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Net-Zero Carbon Fuel Utilization

Topic: Clean Energy

As technology continues to advance for electrification of light-duty vehicles and other applications, significant challenges remain for decarbonization of the heavy duty on-road, off-road, rail, marine, and aviation transportation and defense sectors. Low-carbon solutions are needed for both retrofits and new powertrain architectures.

To help navigate the transition from fossil fuels to more sustainable options, ORNL researchers are working to solve end-use challenges for a wide range of net-zero carbon fuels in these hard-to-electrify applications. Fuels of interest include hydrogen; hydrogen carriers or synthetic fuels such as methanol and ammonia; and biofuels.

The work is targeting net-zero carbon and near-zero pollutant emissions to help the US reach its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

This research is sponsored by the Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office, Bioenergy Technologies Office, Advanced Manufacturing Office, ARPA-E, and the US Department of Transportation 


Experimental engine research from 0.025 to 15 liters per cylinder 

  • High-efficiency and low-emissions research and demonstrations 
  • Combustion strategy development: diesel, spark ignition (SI), advanced compression ignition (ACI), dual-fuel
  • Advanced engine architectures (long-stroke, cross-head, prechamber ignition) 
  • Dilute combustion, stability limits, and controls
  • Transient hardware-in-the-loop capabilities 

Emissions characterization and controls 

  • Quantification and characterization of particulate matter
  • Detailed speciation of gaseous emissions 

Catalysts for emissions control and fuel reforming

  • Novel catalyst synthesis
  • Performance evaluation in flow reactors and on-engine
  • Detailed materials characterization: elemental analysis, microscopy, physisorption, chemisorption, active site titration, surface spectroscopy
  • Catalyst aging and poisoning
  • Engine system integration and control strategies
  • Onboard hydrogen or ammonia generation

Simulations and analyses 

  • Engine simulations from zero-dimensional to high-fidelity, including supercomputing expertise 
  • Aftertreatment component model development and application 
  • Pressure-temperature ignition delay analysis 
  • Conjugate heat transfer and materials properties (link to propulsion materials) 
  • Thermodynamic analyses (1st and 2nd Law) 
  • Machine learning/artificial intelligence for engine controls 
  • Cyclic variability analysis 

Advanced diagnostic tools for real-world systems 

  • Spatially resolved capillary inlet mass spectrometry (Spaci-MS) 
  • Laser-based spectroscopy, including high-speed intake and exhaust gas compositions and fuel-in-oil measurements
  • Phosphor thermography 
  • Neutron imaging and diffraction 

Engine lubricants 

  • Compatibility with alternative fuels  
  • Effects on abnormal combustion 
  • Durability
  • Impacts on aftertreatment components

The National Transportation Research Center is the Department of Energy’s only designated user facility focused on performing early-stage research and development in transportation technologies. NTRC has multiple test cells and laboratories focused on clean fuels and engines.