By Bill Moore
General Motors stole Argonne National Lab research to develop what we now know as the Chevy Volt E-Flex electric concept car.
Or, at least, that's the impression one got after reading an article that appeared in a small suburban Chicago newspaper. The problem is, that's not at all what Dr. Don Hillebrand, the director the Lab's Center for Transportation Research, said or even implied.
Imagine the consternation at Argonne, which depends on maintaining a close working relationship with car makers like General Motors, when it discovered the story in Suburban Life. The paper would correct the article, but not before Argonne's Eleanor Taylor had gotten on the phone to Dr. Hillebrand, who happen to be -- ironically -- at GM's Challenge X competition.
Puzzled by the implications of the story, we here at EV World had, nevertheless, linked to the story until the Lab contacted us to ask that we delete it, at least until the erroneous report could be corrected. We complied, but not before taking the opportunity to ask if we could find out what happened. ANL arranged for us to speak with Dr. Hillebrand, the complete audio of which -- so we don't misconstrue his remarks -- is available using either of the two MP3 players above or the URL at the end of this article.
Hillebrand began by explaining that his department is funded by the U.S. Energy Department's "Freedom Car" program to the tune of about $25 million annually and employs some 110 people.
"We split our work up in two different ways," he explained. "The prime objective of our group is to lower the nation's reliance on imported petroleum. We look at two broad categories: efficiency and petroleum displacement.
"Our actual area of research falls into a broad group of categories. We work on engine emissions, vehicle systems, which is also where our hybrid and plug-in hybrid work is being done, [and] vehicle materials. We do life cycle analysis, which is sort of an economic group. Thermal technologies and then alternate fuels.
"Outside of my area we also have a group that does work on fuel cells and another group that does work specifically on batteries and battery chemistry, although... my group also does battery work, but it's applied type battery work."
When Sparks Fly
It was his group's work on plug-in hybrids and a presentation he did a fortnight ago that became the focal point of controversy. Not only was his local Congressman in the audience but so was a reporter.
"I was trying to get across how we do tech[nology] transfer, what the real objective of the lab is. One of the big objectives that we have is to get technology in pre-competitive or non-competitive areas of research and to figure ways to channel those into the mainstream for industry to pick then up, for industry to work on them and take them on as projects.
"Now the government funds them because it sees them as improvements in efficiency or ways to reduce reliance on oil; and our job is to work on parts of those that are not specifically related to a product, and to break down barriers and use the lab's resources to crack hard problems. One of those areas I was talking about was plug-in hybrids. We have been focused on doing research on plug-in hybrids for many years and we recognize the potential of plug-in hybrids."
Hillebrand said that while some auto manufacturers have been actively against plug-in hybrids or at best, non-committal.
"But one by one, you've essentially seen automakers go silent on their plug-ins. GM was one example; Toyota, Ford... And as they go silent, I was saying, to us that means that they are now taking this technology seriously; that they are actually forming programs. And frankly, once you have a program at a company, you don't talk about it anymore."
"And as I was talking about this, I think someone in the audience misconstrued... that one of the automakers had stolen technology from us, which is ridiculous."
He explained that the mission of his group is to do the basic research that will then get car manufacturers interested.
"When they take some of this technology and run with it, to us that is a slam dunk success.
"When we develop a technology that is useful to somebody... hey it was paid for by the public and it is open to any American industry that wants to work on it. And when we see some of what we view as really good ideas being picked by automakers, we see that as just a great success."
Hillebrand told me that the lab has developed close relationships with carmakers and many of his team have worked for automakers -- he spent nearly twenty years at Chrysler before joining Argonne. Those long-term relationships enable him to get a sense of where the industry is headed.
"When we start to see key people working on these types of projects, and when I say key people... you know the real line engineer, the guy who makes things happen... you get excited because you know something is really going to happen."
Series Not the Ball Game
"I am not sure that series [hybrid architecture] are going to be the answer," he responded when I asked him what was its attraction. "In the short term, what's really attractive about the series is that many automakers have put extensive resources into fuel cell technology and fuel cell technology works very well in a series context. They've optimized electronics, power electronics, converters, etc., to have a fuel cell-powered electric vehicle. And now that there is more focus on near-term and immediate results, these platforms that are already developed and optimized are very easy to convert to plug-in hybrid configuration."
However, he explained, from a theoretical basis it turns out that a parallel hybrid architecture looks to be a more efficient overall system, "but the series configuration solves a lot of immediate problems: all electric range, you've got all the problems solved...
"You have to have everything already electrified anyway, and when you've already optimized a platform around a fuel cell, replacement of the fuel cell with, say, a high-efficiency diesel engine or a high-efficiency gas(oline) engine is very simple and straight forward.
"So, you've already got all those rolled-in advantages... I think [series] is going to be... a stretch-able technology.
Hillebrand explained that whereas in a parallel hybrid, both the "engine" and energy storage medium (batteries) help propel the vehicle, only the batteries directly drive the vehicle in a series hybrid. The "engine-generator" or fuel cell provide electric power for the motor, but no mechanical traction power.
Guilty of Hype
The original newspaper article made mention of a 100 mpg Saturn plug-in hybrid that lab had developed, so I asked Dr. Hillebrand if such a vehicle actually exists. He replied that when talking about plug-in hybrids, mile per gallon numbers are meaningless, but it also helps convey to laymen the significance of the technology.
"When I spin that number off... I am guilty of hype," he admitted. "And I apologize, but nonetheless, when you want to reach out to someone and explain the impact of the technology, sometimes you gotta hype a little bit so people know."
He went on to say that one of Argonne's tasks now is to come up with a standardized way to report the actual fuel economy performance of plug-in hybrids. He said that it's easy to "jimmy the system," to say a car does 200-300 mpg.
He explained that his team uses multiple runs over the "federal" driving cycle of about six miles to arrive at a mathematical "steady state number."
They then take pieces of the cycle, average them out and come up with a PHEV's average fuel economy.
"I think this is pretty close to how everyone's going to do it in the future, and using that method we can get well over 100 mpg.
"The number we give not only takes into account the fuel it uses, but also the electricity it uses, and comes up with an average between them and then relates that as a miles per gallon equivalent."
No Free Ride at Taxpayer's Expense
I asked whether or not there is any compensation system that repays the taxpayer research dollars spent on technology that profits carmakers.
Basically, the answer is yes, but a complicated yes.
Hillebrand elaborated on a number of different mechanisms from Cooperate Research and Development Agreements, called CRADAs, to licenses on government-owned patents (the actual inventor always shares in the patent). Listen to the full audio interview at about the 16 minute point if you're interested in his full answer.
Watching the Slope of the Curve
Perhaps the most intriguing part of our interview was our discussion on the state of lithium battery technology, especially since so many people are hoping that it will be the breakthrough we need to make both plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars truly feasible.
He observed that the slope of the curve on lithium ion battery improvements continue to "move" whereas decade-older technology like NiMH has pretty much slowed, though the results have been excellent.
"Look at the periodic table and lithium is as good as you can get. It's the lightest metal; it's number three, so you're not going to get too much further. So, from an energy density standpoint, that looks extremely attractive."
BUT... he does have two very real concerns: safety and supply. He dreads the day that somebody's lithium ion battery car melts down.
"These batteries can cook-off if improperly designed and when you have them improperly put together or is done by somebody who is not astute or the supplier [comes] from someplace where the standards are not as high as in the United States, you're likely to have bad properties out there.
"So I am living in dread of the first incident that makes national news, because it is going to panic a whole lot of people."
His second concern is the availability of lithium carbonate, relatively very little of which is available in the United States. He fears that we will be trading our present dependence on a handful of oil exporting companies for a future dependence on an even smaller number of lithium carbonate exporters. [See EV World's two-part interview with William Tahill on Peak Lithium.]
On the positive side, he sees competition between South America and China as a good thing and that demand for lithium, like platinum, will eventually stimulate solutions to stretch it use.
It's Where We Want to Go
I asked if he agreed with the analysis of the independent expert panel that California's Air Resources Board hired to investigate the state of Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) technology that ultimately, hydrogen fuel cell plug-in hybrids were the end game.
"Yes... it's almost as fusion and that sort of thing... it's where we want to go; and it's the right vision. Hydrogen is the perfect fuel, fuel cells are the most efficient way to use that fuel, and you know, [it's] solid state, no moving parts or very few moving parts. It really is a beautiful picture, but there are just so many issues that have to be overcome."
He commented that General Motors admitted recently that one of its hydrogen fuel cell prototypes cost $30 million dollars and the plug-in hybrids he's been working on cost in the six-figures, still expensive for now, but nothing like a fuel cell prototype.
"Nonetheless, hydrogen, it is the end game," he stated. "But it needs a lot of time, maybe more time than people realize. That's no reason to stop working on it. It's just that it's a difficult problem and there are so many fundamental things that need to be solved. Transport of hydrogen. Where are you going to get the hydrogen from? And the auto industry has never been a particularly revolutionary industry even going back to the [Ford] Model T. Those are all evolutionary steps and to get to a fuel cell plug-in electric vehicle is going to take lots and lots of small, evolutionary steps, and it's going to be stretched out over a long period of time."
The 'Race' Where We All Win
I pointed out to Hillebrand that there appears to be a race on between hydrogen fuel cell development and advanced batteries and I wondered which he thought would win.
He agreed that there is a race, not only between companies, but even within companies.
"The different groups working on the technology [within companies] are certainly in intense competition with each other just from what we hear anecdotally. Batteries are improving at a slow and steady rate, fuel cells as well, although for a long period of time it seemed that we were just moving around the parameters on fuel cells. We would increase durability at the cost of specific power and vice versa. But now we are starting to see movement in the fuel cells as well...
"But who's going to win in the end? I think we're going to win," he said.
And how soon, I asked?
"It goes over the horizon," he replied. He commented that because of concerns over oil dependency and climate, plug-ins have been pushed center stage because they represent a more immediate solution as "something we can really do right now."
And perhaps most encouraging of all, he sees these vehicles only a couple years away, "as opposed to fuel cells, which are much further out."
Beyond plug-ins, Hillebrand thinks the future will be much more diverse than our current, largely monolithic fuel system. There will be multiple fuels and multiple vehicle platforms.
"No single one will fill the bill. We're going to see a whole patchwork of different types of technologies and vehicles that are flexible to deal with many different sources of energy. Vehicles that have battery capacity to run as a plug-in, that have engines that can easily switch between all sorts of diesel, bio or coal-based... and can optimize themselves to whatever fuel is put into them. Vehicles that can charge in many different places using solar charging, even wind charging; and vehicles that are linked to the grid and can actually put power back into the grid when it needs it; essentially an integrated part of our entire economy running on a range of different fuels all of which we can make domestically and all that are interchangeable. I think that's where we're going to end up trying to go someday."
Download the complete MP3 interview using this URL: http://www.evworld.com/evworld_audio/don_hillebrand.mp3.