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Keeping trucks and the nation on the road to prosperity

Programs in lightweight materials, intelligent vehicle systems, and advanced diesels place Oak Ridge National Laboratory firmly in the driver's seat of the 21st Century Truck Partnership



"A productive, innovative U.S. trucking and supporting industry is essential for economic prosperity of every American business."- Technology Roadmap for the 21st Century Truck Partnership

June 27—The 21st Century Truck Partnership aims to secure the future of the nation's trucking industry by developing technologies to increase safety, fuel economy, performance, and to lower emissions. It combines the resources and capabilities of the Department of Energy, Department of Transportation, Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency, and 16 industrial partners.

"It's an ambitious undertaking, but we have assembled an impressive list of agencies and industry partners and together have drafted a comprehensive plan that can allow us to reach our goals," said Ron Bradley, head of the team that wrote the "Technology Roadmap for the 21st Century Truck Partnership" (available as a pdf file under Web Links).

Long-range research goals of the program include developing technologies that double fuel efficiency of the "long-haul" tractor-trailers and triple the fuel efficiency of "delivery van" vehicles and transit buses, meet prevailing emissions standards, and enhance fuel efficiency.

"Emissions from new diesel engines have been dramatically lowered since the early 1980s, and we're making steady progress toward near-zero emissions," Graves said. "At the same time, engine efficiency and performance have continued to improve," said Ron Graves of ORNL's Engineering Technology Division.

ORNL's Advanced Propulsion Technology Center provides unique diagnostic and measurement tools that allow researchers to characterize after-treatment devices that are designed to reduce diesel emissions and increase performance.

Diesel engines actually offer up to 50 percent greater efficiency and last longer than their gasoline-powered counterparts and have lower emissions of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. Unfortunately, diesel emissions contain higher levels of nitrogen oxides and more particulate matter.

In recent years, great strides have been made in lowering nitrogen oxides and sulfur particulate (soot) emissions. Until now, most of the gains in efficiency and emission reductions have been made through advances in fuel injection and air-handling systems.

The current research is aimed at developing catalytic converters for diesels and exploring exhaust recirculation systems that would reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. Diesel particle filters are being developed that are 90 percent effective.

"Lower sulfur levels in diesel fuel are critical for the next big step in lowering emissions," said Graves.

In addition to using cleaner fuels and advanced engine technologies, other research focuses on developing lightweight materials and enabling materials technologies. Enabling materials include a new composite or alloy for fuel injectors, which must be precise to optimize performance and fuel efficiency. On the technology side, researchers are working on smart materials for sensors and actuators that would be part of a system to increase performance, economy, or safety.

"Lightweight materials can make a difference, but I believe that the enabling materials can make just as significant a contribution," said Bill Corwin of ORNL's Metals and Ceramics Division.

Another key to meeting goals outlined in the roadmap is the use of hybrid electric powertrains, said Dave O'Kain of ORNL's Engineering Technology Division. Hybrids use stored electrical energy and an electric motor to assist the internal combustion engine when high power is needed. Hybrids are most effective in urban driving where the vehicle has many stops and starts.

"With a hybrid powertrain, the engine size can be reduced and the engine can be operated at near optimum conditions most of the time, leading to reduced emissions and improved fuel economy," O'Kain said.

Safety and intelligent vehicle design are also key components of the 21st Century Truck program. Bill Knee, director of ORNL's Intelligent Transportation Systems Program, expects the Lab's studies on driver distraction and work with integrated systems, as well as a state-of-the-art, first-of-its-kind truck brake test facility at the National Transportation Research Center, will help the partnership contribute to meeting the DOT goal of a 50% reduction in fatalities from truck-related accidents by the year 2010.

"The goal of vehicle intelligence systems is to ensure that new technologies enhance a driver's performance," Knee said. "We can do that by studying how all of these devices work together and whether they will be helpful or harmful to the driver."—by Ron Walli

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