During my commute back-and-forth each workday, I pass by Livermore, California, home of the government-funded Sandia National Laboratories. Though there's certainly a lot of weapons-related R&D going on there, a considerable portion of their efforts these days is devoted to other matters. It's nice to see some of that work get a bit of attention from the national press. From this week's Wall Street Journal "Eyes on the Road" column by Joseph B. White:
Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif., is part of a complex of government funded institutions where, during the Cold War, teams of scientists did heavy thinking about nuclear weaponry and other super secret military technologies. The national laboratories still do a lot of that kind of work. But at Sandia, about 20% of the lab's effort is now focused on a different security issue – how to reduce consumption of oil.
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Sandia scientists are working on several of the hurdles to hydrogen-powered cars. Storage is a significant problem with hydrogen: in liquid form it must be kept super cold. Another approach is to store the hydrogen in a solid form, bound to a sort of chemical sponge. But refueling such a tank generates enough heat to boil 60 gallons of water, says Robert Carling, director of the physical and engineering sciences center.
Undeterred, Sandia scientists are experimenting with all sorts of tank systems and catalysts in hopes of overcoming these limitations.
"It's not against the laws of nature. We don't know if it's possible," says Lennie Klebanoff, who directs one of the centers researching hydrogen storage using metal hydrides.
In other parts of the Sandia complex, engineers and scientists are studying how to make petroleum-burning engines more efficient. One promising technology is HCCI, or homogenous charge compression ignition. Put simply, this is an engine that burns gasoline without a spark plug and can achieve fuel efficiency that's up to 30% better than a comparable conventional engine.