it's going to fail. So you have this balance between we need to be aggressive in reducing emissions, GHG emissions and criteria pollutant emissions, but we also have to do it in a way that's not going to hurt consumers financially. Otherwise, they're going to break.

John Eichberger:
The third element that needs to go into it is scalability. When we start thinking about converting the marine travel to an ammonia based fuel, that's going to require exponentially greater amounts of ammonia to be produced. And so we need to take that into consideration. That concept that a one size fits all strategy will work is a failed strategy. But also putting your hopes in something that we can't scale, and I look back 15 years ago when we started talking about biofuels and the idea of a cellulosic biofuel, which fantastic for the environment. The scalability at a price competitive point has been extremely challenging, and it's always stayed at this maybe at some point, hopeful for the future, but we haven't gotten to that marketability side yet. So I think what you guys are doing, trying to figure out how do we solve the problem in a pragmatic way, is absolutely essential to success.

Steve Przesmitzki:
Yeah. I agree. I mean, there's a saying, I've heard it multiple different ways from different people, so I can't attribute it to any individual, but every consumer likes to think they're green, but in reality, they're about as green as their wallets.

John Eichberger:
I think you may be paraphrasing me. Back in the day when I was lobbying, we were talking about E85, and we would survey consumers, "Hey, would you pay more for an E85 that's renewable?" Yeah, yeah. I'll pay 25, 50 cents more because I want to be green. Yeah. But when it comes down to filling up their tank, the only green they care about is in their wallet, and it absolutely is true that consumers, it has to be financially advantageous for them to shift their behavior. Otherwise they're comfortable just doing what they've been doing all along.

Steve Przesmitzki:
Yeah. And I think a perfect example is electric vehicle sales. There's a lot of people who would love to buy an electric vehicle, that would love to be environmentally friendly. They want to do the right thing. And it comes down to in some cases, currently electric vehicles tend to be I'd say slightly more expensive and their offerings are not as many. So for some people, they can't find what they want or they can't afford it or they just simply choose to not spend the money on it. Obviously people that are buying the more expensive six figure electric vehicles, money is not as big of an issue for them. So they have more of a luxury to choose what they want. And in some cases they may not even be choosing for environmental reasons. They may be choosing it just because it's a status symbol or an image thing.

Steve Przesmitzki:
But when we get into the heavy duty, the marine and aviation, now we're really talking about decisions that aren't made on emotion, they're made on business justifications. So it has to actually make financial sense, because businesses are in business to make money. They don't care about necessarily fashion of the different technologies. And one thing we found out from talking to different people, especially in the heavy duty industry, is there are actually alternatives already out there. There have been for years, but a lot of fleets cannot make them make sense for a variety of reasons. So one thing DOE has done, and we're one of the national labs that are hopefully going to support this, is they announced last week, a hydrogen earth shot, where they're going to try and get the price of hydrogen down to $1 per one kilogram in one decade.

John Eichberger:
Wow.

Steve Przesmitzki:
So $1 per one kilogram is about a gallon of gasoline equivalent, a little less than diesel. So that would be basically, if you said, "I can give you something that'll give you in a light duty vehicle, greater efficiency for hydrogen fuel cell at a dollar a gallon equivalent," now remember, this is not tax. This is not the same as going to the pump and getting gas for a dollar. We know that. We know this is a big difference. And then at diesel, one thing with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is diesel is a little tougher competitor because the engine in a diesel is much more efficient than the engine in your sedan or now I guess your SUV or CUV that you're driving. And the fleets are almost entirely driven by total cost ownership.

Steve Przesmitzki:
So they're worried about the upfront cost, the maintenance costs, the fuel cost, which is a big one. Drivers costs of course are big ones. And then a lot of people forget they have a resale cost and, the resale cost is one where you get hurt sometimes on these newer technologies, because if it's not a ubiquitous fuel, let's say diesel or gasoline, you can't just sell it anywhere. For instance, I can't sell a million mile truck down to Mexico if it's a hydrogen fuel cell truck, not today. I can do that with diesel and recoup a little bit of my losses.

Steve Przesmitzki:
So, there are some issues to overcome, but like we said, I think it takes all technologies, all hands on deck. We're going to look for a lot of diversity in the technologies, a lot of diversity in the portfolio and try and get it out there. And the market will figure out and decide what it wants to buy. As much as the government or state governments, local governments, the federal government wants to push technologies, we all know incentives can only carry you so far. Eventually the technology that makes sense will make sense.

John Eichberger:
Yeah. You mentioned fleets. Fleets are, they're focused on the ROI and on the logistics. So if it costs me more money, I'm not going to do it. If it delays my operations, I'm not going to do it. But they are a lot more pragmatic and numbers focused than your consumer is. I was having a conversation earlier with some colleagues about if we're going to go to mass adoption of a new technology, say it's electric vehicles, we have to develop the offers where consumers feel compelled to change, because quite frankly, you're shifting from one vehicle to another. They're giving you the exact same service. The EV has a total cost of ownership advantage, but it has that inconvenience of taking a long time to charge.

John Eichberger:
So for the consumer to feel, yeah, I need to make this change, it has to be such a compelling benefit to them. And a lot of people like to point out the smartphone revolutionized everything, and they compare that to an EV. And my response or any technology for a vehicle, my response is the vehicle is a different animal. You are substituting for a like technology that carries with it maybe cost advantages, but doesn't necessarily improve the convenience of your life, whereas that smartphone, huge transformational quality in terms of quality of life and your ability to do things more rapidly and conveniently.

John Eichberger:
So there's a lot to be done to get the consumers to say, "I am going to change," because a lot of people say consumers are extremely price sensitive to fuel, and they are. But when I was with Max, we did surveys of consumers for five years, and every time we asked them, at what price would you dramatically change your behavior, seek alternatives to driving, it was always, "More than I'm paying now," and usually 25 to 30 cents more. And that number went up with the price of fuel. It went up and down. There's always a delta there. So they're not going to change behavior because the price of the fuel goes up. They're going to change behavior because the new option is superior in almost every way, and I don't think we're there yet.

Steve Przesmitzki:
No. And I would say that is something, I think you'll notice a shift in light duty electric vehicles. It's very clear. Some of the early ones, the Volt, the Leaf, they really were advertised as efficient and green. Look at the newer ones though. The Lightning Truck, the Hummer, the Mustang Mach-E, their market is performance issues. So, people aren't really buying these necessarily because they're going to save money or save greenhouse gases. They're driving them because they have low zero to 60 times. They're fun. And the prices are starting to become competitive. So on the light duty, I would say a little bit the shift has moved towards that. On the heavy duty, I have to say we don't know yet because not enough people have done it. Not enough fleets have shifted over.

Steve Przesmitzki:
Long haul cross-country is a really, really tough one because as you mentioned, you have refueling times, you have range. The drivers don't even want to stop every 300 miles to refuel. And when they do stop, they sure don't want to stop for hours. They want to stop for several to 10 minutes. But on some of the smaller fleets and maybe some of these more regional, like buses is a perfect example. The new administration really wants to push electrification of buses. Some of the feedback that we've gotten before is people love the electric buses because driving them is much, much more comfortable for the driver and riding them. It doesn't have the herky jerky motion. We've all been in the rental bus coming from the airport and it's such a horrendous ride. It feels like every time a person shifts, you're getting your teeth chattered. So, there's some advantages there where actually then people start to see other intrinsic value to the technology.

Steve Przesmitzki:
But like you said, it's not clear yet. And that's one reason we have to do a lot of research in this technology. We also have to bring the cost down on the technology. One other thing that's a big initiative that was just announced today actually is the government announced about 200 million more dollars to push further technologies for electrification. And one of the big problems with electrification, this is during a round table talking about where are we going to make batteries, where are we going to get the materials for batteries, things such as rare earths, where we currently import a lot of them from not necessarily always the most reliable sources. So, this is a good role for the government though. It's a national initiative and it's not anything that any individual company can take on. So we're pretty lucky at Argonne. We get a chance to actually participate in this because we're a national lab. We're not a for-profit machine looking to make a product or make money.

John Eichberger:
Yeah, and I that kind of research is important. People ask me all the time. I give presentations and people say, "Well, what about the bad chemicals that are in the batteries? Isn't that worse than anything?" And my response has always been the battery chemistry and composition is going to change. It's going to evolve. It's going to get better. The amount of money being invested in battery research necessitates that we're going to have some different composition going forward that is more sustainable than what we're dealing with now. So it's really exciting, everything you guys are doing at Argonne. Where can people go to learn a little bit more if they have interest in some of the projects you guys are doing?

Steve Przesmitzki:
Yeah. So our website's actually pretty easy to remember. If you remember Argonne National Lab, ANL.gov. And if you want to go to my division, energy systems, put a slash ES, so ANL.gov/ES will bring it to energy systems. Right off the bat, you'll see plenty of cool pictures, including the old standbys, looking at fuel sprays for internal combustion engines. Let's not forget, they're not going away. No matter what everyone thinks, the US government is not throwing in the towel. They're not giving up research on internal combustion engines. We're not firing all of our researchers that worked on internal combustion engines. They actually hired some recently. So there still is work, even though we talked a lot about hydrogen and electrification, there's a lot of work to go on internal combustion engines, especially on the larger applications. We still want to make them cleaner, we still want to make them more efficient.

Steve Przesmitzki:
Another one just today I heard, GE just announced a next generation aviation engine, 20% more efficient. Something people thought wasn't possible. So there is still a lot of exciting technology out there across the board. And some of it's some liquid fuels, some was from fossil based liquid fuels, believe it or not still, but that's the truth.

John Eichberger:
We're going to have combustion engines on the road for 50, 60, 70 years, no matter how fast electrification progresses, so making improvements to those now is important. Steve, having you on the board at the Fuels Institute helps make the institute better. It helps us focus our research on areas where we can make a difference and not duplicate what other people are doing. So thanks for joining us on Carpool Chats and hope to see you soon. And for all of you guys back home, thanks for watching, and we'll see on the next Carpool Chats.