Co-Optima: A moon shot to reach car fuel-economy heights

John Farrell figures the people in the white lab coats have about a year, that’s all. A year to identify the best combinations of engine parameters and fuel properties that will achieve the greatest benefits for fuel economy and emissions. Oh, and it has to be marketable for all industries involved, too. No pressure.

Farrell is part of the Co-Optima program, an unprecedented initiative by the Department of Energy and nine national labs — including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, where he works — to accelerate “the introduction of affordable, scaleable, and sustainable biofuels and high-efficiency, low-emission vehicle engines.”

Under its formal submission for the U.N. climate plan, the U.S. intends to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 26 to 28 percent, from 2005 levels, by 2025, with a further reduction of 80 percent by 2050. Transportation accounts for about 27 percent of GHG emissions in the U.S.

Considering that the average American car is 11.5 years old, there’s no time to waste in creating the ideal engine-plus-fuel solution. Considering all the scientific energy at work on the project, it feels like the “moon shot” of car tech, an all-hands-on-deck campaign, with urgency to match.

John Farrell

John Farrell

“Now’s the time we really need to be working on this,” said Farrell, who’s the laboratory program manager for vehicle technologies at NREL.

“It’s such a complex challenge of addressing not only the vehicles, the efficiency improvements, but also the fuel side,” Farrell added, “and there really hasn’t been an integrated effort across the wide variety of stakeholders, from the fuel production side, to the engine utilization side, to the retail side, to the infrastructure side … all those folks have not been at the table at the research stage to help come up with a program that identifies what the challenges are to getting technology into the marketplace quickly.”

Work on the $27 million program began Oct. 1, Farrell said, and a review a year from now will act as a “first checkpoint along the R&D timeline.”

“The recognition is that in order for anything to get into the marketplace by 2025 or so, we need to have tech to identify within the next year or so that can be deployed at large scale, affordably, and with the right environmental footprint,” he said.

(The year 2025 also happens to be the tail end of the period for fuel-economy standards the EPA, NHTSA and California Air Resources Board are revising.)

Co-Optima (so named for the effort to optimize both engine technology and fuels) includes both near- and long-term solutions. One such near-term idea is to “characterize the auto-ignition behavior of new candidate fuels, bridging fuel composition and fuel performance metrics.” That research will rely on a large body of work already done on ethanol, an inherently high-octane fuel that could potentially provide the benefits researchers are looking for.


A PowerPoint slide from Farrell’s presentation at a conference in Detroit, showing the many factors of fuel besides octane.







“In the near term, maybe you rely on an initial set of fuel options more heavily, then as time and technology proceed, you can bring other bio-based properties, or bio-based blendstocks, into the mix,” Farrell said. “So we’re trying to make sure that we leave flexibility for folks, and not be overly prescriptive in terms of a specific recipe.”

One of the long-term goals of the program is to “provide the scientific underpinnings needed for industry to develop advanced, highly efficient, clean-burning vehicle engines.”

Of course, automakers have to be able to sell those vehicles to a willing public. The profit factor isn’t lost on the Co-Optima researchers.

“From the very beginning, we’ve recognized that if consumers don’t want the technology that is being developed, then it will have no impact,” Farrell said.

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