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UC Davis Institute for Transportation Studies looks to make China, and the world, a greener place

August 11, 2011

I visited the University of California at Davis Institute for Transportation Studies the first part of this week.  It is doing a lot of interesting stuff that closely matches some of my interests.  So naturally I enjoyed talking with Yunshi Wang, the director of the China Center for Energy and Transportation part of the Institute, and others there.   Wang knows me through my blog, which reached him via Andy Burke, a professor at UC Davis whom I met last year at a conference.  You get the picture.  I also met Dan Sperling, director of the Institute.

Testing batteries is among the Institute’s many activities.   Burke took me to see his (well, the University’s, but really it’s his lab) Hybrid Vehicle Power Systems Lab.  The place is a battery nut’s dream.  It is housed in a non-descript metal building on the edge of campus near where the farm animals hang out (Seriously. UCD has a huge agriculture science program. UCD sports team is called the Aggies, same as Texas a&M.).

Andy Burke's battery testing lab can handle everything from modules up to battery packs. Here, Burke stands proudly among his machines.

Inside a windowless room, Burke, who has worked at the Center for nearly two decades, proudly showed off high-tech machines that can test everything from a module to a full battery pack as large 400V and 500 amps.  The Lab can even test battery/battery management system combinations.  Battery manufacturers bring their goods to the lab to be tested, said Burke. A large battery pack from a Ford Escape Hybrid was lying on the floor in the lab. But it came from Nissan , said Burke. Nissan bought the Escape and didn’t need the battery anymore, he said.

Aside from the Ford battery pack, there were no batteries from the companies that supply major automakers. “Any battery maker that ships batteries directly to automakers isn’t about to ship a battery to a third party,” said Burke.

He walked to a metal cabinet and pulled out a box full of ultracapacitors.  Ultracapacitors are able to quickly charge and discharge energy up to a million times. They look somewhat like very large regular battery (Think how big a rat is compared to a mouse. A really big rat that is).  A capacitor is great for hybrid vehicles, and much smaller than the regular battery packs that are currently being used. Such as the one from the Ford Escape, which was flat and about the size of a collapsed card table.  Ultr capacitors can also discharge 75% of their stored energy, said Burke. Okay,   I’m getting into technical waters that I can’t even dog paddle in, much less swim. So I will say no more. It was fun to see the box’o  apacitors, however.

Burke’s lab is only one of many endeavors at the Institute for Transportation Studies.  It has a Plug-In Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Research Center that studies how marketable EVs are. It has a Sustainable Transportation Center. Etc.  Look at the website.

The Institute also includes the Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways (STEPS) program. It is sponsored by a consortium of companies. The first STEPS program, which had 21 sponsors, ended in 2010.  On Jan 1 the new program—predictably called NextSTEPS—started.  It will run through 2014. Sponsors cough up $60,000 annually to be members. Up until April, NextSTEPS members included automakers such as Nissan, GM, Honda, and BMW; oil companies such as BP and Indian Oil;  and government bodies such as the California Air Resources Board  (of which Dan Sperling is a member). The Institute is seeking more.

Besides meetings two or three times a year, member companies can attend Institute seminars and have access to the Institute’s 100 research projects.  And of course they can exchange ideas, pointed out Paul Gruber, the STEPS program manager.

The China Center at the Institute is involved in various projects with Chinese universities and assorted government bodies in China.  Among the more interesting:   A project to use Chongming Island, near Shanghai, as a sort of new energy vehicle Petri dish.  The idea is to slowly wean the island, which is small with a smallish population and a fairly undeveloped road system, from all but electric vehicles of various kinds.

That seems feasible. After all, the Shanghai Municipal Government (which I believe governs Chongming) can mandate it.   But a proposed project to develop a low-carbon development in the heart of Beijing’s Central Business District seems too good to ever come true.

I know that area well—used to ride my bike through it a lot when I lived in Beijing. Already, it has changed immensely with older buildings torn down to make way for shiny new high-rise shopping, business, and residential developments. And the plan is for the CDB to double in size according to a presentation Wang showed me. (Of course, that would involve tearing down more old housing and making those people move to the suburbs so they would have to commute to their jobs. But Beijing has an extensive subway system now. And the new buildings and green space are prettier….)

The Center would advise on making the area livable, including lots of green space and good schools, etc., while making it increasingly carbon-free by migrating the inhabitants from private vehicles to NEVs to public transit to bicycles or walking.
Hmmm. Regressing (in many Chinese minds) back to bicycles. Maybe it will happen someday. But right now, even with the horrendous commute many Beijingers face (one slide in the presentation says there were a record 140 traffic jams on Beijing roads on September 17,2010.) they relish the freedom (?) and status driving to work confers.

The plan is long range. Bicycles don’t appear as the main form of transportation in the new CBD until 2030. And the chart is labeled “Idealized CO2 Reduction Source in CBD 2030.” Hey, it’s always good to dream.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 17, 2011 4:23 am

    I have seen pollution i come form India and now settled in USA.When i was in India, when i ever i go go to Ludhiana which is a city of Punjab India if someone have a white shirt in a morning by afternoon that shirt turn in black you can imagine how harmful that city should be for human.I am very happy for people awareness now and government and institute working for it hat off for them.

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