SCIENCE, ENGINEERING, AND TECHNOLOGY

The Potential of Alternative Vehicles and Fuels

©omada/iStock/ThinkstockCars and SUVs consume almost half of the nation's petroleum, and about half of that fuel is imported. Congress asked the National Research Council to assess whether alternative fuels and light-duty vehicles could decrease petroleum use and greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. by 80 percent by 2050.

Transitions to Alternative Vehicles and Fuels says that the U.S. could meet that goal through a combination of more efficient vehicles, alternative fuels, and strong government policies to overcome barriers such as high costs and consumer choices.

Improving the efficiency of conventional vehicles is, up to a point, the most economical and easiest-to-implement approach to saving fuel and lowering emissions, however this alone will not meet the 2050 goals, the report says. To reach them, the average fuel economy of vehicles on the road would have to exceed 180 mpg, which is extremely unlikely with current technologies.

The report identified several scenarios that could meet the more demanding 2050 greenhouse gas goal. Each combines highly efficient vehicles with at least one of three alternative energy sources -- biofuels, electricity, or hydrogen.

All the vehicles considered are and will continue to be several thousand dollars more expensive than today's conventional vehicles and will likely be limited to a few body styles and sizes in the early years. Wide consumer acceptance is essential, therefore, and large numbers of alternative vehicles must be purchased long before 2050 if the on-road fleet is to meet desired performance goals. Strong policies and technology advances are critical in overcoming this challenge.

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

A Boost for U.S. Manufacturing

©Fuse/ThinkstockFor more than two decades, the United States has sought to strengthen manufacturing through the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) -- a national network of 60 affiliated extension centers and field offices that spans all 50 states. Run through the National Institute of Standards and Technology, MEP provides access to expertise, services, and assistance directed at improving growth, innovation, workforce training, and adoption of emerging technologies by the nation's small and medium manufacturers.

21st Century Manufacturing: The Role of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership Program identifies new challenges facing MEP as the nation's manufacturing firms adapt to a rapidly evolving, globally competitive environment. The report reviews programs to support manufacturing in Germany, Taiwan, France, Canada, and the United Kingdom in terms of practices, funding levels, and accomplishments, as a point of reference for the U.S. and also to illustrate the global focus on advanced manufacturing.

To ensure that the U.S. MEP program remains effective, the report identifies a number of steps that NIST should take, including enhancing manufacturing growth, innovation, and sustainability; significantly improving collection and analysis of performance data; and adapting lessons learned from U.S. and international best practices. With the adoption of these improvements, federal funding for the MEP program should be set at a level commensurate with its mission, and take into account relevant international benchmarks.

The National Research Council study was funded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Safety of Offshore Oil and Gas Technologies

©Arthur Preston/iStock/ThinkstockAfter the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. Department of the Interior sought to improve its approach for implementing a decades-old congressional mandate to require the use of technologies deemed "best available and safest" -- as well as economically feasible -- for offshore oil and gas drilling and production. DOI's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), which is responsible for safety and environmental oversight of oil and gas operations on the U.S. outer continental shelf, asked the National Academies to identify and evaluate a range of implementation approaches.

BSEE will need to draw on expertise outside the government to improve its efforts to identify and develop the best available and safest technologies for offshore oil and gas production, says Best Available and Safest Technologies for Offshore Oil and Gas Operations: Options for Implementation. The BSEE-funded Offshore Energy Safety Institute – planned as the report was in progress -- could be a "suitable vehicle" for evaluating and developing new technologies to meet the mandate.

BSEE should enlist a multidisciplinary group of individuals with the necessary skills to perform critical technical assessments, economic analysis, and independent reviews when needed. The institute would greatly aid in tapping the additional talent BSEE needs, as long as it is properly organized, staffed, and supported. However, the initial scale and structure of the institute should be significantly expanded to fully address the range of offshore challenges, the report adds.

The study by the National Research Council and National Academy of Engineering was funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Strengthening States' Research Capacity

Student involved in research funded through the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, University of Wyoming photoThe long-term health of the U.S. research enterprise depends on providing opportunities for talented young people in every state to participate in high-quality science and engineering research.

The primary federal programs designed to ensure that universities across the U.S. are capable of engaging in the nation's research enterprise fall under the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). The National Science Foundation, departments of Energy and Agriculture, and NASA have active EPSCoR programs. The National Institutes of Health have a related program called Institutional Development Awards (IDeA).

EPSCoR has provided significant benefits to participating states and thus to the nation, says The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, a report from the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. It has boosted the nation's human capital by strengthening research infrastructure and training many future scientists and engineers in states where, in some cases, training opportunities had been scarce.

To strengthen EPSCoR's focus and impact, programs should concentrate on the core elements of enhancing research excellence and postsecondary training in science and engineering. Over the years, EPSCoR programs have added other goals, such as encouraging innovation to stimulate economic development and expanding the diversity of the science and engineering workforce. Although adding these broader social goals may be compelling, it dilutes the program's ability to advance its primary mission.

All EPSCoR funding should require some level of state matching funds, the report adds. EPSCoR should also develop and enforce a realistic framework for state eligibility and graduation. The program was intended to support states while they built their research capacity, with the expectation that they would eventually be able to compete successfully for federal research funding on their own. At this point, however, no state that has participated in the decades-old program has yet permanently graduated from it.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Federal Nanotechnology R&D

A nanosystems engineering research center led by North Carolina State University and part of the National Science Foundation's contributions to the National Nanotechnology Initiative; photo by Marc Hall, NCSUThe global market for nanotechnology is expected to exceed $3 trillion by 2015 and includes products that range from cosmetics to medical therapies to electronics. Two reports by the National Research Council examine the federal government's efforts in researching and developing nanotechnology and in investigating potential health and environmental risks.

Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative is the Research Council's most recent review of the NNI, a multiagency, multidisciplinary federal initiative that supports a collection of research programs and other activities. The report identifies several cross-cutting, high-priority areas for NNI, including improving information gathering and communication at the project level, developing and implementing interagency plans for focused areas, and identifying, sharing, and implementing best practices, especially to foster technology transfer and commercialization.

The report evaluates the suitability of current procedures and criteria for determining progress toward NNI goals, and recommends explicit definitions of success and metrics associated with meeting those goals.

Another report, Research Progress on Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials, notes that despite increased research, the potential effects of nanomaterials on humans and ecosystems are still not fully understood. The committee that issued the report previously presented a strategic approach in 2012 for developing the research and scientific infrastructure needed to address the potential health and environmental risks of nanomaterials. In this report, the committee developed a set of indicators to evaluate the progress of recent research efforts in the United States and the European Union.

To improve the level of progress, the report offers specific actions and objectives for each research category. But reiterating one of its earlier conclusions, the committee stressed that accountability for implementation of a research strategy is hampered by the absence of an entity with sufficient management and budgetary authority to direct research efforts governmentwide. In addition, NNI would benefit from a clearer separation of authority and accountability for its environmental, health, and safety research enterprise in relation to its mandate to promote overall nanotechnology development and commercialization.

The studies were funded by the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

S&E at National Security Labs

The Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility (DARHT) at Los Alamos National Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy's stockpile stewardship program, photo courtesy LANLThe U.S.'s three national security laboratories -- Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories -- are charged with securing the aging nuclear weapons stockpile and advancing nuclear nonproliferation. Congress asked the National Research Council to review the quality of scientific research and engineering at the labs. An earlier report, released in February 2012, examined management of the laboratories.

The Quality of Science and Engineering at the NNSA National Security Laboratories says that there are currently no problems with quality that would prevent certification of the stockpile. But the report identifies several stresses that could contribute to the deterioration of the work environment for scientists and engineers and limit the quality of their work in the future -- and thus the nation's ability to benefit fully from the laboratories' potential.

The report examines capabilities in the areas of weapons design; system engineering and the effects of aging on system performance; the weapons science base; and modeling and simulation. The laboratories are building enhanced computational models that account for changes in weapon properties as they age, and this requires state-of-the-art capabilities in a number of areas, the report says -- not only in computation but also in facilities for the experiments that "ground" those models in reality. The National Nuclear Security Administration should conduct a detailed assessment of simulation and modeling needs, including the necessary experimental facilities and programs, and implement an adequately funded plan to meet those needs.

While the safety risks inherent in experimental work done at the labs must be controlled, the report says that the current system for managing these risks is contributing to escalating costs and schedule delays, and in some cases may limit experimentation. The system for assessing and mitigating these risks should be reviewed to improve efficiency while maintaining a safe working environment.

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration.

Effects of Diluted Bitumen on Pipelines

©nesjerry/iStock/ThinkstockThe heavy form of petroleum known as bitumen has been imported from Canada for more than 30 years and is transported in diluted form through numerous crude oil pipelines in the United States. With bitumen production from Canada's oil sands on the rise, Congress passed legislation in January 2012 calling upon the secretary of transportation to determine whether an increased risk of release exists for pipelines transporting bitumen imports. The U.S. Department of Transportation asked the National Research Council to analyze one aspect of this risk: whether that likelihood is greater for pipelines transporting diluted bitumen than it is for pipelines transporting other crude oils. The Research Council was not asked to examine whether the environmental or public safety consequences of a diluted bitumen release differ from those of other crude oils.

Pipelines transporting diluted bitumen have no greater likelihood of release than pipelines transporting other crude oils, says Effects of Diluted Bitumen on Crude Oil Transmission Pipelines. Diluted bitumen has physical and chemical properties within the range of other crude oils, the report says, and no aspect of its transportation by pipeline would make it more likely to cause an accidental release.

Shipments of diluted bitumen do not contain higher concentrations of water, sediment, dissolved gases, or other agents that cause or exacerbate internal pipeline corrosion, and the organic acids in diluted bitumen are not corrosive to steel at pipeline operating temperatures. In addition, no properties in diluted bitumen make transmission pipelines more vulnerable to erosion, external corrosion and cracking, or damage from mechanical forces.

The study was funded by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation.