Nestled in the rolling Tennessee hills and forests, the secretive lab that developed power for the Manhattan Project is working to change the auto industry and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign fuel.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory has worked with the auto industry since the energy crises of the 1970s and 1980s. Oak Ridge has helped develop materials, fuels and systems used by millions of vehicles. Here's some of what's in the works.
A more-slippery oil
The oil additive Oak Ridge developed could be the poster child for government research. Senior research scientist Jun Qu worked on it for 10 years. The result is a low-cost additive that appears to reduce the fuel consumption of any engine at least 2 percent. That would amount to 2 billion gallons of fuel a year, a massive decrease in emissions and U.S. energy imports.
Qu tested the liquid additive with General Motors, Shell Oil and Lubrizol.
"This technology holds tremendous potential," says Michael Viola, the GM staff research engineer who tested the lubricant at the automaker's Tech Center in Warren, Mich.
Qu says the additive reduces the oil's viscosity with no increase in engine wear. Even greater improvements in fuel economy are possible by combining it with other additives already in use, he says.
Oak Ridge will license production to industry, says Jennifer Tonzello Caldwell of the lab's technology-transfer division.
"We give preferential licensing to small U.S. companies, if they have the wherewithal to produce it," Caldwell says. "We want job creation in the United States."
The laboratory will get a royalty from production, like universities do when their discoveries are commercialized. "GM is pushing to have the additive produced," Qu says. "It could be in production within five years."
Affordable carbon fiber
A new process to make carbon fiber could cut the lightweight material's cost nearly 50 percent. "We're exploring lower-cost raw material to move carbon fiber from niche vehicles to the mass market," says Lee McGetrick, director of Oak Ridge's carbon-fiber technology center.
The center aims to cut the cost to $7 a pound, down from $12 a pound today. It is working with supplier Faurecia and the Composite Vehicle Research Center at Michigan State University to get carbon fiber into wider production.
"This material has a lot of promise in mass production," says Mahmoodul Haq, Michigan State assistant professor of mechanical engineering.
Better battery charging
Oak Ridge has developed a system for inductive charging, which charges electric-vehicle batteries without physically connecting to an outlet. The process is as efficient as charging through a plug, says Madhu Chinthavali, team leader of Oak Ridge's power electronics group.
"We're working on dynamic wireless charging," in which the charging coils are buried in the road and the car doesn't need expensive batteries to store electricity, Chinthavali says. That would cut the cost and energy consumption of electric vehicles radically.
Oak Ridge is the largest domestic battery lab. It's developing less-expensive, more-powerful batteries for electric cars.
"We don't want to be dependent on importing battery technology in a similar way we are dependent on importing foreign oil," says David Wood, fuel-cell technologies program manager. "We need to build up our manufacturing processes and materials supply chain here in the U.S. so that we don't have to import batteries."