Transportation Decarbonization Research

NREL is leveraging decades of clean-energy research to conquer technical barriers to decarbonization across the transportation sector—reshaping existing mobility systems for a more sustainable, resilient, and equitable climate future.

Challenge What Is Possible

Reducing transportation-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through deep decarbonization is a foremost problem in the race against climate change, and we believe the time to move is now.

Bring us your most complex decarbonization challenges, and together we can reimagine what comes next for powering a carbon-neutral U.S. economy by 2050.

Our Multipronged Decarbonization Strategy

To achieve rapid, deep decarbonization of the transportation sector, NREL aggressively pursues a multi-pronged strategy reliant on using abundant sources of renewable energy, such as wind, solar, and bioenergy, coupled with diverse energy storage solutions.

Our strategy provides the scientific building blocks needed to spur innovation through fundamental research and engineering. It enables us to identify the most efficient and effective use of renewable energy by application, while assisting industry stakeholders, communities, and early adopters in making informed implementation decisions.

A diagram on a blue grid background with icons that illustrate the pathways NREL envisions renewable electrons will need to take in order to decarbonize segments of the transportation sector.
A Whole-System Approach—NREL’s research strategy for deep decarbonization considers transportation sectors as part of a larger energy ecosystem powered by renewable electrons and linked by low-carbon energy carriers. Illustration by Josh Bauer, NREL

Our Decarbonization Research Capabilities

NREL offers robust expertise and access to state-of-the-art national laboratory facilities to accelerate deep decarbonization transportation research.

Technical Expertise

To meet market demand for long-range, fast-charging, safe, and affordable electric-drive vehicle batteries, NREL conducts battery modeling, simulation, and system evaluation activities to assess and optimize energy-storage components at the materials, cell, pack, and systems levels, while the lab's battery materials synthesis and characterization expertise enables new battery chemistries for anode and cathode materials. NREL develops power electronics and electric motor technologies and components with greater dependability, efficiency, and durability, while dramatically decreasing costs, to enable greater widescale electric vehicle acceptance.
NREL is a leader in understanding how fuel properties can enable novel combustion approaches, leading to new low-carbon fuels and advanced engine designs that enable more fuel-efficient vehicles and decrease emissions. Our pioneering carbon recycling innovations convert captured carbon in biomass and waste sources back into advanced materials, commodity and specialty chemicals, and drop-in and advantaged fuels, all enabled by catalysis. As part of this research, NREL develops methods to produce sustainable biofuels that reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 100% compared to petroleum-based fuels. The laboratory is also a founding member of a U.S. Department of Energy multi-lab initiative to understand the impacts of fuel properties on combustion to boost fuel economy and vehicle performance, while reducing emissions, to produce better fuels and engines.
Researchers at NREL are developing advanced processes to produce hydrogen economically from sustainable resources such as solar, wind, biomass, hydro, and geothermal energy. NREL's hydrogen fueling infrastructure analysis activities and capabilities are improving system reliability and performance, reducing costs, and ultimately increasing the penetration of fuel cell electric vehicles. Market transformation activities address technical and non-technical barriers to the commercialization of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies to ensure that laboratory advances can be realized in the marketplace.
Researchers are developing and evaluating fully integrated systems that connect electric vehicles, transportation infrastructure, power grids, buildings, and renewable energy sources. NREL's complementary integrated energy capabilities include tools and approaches to enable better integration with the electric grid and other energy infrastructure, diversification of integrated energy streams for resilience, cybersecurity risk management, and customer participation in smart load management and energy generation.
Using a suite of simulation and analysis tools, NREL fuses researcher expertise and a deep understanding of rapidly evolving mobility technology options, vehicle electrification, connected and automated vehicle technologies, and the underlying data infrastructure to conduct technical analyses of promising vehicle technologies to find cost-competitive solutions that maximize energy savings and reduce emissions. NREL's intelligent vehicle energy analysis experts also perform resource assessments, techno-economic comparisons, market potential projections, and financial modeling of stakeholder decisions and investment risks to enable large-scale hydrogen production and use.
NREL vehicle technology integration efforts provide on-the-ground expertise to support the development, validation, demonstration, and deployment of advanced vehicle technologies, alternative fuels, mobility systems, electric vehicles, fleet operation, and transportation efficiency. Bolstered by NREL's technical leadership, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Clean Cities coalitions' have successfully transformed local markets by integrating alternative fuels and advanced vehicle technologies since 1993. We also connect communities across the country by supporting DOE's Energy Efficient Mobility Systems program to maximize the energy efficiency of transportation systems while improving the affordability, accessibility, and convenience of moving people and goods.
Focusing on the interactions among people, mobility, the built environment, and energy systems, NREL's behavioral science research improves the collective understanding of how people will respond to technology transitions and dynamic new mobility service offerings across spatial and temporal scales in diverse and varied communities across the nation. NREL's research strategy recognizes that human behavior is at the core of individual mobility decisions and accounting for behavioral factors across diverse populations is vital to enable deep decarbonization and support sustainable, equitable, and resilient energy transitions.
NREL is improving mobility options in underserved and rural areas through efforts to ensure geographic equity of emerging transportation technologies, support economic growth and recovery, and empower local communities to develop safer, cleaner, and more accessible transportation ecosystems. NREL also delivers decision support to help state, local, and tribal governments and U.S. territories implement clean energy solutions. This effort includes market analysis, disaster resiliency and recovery, financial policy analysis, sustainable community design, strategic planning and energy management, request for proposals and performance contracting, and training and workshops.
NREL researchers are working toward zero-emissions operations for heavy-duty vehicles in the off-road and non-road sectors, often dubbed “difficult to decarbonize.” This work has applications in freight, rail, marine, construction, military, mining, and aviation technologies. Research efforts focus on commercial vehicle electrification, advanced powertrains, energy storage, energy systems integration, net-zero emission fuels, power electronics and electric machines, and scaling the high-power charging infrastructure needed for these sectors.

Research Initiatives

Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) is a visionary research platform that will make it possible to prepare and project what a full-scale energy transformation could look like using existing NREL facilities and a virtual emulation environment. ARIES helps researchers address the challenges of integrated energy systems at scale in the areas of energy storage, power electronics, hybrid energy systems, future energy infrastructure, and cybersecurity—five research areas of critical importance as devices scale up from the hundreds to millions.
The Behind-the-Meter Storage Consortium focuses on energy storage technologies that minimize costs and grid impacts by integrating electric vehicle charging, solar photovoltaic generation, and energy-efficient buildings using controllable loads.
Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy Co-Optimization of Fuels & Engines initiative, of which NREL is a part of, are exploring how simultaneous innovations in fuels and engines can boost fuel economy and vehicle performance, while reducing emissions—advancing the underlying science needed to deliver better fuels and better engines sooner.
Through the 1+MW Charging project, NREL is working with other national labs to develop a megawatt-scale charging system for medium- and heavy-duty electric vehicles. The effort focuses on creating charge-control solutions for individual vehicles and charging ports to enable multiple vehicles to charge at the same time without overloading the system.
As part of the Silicon Consortium Project, NREL is working with other national laboratories to eliminate barriers to implementing silicon-based anodes in lithium-ion battery cells. This research will ultimately allow for the production of smaller, cheaper, and better performing batteries for electric-drive vehicles.
Researchers with the RECHARGE project are investigating various smart-charging strategies to optimize the benefits and reduce the risks associated with a widespread increase in electric vehicle charging. Grid-integrated smart charging can improve grid flexibility by more effectively utilizing renewable energy, shaving peak electricity demand, and filling demand valleys while still meeting the needs of electric vehicle drivers.



Why Transportation Is Key to Deep Decarbonization

Transportation accounts for the largest portion (29%) of total U.S. GHG emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Worldwide, the transport sector accounts for about 14% of global GHG emissions, per the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. With emissions still on the rise, transforming transportation through deep decarbonization will hold the key to achieving a net-zero carbon economy.

Deep decarbonization is the most aggressive form of revolutionizing our current fossil-fuel-reliant energy system to one powered solely from renewable and low-carbon energy sources. Finding solutions to slash man-made, atmospheric heat-trapping GHGs—also known as carbon dioxide emissions—is imperative for meeting emission reduction targets, achieving climate policy goals, and halting the mounting effects of climate change.


If you're interested in partnering with NREL on transportation decarbonization, contact