Decarbonization in the Transportation Sector | Episode 21

  March 04, 2021

Reducing transportation-related carbon emissions is essential. For many, the solution rests with electric vehicles. However, is there only one solution? Should we put all of our eggs in one basket? Bob McCormick, senior research fellow with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, joined us and provided a broad view of the situation and the various options on the horizon.

Transcript

John Eichberger:
Hey, everybody. Welcome to Carpool Chats. I'm John Eichberger with the Fuels Institute. And today I am thrilled to have a good friend of mine, Bob McCormick, who is a senior research fellow at the National renewable energy laboratory. And we're going to be talking about how we go about decarbonizing transportation. It's going to be a great conversation. Bob, welcome to Carpool Chats, how are you doing?

Bob McCormick:
I'm having a great day John, it's great to be here.

John Eichberger:
I'm so glad you were able to join us. You and I have worked together for quite a long time through Co-Optima and other projects. One of the things I've always appreciated about you is you take a very pragmatic and very broad view of what's going on in the market. And earlier in 2021, I saw you do a presentation about various strategies that are available to decarbonize transportation.

John Eichberger:
And one of the things that have been driving me nuts, is there's a lot of advocates and policymakers who think there's one solution and one solution only that'll electrify everything. But there are so many other things going on, can you share a little bit... What are the things that catch your attention that are opportunities we need to be thinking about going forward?

Bob McCormick:
Well, I think the one thing that you mentioned is the electrification of the light-duty fleet. There are people who think that's the only answer, and long-term, I think that is an answer that has a lot of benefits and may come to pass. But for the car makers to transition to making 100% battery electric vehicles is probably a two-decade-long project or longer.

Bob McCormick:
And in the interim, it's extremely important to begin to decarbonize the internal combustion engine-based transportation. A ton of carbon avoided today is worth way more than a ton of carbon avoided tomorrow. And there are two approaches to starting to decarbonize internal combustion engine-based transportation. And one is to make the vehicles more efficient, and the other is to move to low net carbon fuels. And so those types of things have been the focus of my team's research at NRL.

John Eichberger:
Yeah, I think it's the important thing. That's something I've been talking about all year, and even before that. We need to think about the transition. Electric vehicles are coming long-term, they're going to have a more significant role in the market, in the near future than they do today, but we can't wait. And in the interim, we're going to have combustion engine vehicles on the road for 50, 60, 70 years most likely.

John Eichberger:
We need to do something serious about that. And from what I've learned from the Co-Optima processes, we need to look at vehicles and fuels as a system. How do we combine the two things? And one of the things that concerns me is, this fixation on electrified vehicles, which is starving the opportunity to invest in better engines and better fuels. I mean, what are the research and development opportunities that we see in the near term?

Bob McCormick:
Well, I think, you mentioned looking at engines and fuels as a system, certainly, they are a system, even today, but maybe not a fully optimized system. And most of the new fuels that we're talking about tend to be... Or that we have pointed to in the DOE's fuel engine optimization initiative are fuels that would allow you to do things like increase the compression ratio of the engine, which increases its efficiency. And so moving to higher blend levels, say of ethanol or of other perhaps more infrastructure-compatible fuels that we'd point into longer chain alcohols, for example, to make higher octane number of fuels is a really huge opportunity to start to decarbonize the light-duty fleet. The drive to electric vehicles. Well, it's hard to take a really forward-looking statement by a CEO, and translate it into what they're really going to do.

Bob McCormick:
We've seen this movie a few times before. Well, some of the engineers at the car companies have said privately that they don't think their companies are going to invest in another generation of SparkCognition engines. They don't see it worth the effort to do a lot of research to develop a whole new generation of different engines. And it's hard for me to say, I'm going to second guess the strategic decision-makers that are multinational corporations so I'm certainly not going to do that. But there is an opportunity during this time when electric and hybrid car sales are going to be growing, but far from taking over the car market. There is an opportunity to increase the efficiency of vehicles easily by 10%. And which may not sound like a big number, but within the scheme of the energy system, that's pretty substantial, pretty significant.

Bob McCormick:
And to move to a really significant amount of low net carbon fuel. Today we have 10% ethanol, 15% ethanol's, or illegally approved fuel. Corn ethanol does get a 40% greenhouse gas emission reduction, but there're opportunities to move to forms of ethanol that get more like 70% greenhouse gas emission reduction and potentially higher, or to other low net carbon fuels that also get high-levels of greenhouse gas emission reduction. And this is a long enough term project that's transitioning to cars that could handle higher levels of ethanol or other alcohols, like Isobutanol or other very high octane biomass-derived materials. There's time to do it and enjoy the benefits of it in terms of reducing carbon emissions.

John Eichberger:
Yeah. And I think we have to look at the long long-term players. We're going to be burning liquid fuels for a very long time, even as EVs gain market share. And we need to do better on that. I think the biofuel components are a great opportunity to do that, but I think we need to look at the transportation space in segments, not one solution is going to be able to fix or address emissions and all use case scenarios. So when we think about the heavier duty space ethanol is not the fuel, but bio-diesel, renewable diesel, those types of things. What about hydrogen?

John Eichberger:
What are the other things happening? When I tell people that I'm looking at a long-term view, and if you put all of your eggs in one basket for electrified vehicles, I think there's going to be other things that are available. There are going to be new technologies coming out and things are being considered by scientists like yourself and your colleagues within the national lab space. What are the other things, the emerging technologies, and opportunities that maybe come to fruition here in the next 10 to 20 years?

Bob McCormick:
Well, especially in the heavy-duty space, there's such a vast range of applications that it's hard to imagine a one size fits all solution like diesel engines have been through the last few decades.

John Eichberger:
Right.

Bob McCormick:
And when we talked to the heavy-duty OEMs, we're hearing them talk about how 20, 30 years out, it's hard to predict where various technologies are going to be. And so they're trying to be prepared today for anything. It could be 100% low net carbon fuel. It could be a highly hybridized system, hybrid electric system, which potentially they need to move to anyway, just to meet NOx emission standards for example.

Bob McCormick:
Or it could be maybe a little longer-term hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells. That's the technology with incredibly large potential, but it's also a technology that from a cost perspective, and in some sense, from a technology perspective has got a lot of development that needs to occur before our commercial truck operator would really want to go that way. An application and the commercial applications total cost of ownership is everything.

Bob McCormick:
That's what vehicle they buy, that's how they make the decision wherein our personal cars, we have a lot of more emotional decisions on what car we buy. But I've also heard heavy-duty OEMs, heavy and medium-duty engine OEMs talk about their smaller engines that today are diesel engines actually are considering moving to SparkCognition. It needs to be a high compression ratio engine for a high octane number fuel to get the efficiency they need. But the cost of meeting the emission standards with the technology that's used in SparkCognition engines that's a three-way catalyst is just a fraction of the cost of doing it with a diesel emission control system.

John Eichberger:
That would be an interesting shift to see the medium heavy duty market start using more gasoline-powered vehicles than they are now. And we've been looking at the heavy-duty space the last couple of months with a couple of task groups trying to figure out where their space is. And one of the things I see as opportunities is that. We're starting to get too much more hub and smoke type distribution in the heavy-duty space, which allows you a return and home refueling model, which opens up economies for natural gas, opens up economies for heavy-duty electrification, fuel cells.

John Eichberger:
So you don't have to build the infrastructure necessary in the market because they come home every night. I mean, you look at Amazon, you look at UPS, you look at FedEx, they're exploring with these alternative technologies, alternative fuels because they've got fleets that come home and they're running 200 miles a day into distribution. And that use route fits well to try these new options out.

Bob McCormick:
Yeah, I know. As we get into trucking logistics, you're moving out of my wheelhouse. But at the same time clearly, that's happening. And it allows a truck fleet operator to have a lot more control. I mean, even if it's a liquid fuel to have a lot more control about what fuel goes into their vehicle. So if in their region there was some particular fuel that was available at a cost that they liked, they could just use it. One of the challenges on the battery side though, battery-electric vehicle, or even plugin hybrid type vehicle, is if you have a truck, I don't know what to call it, a Depot. Where you have 50 or 100 large trucks that you need to recharge every night.

John Eichberger:
That's a lot of power.

Bob McCormick:
That's a lot of power and it's certainly doable. It's not unprecedented to deliver that much power to one place at one time, but it's not the infrastructure that's in place today.

John Eichberger:
And you're not going to plug those into a wall outlet.

Bob McCormick:
Right.

John Eichberger:
That's for certain. I thought about this, but if you have these depots, you have a concentrated level demand working with the utility provider to develop the capacity to support that is feasible. And it's something that the utility can look at as an ROI, because look, we're going to have the demand that is going to be there so we can build out the additional substations that we might need to do that. So I think it's one of the things I think is going to develop, I've been watching it quite a bit.

John Eichberger:
The other thing that I've always been intrigued by, and I think you have done presentations, which basically tell me that my aspirational hope for this technology is completely misplaced. That I'm completely off my rocker. And that's E-fuels. Using renewable electricity to develop a liquid fuel in... I was on a panel a couple of years ago and I said, I don't know if it's feasible, it may be very expensive, but if it could be done, we don't have to replace infrastructure. Can you talk to me a little bit more about what's going on in the E-fuel world, and is there any possibility that could become economically viable in the longterm?

Bob McCormick:
Well, just to get us all on the same page, the basic concept of E-fuels, it's kind of a new concept, but I'll call it the classical concept of E-fuels. Is to capture CO2 from the air, and then using renewable cheap electricity, reduce that CO2 to be something that's not at the bottom of the thermodynamic Hill, which is where CO2 is, you can't burn CO2, it's already fully burned. So how do you take it to something that could be burned? You have to put energy in to do that. And so you could do that with electricity.

Bob McCormick:
And so the easiest things to make that way are going to be methanol, small molecules, ethanol, potentially, but there's also the potential to go to like what today we would call a gas to liquid fuel. Gas to liquid type diesel fuel, which is pretty similar to conventional diesel fuel. But the issue with it is that when you look at how efficient you're going to use that electricity in terms of reducing CO2 to be something that you could burn, by the time you get to torque at the wheels, you're only going to have 10% of that energy you put in left.

John Eichberger:
Yeah.

Bob McCormick:
And maybe in some future world where we have near 100% liniment sources of electricity, so wind and solar for example, our great very low to zero-carbon sources of electricity, but the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine. So you don't always have the electricity, but then conversely there're times when maybe it's the middle of the day in the spring, and there's not a whole lot of energy use because the weather's mild and it's not the time when everybody's charging their electric cars or whatever. And you have extra, you're making a lot of electricity from the sun or the wind.

Bob McCormick:
So the idea behind it is that that electricity becomes cheap. In fact, if there's no market for it, then it becomes just curtail. They just turn it off. And that's the type of electricity you would use to make E-fuels. My thinking is that if you're ready to practically give it away, there are other people who will come along and say, I could use that to do something. And certainly, I don't think this 10% number I quoted is a thermodynamic limitation. It's not a physical limitation, the efficiency of this conversion could be improved, but you're never going to get to a situation where you could claim you were really efficiently using this. I don't know how much it could be improved.

John Eichberger:
But even some improvements are going to cost a ton of money to figure it out.

Bob McCormick:
Sure. Well, it is going to require a lot of research for sure. In terms of the capital cost of a facility to do this type of thing. You would hope that research would bring that down. But I have been a little bit on the fence about E-fuels, I appreciate the potential of taking CO2 out of the air and maybe the need to try to utilize this otherwise curtailed electricity, but it's such a low-efficiency proposition that I'm a little bit skeptical of it, but at the same time when my colleagues come to me and say, well, shouldn't we do research on it to see what we can do with it. Well, sure I agree with that.

John Eichberger:
Yeah, if we can create a negative carbon impact, and it's cheap then if we can do it on volume, it might make sense. It's one of the things I like to think about, I'm a child of the Jetsons. And I like to think about what can we do, we need to think, we need to think big. We need to think long-term and not just accept things as they are, and push the boundaries to see, can we come up with a breakthrough that changes the whole landscape of what we're trying to do here. And it E-fuels is that one for me that's out on the periphery. Man, if we can get clarity and figure that out, wouldn't that be really, really cool?

John Eichberger:
But I suspect there's other stuff I tinkered with and wowed across the globe that if we have a breakthrough, maybe [inaudible 00:19:28], hold the presses, we have options. And the more we continue to explore options, the better off we are, whether it's liquid fuel or some sort of some synthesized fuel or something like that. I mean, I'm really afraid that we're starting to get ourselves on this one-way road that has one solution. And I think we're going to end up regretting that if we don't explore these other options.

Bob McCormick:
Well, I agree. We need to have in our research and technology development, we need to work on all possible options. You can decarbonize other sectors of the economy in my opinion, much more easily than you can decarbonize transportation.

John Eichberger:
Right.

Bob McCormick:
It's just a real challenge. It's really diverse. What you're trying to decarbonize is not sitting there in one place, it's moving around and transportation is today the largest source of carbon emissions in the United States.

John Eichberger:
Yep.

Bob McCormick:
With the slow but steady decarbonization of the electric grid, electricity production is no longer the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

John Eichberger:
And transportation is also easy for a politician to rally support because we are familiar with transportation. We all see it, feel it, experience it every single day. So it's really tangible in a sound bite to point out. Another thing I'm concerned about, clearly, there's a lot of things I'm concerned about. I don't know how I sleep at night, but another thing I'm concerned about is transportation seems because it is easy to hit in terms of messaging.

John Eichberger:
Is it being asked to carry a disproportionate load of the emissions burden in when we're talking about carbon mitigation is transportation being loaded up with, you need to reduce emissions because we need you to help these other sources of emissions. And I think we started getting out of proportion in terms of regulatory requirements. And that's just going to impose so much cost to the end-user and families. It could be pretty dangerous if we don't figure out a way to balance out the approaches.

Bob McCormick:
Well, doing this in a way that doesn't put transportation out of reach of people, for example. That just won't happen.

John Eichberger:
Yeah.

Bob McCormick:
Politically, that can't happen.

John Eichberger:
Yeah.

Bob McCormick:
So anyway, that's important, but because transportation is the single largest source. And by far the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions within transportation is light-duty vehicles. Something has to be done if we're going to successfully decarbonize our economy.

John Eichberger:
Yeah. You guys are doing great work at NRL and all the labs that I'm affiliated with are doing some fantastic work. It's been a huge professional honor, personal honor, to be able to work with you guys on a variety of things and benefit from what you guys are doing. I appreciate you joining us at Carpool Chats because of this conversation, we need to have more conversations like this.

John Eichberger:
We need to have a constructive dialogue about what are our options. We know what the issue is. We know what the target is. We know what our objectives are, but we need to rather have an open exploration of our options. We can deliver the best solutions to the market rather than the politically expedient ones. So I thank you again for everything you've done. Thanks for joining us. I appreciate it.

Bob McCormick:
Well, you're welcome. And what you just said is key. We need to have discussions between all different sectors of the transportation market, commercial users, individual citizens. Understanding what people's ideas are and who aren't scientists. I think is really important how we could decarbonize transportation.

John Eichberger:
Yeah. There's got to be a bridge between science and practical application. And I think the more we all work together, the better off we're all going to be. So, thanks again for joining us and for the guys out there, thanks for tuning in at Carpool Chats. And we'll see you guys next time. Have a good one.

Bob McCormick:
Thank you for the opportunity, John. Take care.

John Eichberger:
Thanks, Bob. Bye.