Published On: Fri, Sep 30th, 2011

Renewable Remarks: DOE’s plan to improve vehicle efficiency is good news for plastics processors

The United States Department of Energy released its first Quadrennial Technology Review Report in which Energy Secretary Steven Chu

presented the priorities, goals, and rationale for the upcoming $3 billion 2011 energy technology R&D budget.

Half of the DOE’s energy technology funding supports generating clean electricity, and now, the DOE favors a greater emphasis on energy technologies in transport, which could benefit plastics processors supplying the automotive industry.  Fully 26% of the budget now will go to support developments in transportation. Vehicle efficiency and electric vehicle projects are viewed as the most cost-effective and nearest time strategies for “decoupling from the global oil market.” and will receive more priority and funds this year, in addition to work on developing alternative fuels.

Plastics play an important role in two of the DOE’s top priority vehicle efficiency projects:  “lightweighting” and improving vehicle aerodynamics. These both are viewed as urgent and as having an impact on today’s energy technologies in the short term. Here are the top 5 projects:

1. Internal combustion engine improvements in light duty vehicles
2. Lightweighting in light duty vehicles
3. Aerodynamics of heavy duty vehicles
4. Electrification through batteries, electric motors, and power electronics
5. Domestic production of alternative fuels such as biofuels

Lightweighting Vehicles
DOE has determined that the greatest potential for impacting energy use is by reducing vehicle weight in light-duty vehicles that use conventional internal combustion engines. The report says that “a 10% reduction in vehicle weight can improve fuel economy by 6%-8%, while the same lightweighting of a battery-electric vehicle increases its range by up to 10%.”

Innovative use and construction of plastic automotive parts will help meet the goals of reducing vehicle weight. The DOE has identified the maximum weight-reduction potential of the mid-size passenger car to be 50% by 2050. While weight can be reduced by decreasing vehicle size, the report states that the most likely approach for meeting consumer expectations in the short term is through “innovative chassis design or by introducing light-weight (but structurally-appropriate) materials.”

Plastics processors with lower cost or easier manufacturing could help reduce vehicle weight. Opportunities could also be found working with automotive OEMs to overcome what the DOE views as barriers to reducing vehicle weight: improving cost, safety, tradeoffs with embedded energy in advanced materials, issues with advanced joining techniques and complexity of recycling the growing number of materials used.

Aerodynamics in Heavy-Duty Vehicles
The report states that in 2009 there were 10 million heavy trucks and buses in the U.S. Although they only account for <5% of the United States vehicle fleet, they account for 22% of the fuel use. The report indicates that aerodynamics improvements are a major part of fuel consumption reduction in four of the seven different types of heavy duty vehicles.

This “key energy efficiency technology” could be of interest to plastics processors, indicating more opportunities for working with transportation customers to reduce drag. The DOE believes “there is significant headroom for the DOE to work on increasing conventional efficiency by improving the aerodynamics of heavy duty vehicles.”  

Many Additional Opportunities
In addition to vehicle efficiency projects in the transport industry, the report also indicated that there are many other opportunities for plastics processors to be optimistic for participating in next-generation manufacturing for energy efficient processes and materials technologies.

The report mentions low cost manufacturing of lightweight materials, such as carbon fiber which could impact vehicles, wind turbines, and other energy technologies, as a particularly promising crosscutting area.


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