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Claus Daniel, Ph.D., Deputy Director for the Sustainable Transportation Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and Founding Director of the U.S. Department of Energy Battery Manufacturing R&D Facility at ORNL.

Making strides in sustainable transportation

A material scientist by training working on processing, manufacturing, and characterization development for advanced energy storage systems, Claus Daniel, Ph.D., organized the Lightweighting Commercial Vehicles for Improved Efficiency session at the SAE 2014 Commercial Vehicle Engineering Congress. SAE Off-Highway Engineering Assistant Editor Matthew Monaghan recently spoke with Daniel about some of the research being done at ORNL. Following is an excerpt of their conversation.

What does Oak Ridge’s Sustainable Transportation Program encompass?

Our program is a very comprehensive R&D program. It covers light-, medium-, and heavy-duty vehicles, those for passengers as well as commercial vehicles. We are performing materials research for new materials in terms of light-weighting vehicles but also in terms of energy efficiency, higher efficiency engine work. We also work on putting systems together. We have a large group working on engine efficiency, alternative engines, alternative fuels for engines, exhaust aftertreatment systems, and we have some areas that focus on electrification of vehicles. That encompasses all electronics, battery R&D, manufacturing R&D, and fuel cell work. Then we have a couple of groups in our Center for Transportation Analysis focusing on data analysis and the soft science around congestion, intelligent transportation systems, and data for consumers and decision makers.

What are the main hurdles to overcome when incorporating lightweight materials?

Steels and ferrous materials have very unique behavior because they are materials that you can forge well, cast well, later on stamp very well and deform again very well, and we understand all of that. If you’re going to lighter weight metals, some of those other metals have a dramatically different atomic structure and therefore are not as manufacturable. They have different deformation behavior. Aluminum is finding its way into the marketplace now, but magnesium, for example, is really difficult and expensive to form into a final shape. Cost is one aspect and machinability and manufacturability is another aspect. Then if you go to more exotic materials, like non-metallic systems, composite materials, carbon fiber composite materials, other types of plastics, you are having a huge paradigm shift there in terms of vehicle design, robustness, crash behavior, which make it really difficult on the engineering side to introduce.

Can you provide an update on some of the low-cost carbon fiber development work being done?

We have a very strong research portfolio on new precursor materials to be put into carbon fibers. Currently the state of the art in industry is Polyacrylonitrile as the raw material that goes into carbon fibers. It’s a relatively expensive material if you want it to be flawless and if you want it to create high-strength carbon fibers. We are looking at alternatives there. We are also looking at the manufacturing cost along the way from the precursor to the carbon fiber and trying to see if we can take energy and cost out of the process itself. In that regard, for four years we’ve been running the Department of Energy’s Carbon Fiber Technology Consortia at the laboratory as well, which is the next step of scaling.

How are you seeing additive manufacturing research technology developing?

That’s a very exciting area. We have a number of big partnerships with equipment manufacturers as well as with potential users where we are exploring opportunities with state-of-the-art technology as well as what is lacking to really enable the future of this manufacturing technology. That means we are developing new materials to be utilized as well as we are developing new tools to validate parts to monitor the manufacturing process, for example.

On the automotive side, if you need millions of the same parts, maybe printing each one of the parts might in certain circumstances not be the best solution, but you could work toward printing tools. If you look, for example, at a big stamping operation in an automotive plant where you are producing door panels. The tools being used for those stamping operations are very expensive. They also have lead times for manufacturing that are very long. We have done some research that demonstrated that you can print tools like that and get some adequate performance in the press on real parts. Your tool doesn’t last as long, but your tool is also only a fraction of the cost.

How do you enjoy working for a national lab as opposed to one specific company?

What I really like at a national laboratory is you get exposed to a large number of problems and you can work with a large number of industries together to try to help strengthen our national economy in a way that you have an impact in a multitude of areas. At a company, you are much more focused on bringing specific products out on the market and then selling those and further improving upon those, so you are more limited in what you can do, but what you do is more specific to certain outcomes. At a national laboratory, it’s a little bit like a big playground. I have the world’s best researchers and engineers around me where if I have a problem I can find an expert somewhere either right here on campus or within our family of collaborators. I can pick and choose problems, which I find really intriguing. I can really see where I can have a big impact on the nation.

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