Researchers take steps toward radical transformation in sustainable transportation

Transportation remains one of the key challenges in the push toward broad adoption of renewable and sustainable energy infrastructure. Research into sustainable transportation — from fuel sources to infrastructure to the societal and ethical impacts — can be found across the College of Engineering and Applied Science.

Critical research areas for sustainable transportation
  • Power electronics for electric vehicles and charging infrastructure
  • Power and energy systems
  • Transportation asset management
  • Built infrastructure and society
  • Air quality impacts of energy and transportation systems
  • Data-driven modeling and system optimization
  • Engineering education

Professor Hendrik Heinz and his group in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering are exploring fuel source alternatives and their technological implications. Specifically, they are developing new computational tools and models to better understand how vehicle fuel cells can safely and efficiently convert hydrogen to water to produce the electricity needed to operate.

“For decades, researchers have struggled to predict the complex processes needed for this work, though enormous progress has been made using nanoplates, nanowires and many other nanostructures,” Heinz said. “To address this, we have developed models for metal nanostructures and oxygen, water and metal interactions that exceed the accuracy of current quantum methods by more than 10 times.”

Their computational methods will play a role in the widespread commercialization of hydrogen fuel sources in vehicles, but the challenge goes beyond individual research projects. It is comprehensive, requiring a bridging of science, engineering, environmental studies and civil planning in a decades-long transition.

    Hendrik Heinz and a research student talk with one another
    Hendrik Heinz, left, and his group work on computational methods for hydrogen-powered vehicles.

    Collaborative effort

    The Advancing Sustainability Through Powered Infrastructure for Roadway Electrification (ASPIRE) Engineering Research Center is dedicated to exploring possible multifaceted solutions to widespread electric vehicle adoption, including electrified highways that charge vehicles on the go, charging station deployment, and the workforce and data challenges associated with a massive sustainable infrastructure upgrade.

    “Our faculty members are conducting cutting-edge research on a number of topics that are critical for sustainable transportation,” said computer scientist Qin “Christine” Lv, CU Boulder campus director and data research thrust lead for ASPIRE. “This includes power electronics for electric vehicles and charging infrastructure; power and energy systems; transportation asset management; built infrastructure and society; air quality impacts of energy and transportation systems; data-driven modeling and system optimization; as well as engineering education.”

    Qin “Christine” Lv Professor, Computer Science; Research lead, ASPIRE

    Qin “Christine” Lv
    Professor, Computer Science; Research lead, ASPIRE

    Lv noted that these diverse research priorities require extensive collaboration and communication.

    “ASPIRE integrates efforts across multiple disciplines, including engineering, social science, policy and business through close collaboration with industry, government and community partners,” Lv said. “Transformations are targeted across the transportation and electric utility industries, leading to significant growth in domestic jobs and energy production, improved air quality and public health.”

    Lv hopes that research coming out of ASPIRE will contribute to the reduction and stabilization of transportation and logistics costs, as well as to developing the diverse engineering workforce that will be needed for radical infrastructure transformation.

    Social context

    The rollout of any new technology will also have to be carefully considered in a social context, said Assistant Professor Kyri Baker of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering. Baker has done research into how the widespread adoption of electric vehicles may affect already vulnerable communities.

    Kyri Baker Assistant Professor, Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering

    Kyri Baker
    Assistant Professor, Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering

    “When pursuing any sort of sustainability goal, we have to make sure that the outcomes benefit everyone, not just a small subset of people,” Baker said. “Sustainable transportation is a perfect example of an area where we have to be very cognizant of the assumptions we make and the impact of the systems we design.”

    Baker argues that electrifying public transportation is a worthwhile goal, but residents without access to home charging stations simply would not benefit as much as those with dedicated home chargers. The electricity required to charge a single electric vehicle can be more than a typical house consumes in a single day, her research shows.

    Such a radical reallocation of power across our infrastructure will have unforeseen consequences, especially considering the 30% of U.S. households that already face energy insecurity, according to the Energy Information Administration.

    “There won’t be a silver bullet for every problem in sustainable transportation, but as scientists and engineers, we just need to remember to try to design systems that maximize benefit for a diverse range of communities,” Baker said.