Special Edition: Sustainable Mobility Matters—October 2021

This newsletter highlights recent non-road vehicle and equipment projects, initiatives, and capabilities related to NREL’s transportation decarbonization research.

Subscribe to receive this newsletter via email.

A graphic showing different forms of transportation.

Beyond the Highway Shoulder: NREL Mobility Research Transforms the Air, Rail, Farm, and Sea

The path to decarbonization isn’t set in asphalt. Electric vehicles, so essential for moving people and freight across vast road and highway networks, are but one part of a broad effort to draw down global transportation greenhouse gas emissions.

From planes and ships, to trains and tractors—the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is reinventing a spectrum of non-road vehicles and equipment to meet our climate goals.

Powering historically fuel-hungry applications in a sustainable way requires a proven set of technologies and energy carriers. It demands energy-dense batteries and electric drivetrains. It hinges on fuel cells and clean hydrogen. It is powered by renewable fuels with net-zero and even net-negative carbon emissions.

In this special edition of Sustainable Mobility Matters, we offer a look into how NREL is transforming mobility beyond the highway shoulder. As the Biden-Harris Administration takes steps to overhaul our transportation infrastructure, demonstrate clean energy projects, and build out regional clean hydrogen hubs, we are laying a strong scientific foundation to build upon.

  • Charging and Fueling at Scale for Marine, Rail, and Aviation
    NREL’s Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) capabilities support megawatt charging and high-throughput hydrogen fueling, enabling leading-edge research to uncover the most effective clean energy solutions for marine, rail, and aviation.

  • Guiding Analysis for Decarbonizing Rail
    Our detailed modeling and simulation capabilities illuminate the risk and reward of various strategies for cost-effectively lowering railroad greenhouse gas emissions with advanced locomotive technologies and infrastructure.

  • Net-Zero Flight With Sustainable Aviation Fuel
    We are developing novel formulations for producing affordable, net-zero-emission sustainable aviation fuel that can be made in existing refineries and used in current aircraft.

  • Cutting Across Applications with Hydrogen
    NREL provides tools, technologies, and analysis for deploying clean hydrogen as fuel for ships and trains, as a feedstock for making renewable fuels, and as a long-term energy carrier.

These examples only scratch the surface, and even they don’t remain in our labs for long. NREL's research to decarbonize off-road transportation is already redefining the real world, with many of our innovative technologies rapidly making their way into the marketplace.

The digital twins produced by our models and analyses are improving the efficiency and informing billions of dollars in infrastructure investment in our nation's largest airports and seaports. Our researchers are partnering with fuel providers, feedstock suppliers, and commercial airlines to clear the way for reliable supplies of net-zero-carbon sustainable aviation fuel. We are working with heavy-duty equipment manufacturers to tailor electric vehicle technologies to match the rigor of the farm, mine, and construction site. Perhaps most critically, as a world leader in energy systems integration, we are addressing the hand-offs and touch points between these technologies towards a decarbonized transportation system. 

Both on road and off, our sights are set on improving the entire mobility system—and not only for carbon-neutrality. We are working to make however we move—including the individual mobility decisions we make—more sustainable, resilient, and equitable than ever before.

Join us to challenge what is possible.

Chris Gearhart
Director, NREL's Center for Integrated Mobility Sciences

Zia Abdullah
Biomass Laboratory Program Manager

Keith Wipke
Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Technologies Laboratory Program Manager

An illustration depicting the various transportation sectors NREL’s research is focused on decarbonizing, ranging from rail, marine, and aviation to personal and commercial vehicles.

Strategy Drives Deep Transportation Decarbonization

For more than four decades, NREL has harnessed its clean-energy expertise to move the needle on decarbonization and sustainability. Today, the accelerating threat of climate change has placed an even greater importance on the deep transportation decarbonization research happening at the laboratory.

A large cargo ship out at sea

Environmental Concerns Propel Marine Biofuels Research

Marine biofuels produced from biomass can reduce life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 67%–93% compared to heavy fuel oil commonly used in ships globally, according to a study by NREL scientists and others. The research helps establish the feasibility of ships using biofuels to help shipping companies comply with limits on sulfur oxides and GHG emissions issued by the International Maritime Organization. Fueling costs account for a significant part of running a shipping line, so the study weighs biofuel economics against the cost of heavy fuel oil.

A train going through a wheat field.

Software Puts Rail Freight on Express Track to Net-Zero Emissions

Each year, more than 25,000 locomotives move 1.7 billion tons of cargo across the United States by train. While rail freight is relatively efficient and clean, it releases about 36 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. NREL researchers are collaborating with leading industry and research partners, thanks to new funding by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), on a new modeling framework that can be used to analyze and plan net-zero-emission and hybrid freight train systems.

An airplane at a terminal.

Scientists Reveal Solution for Net-Zero Jet Fuel

With 2050 jet fuel demand expected to be double pre-pandemic levels and airlines ramping up pledges to reduce emissions, innovations in aircraft fuels and engines are critical to closing the gap to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. That task just got a burst of energy with the publication of a paper on carbon-negative sustainable aviation fuel by NREL scientists and partners. Using the untapped energy of wet waste, the groundbreaking biorefining process is already drawing attention from industry partners such as Southwest Airlines and others working to decarbonize flight.


Methods Integrate Renewable Hydrogen With Waste Carbon Dioxide To Produce Low-Carbon Fuels and Chemicals

Wind, solar, and battery storage appear to be a winning combination for clean electricity systems, but to make the leap to a sustainable energy system, another ingredient is necessary—low-carbon fuels. With continued cost reductions for renewably generated electricity from sources such as wind and solar systems, NREL is validating utility-scale hydrogen-production processes that could provide tomorrow’s clean fuels and chemical feedstocks to produce low-carbon, high-value products.

A tractor moving dirt.

Design Boosts Performance of Silicon Carbide Inverters for Heavy-Duty Vehicles

Electrification of heavy-duty EVs is integral to decarbonization efforts, but vehicle components must be designed to handle more power while continuing to regulate operating temperatures. A state-of-the-art thermal management system developed by NREL in collaboration with John Deere promises to significantly increase the power density of silicon carbide inverters within heavy-duty EV applications.

An old picture of an airplane

Medium: NREL Redefines Aviation With the Rigor of Science

The seeds of modern aviation didn’t merely sprout from two brothers' dream of flight. They broke into the sunlight through the rigor of the scientific process. NREL is taking a cue from the Wright brothers. We are doubling down on science we think will innovate aviation: upgrading renewable resources into affordable, net-zero-carbon sustainable aviation fuel.

A graphic showing different forms of renewables.

New Financial Analysis Tool for Long-Duration Energy Storage In Deeply Decarbonized Grids

NREL researchers recently developed a rigorous new Storage Financial Analysis Scenario Tool (StoreFAST) model to identify potential long-duration storage opportunities in the framework of a future electric grid with 85% renewables penetration. StoreFAST analyzes both energy storage systems and flexible power generation systems on a side-by-side basis to provide insights into the levelized cost of energy, financial performance parameters, and time series charts. A Joule article identified clean hydrogen systems with geologic storage and natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration as the lowest-cost options for long durations of energy storage.

People standing behind machinery.

Study Shows Abundant Opportunities for Hydrogen in a Future Integrated Energy System

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, with many current and potential uses in the chemical and refining industries, manufacturing, and transportation. Producing it can also help resolve challenges related to integrating high levels of variable renewables on the grid. Research from NREL identifies key opportunities for hydrogen to provide synergies for the U.S. energy system and quantifies their potential impacts on hydrogen markets.