As technical remedies to climate change go, taking carbon emissions out of passenger transportation is easy; we can switch from gasoline engines to electric motors fueled by renewable energy sources.
In contrast, “decarbonizing” heavy freight carried by trucks is hard. No technology today has the power and efficiency to replace diesel engines for moving goods over long distances by land and sea, which is unfortunate because society’s increased shipping demands are driving up diesel consumption.
Researchers at the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science are taking on the challenge to discover which diesel fuels burn cleanest, under what conditions and with the fewest offsetting environmental costs. Their particular focus is minimizing production of nitrous oxide, or N2O.
William S. Epling, professor and chair of chemical engineering, is leading the effort with co-principal investigators Lisa Colosi-Peterson, an associate professor in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, and Chloe Dedic, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
Also contributing as senior investigators are Robert Davis, William Mynn Thornton Professor of Chemical Engineering, and Chris Paolucci, assistant professor of chemical engineering.
The project is supported by a $1.7 million grant through the Environmental Convergence Opportunities program of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems. The program requires that research team members have disparate expertise and perspectives to find imaginative solutions to difficult and pressing societal challenges.
So, for this funding, even before team members can grapple with solving the technical problem, they have to find common ground on the research questions – amongst a group of people whose expertise and perspectives are, by design, different from one another.
“That was harder than you might imagine it to be, but it was hard on purpose,” said Colosi-Peterson, an environmental engineer who joined the team because she recognized that diesel engines aren’t going away any time soon. “I think the NSF is very clever to have such a big incentive, because it took a lot of thinking to come up with something that really leveraged all our individual skills and interests.”