Skip to Main Content U.S. Department of Energy
Breakthroughs Magazine

Mission Critical

NATT driving successes in vehicle technologies

idealized photo of trucks and cars

The Northwest Alliance for Transportation Technologies, or NATT, did more than reach cruising speed in its first four years. The alliance developed a promising portfolio of projects that will benefit the transportation industry as well as the Northwest's materials and manufacturing technology base.

With support from the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Transportation Technology, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory created NATT in 1996. The Laboratory leads this regional effort, which brings together national laboratories, industry and automakers to help increase fuel efficiency and reduce emissions in vehicles.

Many of the research and development activities in NATT's first years were focused on reducing the cost and increasing the use of lightweight materials such as aluminum, magnesium and titanium—all of which are produced in the Northwest.

A "brake-through" in low-cost components

Under a NATT contract, MC-21 Inc. has developed an innovative mixing technology that may significantly lower the cost of making aluminum metal matrix composites. Although these materials can reduce the weight of automotive engines, transmissions and brake systems, their use in high-volume production is limited due to the high cost of using current technology. MC-21 Inc. successfully demonstrated its low-cost process and is investigating options to license the process to Northwest foundries producing high-value components.

Lightweight pickup frames picking up

In the last year, NATT funded a study to determine the feasibility of building a lightweight aluminum frame for pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles and vans. These vehicles, which typically are heavier and less fuel-efficient than passenger cars, account for more than half of all new vehicle sales in the United States. After determining that it is possible to build a lightweight frame of aluminum and steel that would reduce vehicle weight without significantly affecting the cost, NATT is funding optimization of the design and fabrication of vehicle prototypes for test and evaluation.

Thin is in

In a cooperative project, researchers at Reynolds Materials Company and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are developing aluminum tailored welded blank technology to reduce the weight and cost of automobiles. This technology would allow automotive designers to use a thicker aluminum sheet in places where it is needed, such as door hinges and lock areas, while using a thinner sheet for the rest of the part. Pacific Northwest is developing the materials property and performance database that will provide automotive designers with the information they need to design lightweight structures that are reliable and safe.

Cleaning up

Researchers at Pacific Northwest are developing exhaust after-treatment devices and catalytic systems to reduce emissions such as oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter from heavy-duty diesel engines. NATT is working with engine manufacturers such as Caterpillar, Inc. and Detroit Diesel Corporation to develop the designs and materials used in these systems. Ultimately, these systems will be supplied to truck manufacturers in the Northwest as part of the engine and exhaust systems used on their trucks.

Further down the road

With two of the top heavy-truck manufacturers in the United States located in the Northwest, NATT's participants expect the future to bring more opportunities to collaborate in this area.

Water conservation program makes waves

Greg Sullivan at keyboard

When continued growth puts a strain on a community's water supply, is there a way to get residents personally involved in easing the problem?

The answer is "Yes" in two Oregon cities facing serious water supply limitations, according to data being collected and evaluated by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Volunteer households in Lafayette and Wilsonville are showing that the right combination of incentives and community education programs can lead to substantial reductions in annual water and energy consumption.

These households are participating in a study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Building Technology, State and County Programs. It's called SWEEP, short for Saving Water and Energy Education Program. Other partners in the program include the Oregon Office of Energy, Portland General Electric (the local electric utility), Frigidaire Home Products, the Caroma Company, CTSI Corporation and Network Services Corporation.

The five companies provided an incentive for residents to join SWEEP by donating some of the most efficient clothes washers, dryers, dishwashers, dual-flush toilets, showerheads, faucet aerators, and irrigation system controllers available to volunteers willing to replace their existing appliances.

Other incentives include low-interest loans, special purchase incentives or rebates from the cities and income tax credits from the state. The Oregon Office of Energy is providing $400,000 in low-interest loans to the cities, which in turn are loaning the money at a favorable interest rate to residents and businesses to buy the appliances and fixtures. Frigidaire also is offering special purchase rebates on their appliances.

Pacific Northwest brought metering expertise to the study and is in charge of evaluating SWEEP results. The three levels of monitoring to measure water use include

  • End-use equipment metering, which includes detailed monitoring of clothes washers, clothes dryers and water heaters
  • City water meter monitoring, making use of innovative data collection and a software program capable of collecting and analyzing end-use water consumption with a single-point metering system
  • City water supply metering at the city supply location, which serves as a point of aggregation for all savings.

"This evaluation will produce one of the most detailed savings studies to date on comprehensive indoor water-efficiency appliances and equipment," said Greg Sullivan, Pacific Northwest project manager. The evaluation also will produce estimates of energy savings from using water-efficient equipment.

"After gathering data for several months, the preliminary analysis from Lafayette shows water use by toilets was reduced by 61 percent, front-loading clothes washers reduced water use by 43 percent, and the dishwasher's savings were 25 percent. Water savings from these three appliances alone are expected to average over 17,000 gallons a year for the households studied," Sullivan said.

Additional savings are expected from efficient showerheads, faucet aerators and irrigation controllers. For Lafayette, these savings are not only realized at the water supply point, but also at the city's constrained sewage treatment plant.

"This consumer research is quantifying the exceptional savings both in dollars and resources that can be realized when efficient products like those with the ENERGY STAR™ label are widely incorporated into communities. We believe the final results will show that the efforts of Lafayette and Wilsonville, Oregon, should be duplicated across the country."

--Bill Richardson, U.S. Secretary of Energy

In another round of the study, 25 residents from Wilsonville, a fast-growing city in Oregon's Willamette Valley, received their high-efficiency appliances and fixtures in May. Pacific Northwest continues collecting data on their water and energy use for analysis.

SWEEP is unique, according to study participants, in combining whole-house appliance efficiency testing with a community-wide promotional campaign. The campaign is encouraging all citizens and businesses to switch to more efficient appliances and adopt water- and energy-saving behaviors. Local schools are involved in projects to raise awareness of water and energy savings, and civic leaders are planning community conservation fairs.

Story by Richard Romanelli, contributing writer

Wind tunnel mimics Mother Nature

A unique facility at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory offers scientists the next-best thing when it comes to conducting tests in "real-world" environmental conditions. In fact, the Aerosol Research Facility—one of only two like it in the world—aids research by providing key bene-fits that Mother Nature does not. The facility allows conditions such as wind speed, temperature, humidity, light intensity, atmospheric amendments and aerosol aging to be reproduced on demand and changed at a moment's notice.

Scientists use the Aerosol Research Facility, which is also known as the Environmental Wind Tunnel, to study occupational and environmental concerns.

The wind tunnel is well suited to conduct experiments that build an understanding of physical and chemical interactions, how materials are transported and deposited in the environment, how materials change over time and their expected effects. In its 17-year history, the facility has been used to study global warming, how wildlife could be exposed to pesticides, the effects of wind erosion on the surface of arid lands and the efficacy of dust abatement techniques and the effects of military smoke screens on plants, soils, water, microorganisms and endangered species.

In recent years, the Aerosol Research Facility has played a role in addressing the threat of attack by chemical or biological agents. "It's a perfect facility for testing systems being developed to detect chemical and biological agents," said Mark Kingsley, a scientist in Pacific Northwest's environmental characterization and risk assessment group. "In a short time, you can change the concentration of the agent simulants, change the temperature, humidity and wind speed, or add dust, diesel exhaust and other things that might be in the natural environment."

The air mass studied in the wind tunnel can be loaded with natural and man-made materials, including mixtures of dusts, molds, pollens, smoke, fumes or gases. Researchers can introduce materials such as site-specific soils and vegetation to more closely mimic the environments they wish to test. The wind tunnel even can be configured to imitate urban environments such as subways or a building's ventilation system.

Windtunnel collage

With this much flexibility and control, the facility provides a safe and efficient way to evaluate and modify laboratory designs of biological and chemical detectors, to characterize the fate and transport of indoor and outdoor air pollution in different climatic conditions and to study the effects of realistic exposures on human and environmental health—without the expense and uncertain conditions of large-scale field trials.

Breakthroughs Magazine

In this issue...