NRC Report Says FreedomCAR Making Significant Progress; Calls for Midcourse Shift in Strategic Planning
19 March 2008
The FreedomCAR (Cooperative Automotive Research) and Fuel Partnership research collaboration has made significant progress in most research areas, according to a new report from the National Research Council (NRC), but should reassess its strategic priorities to account for new national and changed research priorities.
Among other recommendations, the review committee called for the Partnership to “significantly intensify” its efforts to develop high-energy batteries; and to “move forward aggressively” with completing and executing its R&D plan for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.
The FreedomCAR and Fuel Partnership is a collaboration among the US government, in particular the Department of Energy (DOE); the US Council for Automotive Research (USCAR), whose members are Chrysler LLC, the Ford Motor Company, and General Motors Corporation; and five energy companies: BP America, Chevron Corporation, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil Corporation, and Shell Hydrogen (US).
The program supports a wide variety of research activities needed to enable a transition pathway for automotive transportation to a more sustainable basis. The pathway starts with increasingly efficient internal combustion engines (ICEs), proceeds through the increasing use of a variety of hybrid electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and then, by 2015, arrives at the point where the private sector can make a decision about the commercialization of fuel-cell-powered vehicles fueled by economically competitive hydrogen produced from a variety of energy sources.
The FreedomCAR and Fuel Partnership started with a presidential commitment to request $1.7 billion over 5 years (FY04 through FY08), with appropriations thus far of about $243 million, $307 million, and $339 million in FY04, FY05, and FY06, respectively. The FY07 continuing resolution resulted in funding of about $401 million. The FY08 presidential budget request is for about $436 million. These funds are used to support basic research, applied research, development, and technology validation and deployment in the following areas:
ICEs using a variety of fuels;
Fuel cell power systems;
Hydrogen storage systems;
Electrochemical energy storage;
Electric propulsion systems;
Hydrogen production and delivery systems; and
Materials for lightweight vehicles.
Since the Research Council’s first review two years ago, the program has made great strides, and its managers have been generally thorough and receptive to the previous report’s recommendations. The barriers the program faces are challenging, and require inventive solutions that are technically feasible and economically viable in the automotive and fuel supply markets. For the industry to transition to a hydrogen-based vehicle used on a broad scale, the program will have to continue to be well-planned and managed with foresight.—Craig Marks, committee chair and retired vice president for technology and productivity, AlliedSignal Inc
The review made recommendations in each of the principle technology areas covered by the FreedomCAR effort.
Advanced Combustion Engines and Emission Controls. Noting that internal combustion engines (ICEs) will be the mainstay of the nation’s automotive fleet for a very long time, even if the other goals of the program are met, the improvement in the efficiency of these powerplants through combustion research on advanced ICEs is a very important part of the Partnership.
The review committee recommended that the Partnership formulate and implement a clear set of criteria to identify and provide support to ICE combustion and emission control projects that are pre-competitive and show potential for improvements well beyond those currently being developed by industry.
Electrochemical Energy Storage. Very significant progress has been made during the last 2 years in this area, according to the review, and lithium ion batteries have been developed that can meet several of the FreedomCAR 2010 goals, including weight, volume, and cycle life requirements, with good prospects for meeting the remaining goals as well as the calendar life requirements.
New approaches have increased the safety and abuse tolerance of these batteries. Cost is the largest remaining barrier, with estimates of current cost about two times the 2010 goal. Substantial additional research is ongoing to find lower cost materials. The success of this effort will largely determine the viability of these batteries in mass-produced hybrid and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs).
A significant additional breakthrough in battery technology is needed to enable a competitive all-electric automobile that would help meet the FreedomCAR goals. Furthermore, the potential benefits of PHEVs in reducing petroleum consumption have been recognized by the Partnership, yet there seems to be a lack of urgency in finalizing and executing the R&D plan for PHEVs.
The review recommended that the Partnership conduct a thorough analysis of the cost of the Li-ion battery for each application: hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), PHEVs, battery electric vehicles (EVs), and hydrogen-fueled fuel cell HEVs. The analysis should re-examine the initial assumptions, including those for both market forces and technical issues, and refine them based on recent materials and process costs. It should also determine the effect of increasing production rates for the different systems under development.
The review also recommended that the Partnership should “significantly intensify” its efforts to develop high-energy batteries; in particular it should look for newer higher-specific-energy electrochemical systems within the long-term battery research subactivity and in close coordination with BES.
A third recommendation was that the Partnership should move forward aggressively with completing and executing its R&D plan for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.
Electric Propulsion, Electrical Systems and Power Electronics. Improvement in the size, weight, efficiency and cost of electric propulsion and power electronics systems, along with appropriate electronic controllers, is a significant part of the challenge of making hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles competitive.
Higher-temperature operation of these components and the integration of power controllers and electric motors to improve the performance of vehicle electric propulsion systems are the most important efforts being supported by the electrical systems and power electronics program, and appropriately so.
The review recommended that the Partnership should conduct a meta-analysis and develop quantitative models to identify fundamental geometric limitations that ultimately set bounds on and lead to the realization of the size, mass, and cost of power converters and electric propulsion systems in relation to the physical properties of materials and processes such as dielectric strength, magnetic saturation, and thermal conductivity.
This would allow the various ongoing and future efforts to be benchmarked against the theoretical boundaries of what is possible and enable the establishment of appropriate directions in research goals.
Structural Materials. The Partnership has set a target of a 50% reduction in vehicle structural mass with no increase in the cost of the materials involved.
This Partnership and the earlier Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles have a long history of research into structural materials for lightweight vehicles that is described in earlier reports. Based upon that work, it is likely that the proposed 50 percent reduction in mass can be achieved. However, it is also quite certain that, within the timeframe of the Partnership, this reduction cannot be achieved without incurring a cost penalty. The program management should, accordingly, realistically assess the cost of making the required mass reduction and adjust the cost targets of the other components appropriately.
The review recommended that, based on the 50% weight reduction as a critical goal and the near certainty that some (probably significant) cost penalty will be associated with it, the Partnership should develop a materials cost model (even if only an approximation) that can be used in a total systems model to spread this increased cost in an optimal way across other vehicle components.
The review also recommended that the materials research funding should largely be redistributed to areas of higher potential payoff, such as high-energy batteries, fuel cells, hydrogen storage and projects associated with infrastructure issues. However, materials research for projects that show a high potential for enabling near-term, low-cost mass reduction should continue to be funded.
Fuel Cells. Although hundreds of fuel cell vehicles are now being built for field tests by auto manufacturers, the early systems still need significant improvements in durability and cost before mass-produced vehicles can be built and sold. The improvement in durability and performance and the reduction in cost of fuel cell systems remain major goals of the Partnership.
Many uncertainties remain regarding the likelihood of meeting these goals and timing targets, but the potential benefits of fuel cells and the progress to date certainly justify current spending and increased future spending and budget allocations.
The committee recommended that the Partnership conduct sensitivity analyses on key fuel cell targets to determine the trade-offs and tolerances in engineering specifications allowable while still meeting fuel cell vehicle engineering requirements.
The committee also recommended that the Partnership should reassess the current allocation of funding within the fuel cell program and reallocate as appropriate, in order to prioritize and emphasize the R&D that addresses the most critical barriers. In particular, the Partnership should give membranes, catalysts, electrodes, and modes of operation the highest priority.
In particular, it should also:
Place greater emphasis on the science and engineering at the cell level and, from a systems perspective, on integration and subcomponent interactions;
Reduce research on carbon-based supported catalysts in favor of developing carbon-free electrocatalysts;
Ensure that Basic Energy Sciences (BES) funding of membranes, catalysts, and electrodes remain a high priority of the program;
Apply the go/no-go decision-making process to stationary fuel cell systems initiatives that are not directly related to transportation technologies.
Onboard Hydrogen Storage. Efforts to discover a viable alternative to compressed hydrogen gas are in their very early stages, according to the review—too early to have confidence in their ultimate success.
Meeting the program storage goals almost certainly will require a storage technology as yet undiscovered, making the current basic research approach—searching for new storage materials and operating modes—appropriate.
The review recommended that the hydrogen storage program continue to be supported by the Partnership at a high level since finding a suitable storage material is critical to fulfillment of the vision for the hydrogen economy. Both basic and applied research should be conducted.
The review recommended that the Partnership rebalance the R&D program for hydrogen storage to shift resources to the more promising approaches as knowledge is gained. The new systems analysis center of excellence (COE) should look at all of the system requirements simultaneously, not just the system weight percent storage goal, and guide this rebalancing.
A third recommendation was that in the event that no onboard hydrogen systems are found that are projected to meet targets, the Partnership should perform appropriate studies to determine the risks and consequences of relying on pressurized hydrogen storage. They should include production and delivery issues as well as effects on vehicle performance, safety, and costs.
Hydrogen Production, Delivery, and Dispensing. There are many pathways that a gradual transition from petroleum-based fuel to hydrogen as the main energy carrier for transportation vehicles might follow, and each needs to be analyzed and understood, according to the review.
The transition envisioned is likely to take place in complex ways over substantially more than a decade as the population of fuel cell vehicles grows. It is reasonable to expect hydrogen initially to come from existing centralized production facilities and to be distributed by tube trailer or liquid carrier. These supplies are likely to be supplemented, increasingly, by distributed generation in service station forecourts, using steam reforming of widely distributed natural gas, or by water electrolysis powered by the electric grid, perhaps during off-peak periods.
With all of these potential pathways, more extensive scenario analysis of the transition and emergence of mature hydrogen fueled systems is needed to understand the most critical factors in production and delivery as the market develops.
The review recommended that the Department of Energy continue its studies of the transition to hydrogen, extending them to 2030-2035, a period during which the number of hydrogen vehicles in use could increase rapidly, and use the results of these studies as a basis for evaluating the potential roles of different transitional supplies of hydrogen fuel as demand increases substantially, including both forecourt production at the fueling station and centralized production using the most cost-effective means of distributing the hydrogen.
The review made a number of other recommendations in this broad area, including:
DOE should put more emphasis on the space requirements for forecourt hydrogen generation by studying ways to minimize these requirements.
DOE should conduct a systematic review of the carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) program as it affects the schedule for and program assumptions about hydrogen production from coal. This review should identify indicators of incipient program slippage and, through systems analysis, the program consequences of possible delays, leading to recommendations for management actions that would compensate for these delays.
The Partnership should increase funding for electrolysis efforts to advance the technology, demonstrations, and systems integration. BES should support, as appropriate, fundamental research in catalysts, membranes, and coatings as well as in new concepts.
DOE should undertake a systems study to assess the relative importance of barriers to biomass production, availability, transportation, and conversion to hydrogen in order to identify the areas that most affect commercial availability, giving them priority attention in the program. This study should address technical barriers already identified, including their impact on the environment, and help define policies for land and water use and government-sponsored commercial incentives that would stimulate commercial expansion of the biomass options.
DOE should involve the energy partners in all biomass programs related to conversion to hydrogen or hydrogen carriers as early in the programs as possible. Recommendation. DOE should increase funding for the delivery and dispensing program to meet the market transition and sustained market penetration time frames. If DOE concludes that a funding increase is not feasible, the program should be focused on the pipeline, liquefaction, and compression programs, where a successful, if only incremental, short-term impact could be significant for the market transition period.
The study was sponsored by the US Department of Energy. The National Research Council (NRC) functions under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and the Institute of Medicine (IOM). The four organizations are collectively referred to as the National Academies.
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