MITEI’s Mobility Systems Center awards four new projects for low-carbon transportation research

Jinhua Zhao will serve as new co-director, succeeding Sanjay Sarma

Turner Jackson MITEI

The Mobility Systems Center (MSC), one of the MIT Energy Initiative’s Low-Carbon Energy Centers, will fund four new research projects that will allow for deeper insights into achieving a decarbonized transportation sector.

“Based on input from our Mobility Systems Center members, we have selected an excellent and diverse set of projects to initiate this summer,” says Randall Field, the Center’s executive director. “The awarded projects will address a variety of pressing topics including the impacts of Covid-19 on urban mobility, strategies for electric vehicle charging networks, and infrastructure and economics for hydrogen-fueled transportation.” The projects are spearheaded by faculty and researchers from across the Institute, with experts in several fields including economics, urban planning, and energy systems.

In addition to pursuing new avenues of research, the Mobility Systems Center will also welcome Jinhua Zhao as co-director. Zhao will serve alongside Professor William H. Green, the Hoyt C. Hottel Professor in Chemical Engineering. Zhao is an associate professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the director of the JTL Urban Mobility Lab. He will succeed Sanjay Sarma, the Vice President for Open Learning and the Fred Fort Flowers (1941) and Daniel Fort Flowers (1941) Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

“Jinhua already has a strong relationship with mobility research at MITEI, having been a major contributor to MITEI’s Mobility of the Future study and serving as a principal investigator for MSC projects. He will provide excellent leadership to the Center,” says MITEI Director Robert C. Armstrong, the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering. “We also thank Sanjay for his valuable leadership during the MSC’s inaugural year, and look forward to collaborating with him in his role as vice president for Open Learning—an area that is vitally important in MIT’s response to research and education in the Covid-19 era.”

The impacts of Covid-19 on urban mobility

The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed all aspects of life in a remarkably short amount of time, including how, when, and why people travel. In addition to becoming the Center’s new co-director, Zhao will lead one of the MSC’s new projects to identify how Covid-19 has impacted use of, preferences toward, and energy consumption of different modes of urban transportation, including driving, walking, cycling, and most dramatically, ridesharing services and public transit.

Zhao describes four primary objectives for the project. The first is to quantify large-scale behavioral and preference changes in response to the pandemic, tracking how these change from the beginning of the outbreak through the medium-term recovery period. Next, the project will break down these changes by sociodemographic groups, with a particular emphasis on low-income and marginalized communities. The project will then use these insights to posit how changes to infrastructure, equipment, and policies could help shape travel recovery to be more sustainable and equitable. Finally, Zhao and his research team will translate these behavioral changes into energy consumption and CO2 emissions estimates.

“We make two distinctions: first, between impacts on amount of travel (e.g., number of trips) and impacts on type of travel (e.g., mixture of different travel modes); and second, between temporary shocks and longer-term structural changes,” says Zhao. “Even when the coronavirus is no longer a threat to public health, we expect to see lasting effects on activity, destination, and mode preferences. These changes, in turn, affect energy consumption and emissions from the transportation sector.”

The economics of electric vehicle charging

In the transition toward a low-carbon transportation system, refueling infrastructure is crucial for the viability of any alternative fuel vehicle. Jing Li, an assistant professor in the MIT Sloan School of Management, aims to develop a model of consumer vehicle and travel choices based on data regarding travel patterns, electric vehicle (EV) charging demand, and EV adoption.

Li’s research team will implement a two-pronged approach. First, they will quantify the value that each charging location provides to the rest of the refueling network, which may be greater than that location’s individual profitability due to network spillovers. Second, they will simulate the profits of EV charging networks and the adoption rates of EVs using different pricing and location strategies.

“We hypothesize that some charging locations may not be privately profitable but would be socially valuable. If so, then a charging network may increase profits by subsidizing entry at ‘missing’ locations that are underprovided by the market,” she says. If proven correct, this research could be valuable in making EVs accessible to broader portions of the population.

Cost reduction and emissions savings strategies for hydrogen mobility systems

Hydrogen-based transportation and other energy services have long been discussed, but what role will they play in a clean energy transition? Jessika Trancik, an associate professor of energy studies in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, will examine and identify cost-reducing and emissions-saving mechanisms for hydrogen-fueled mobility services. She plans to analyze production and distribution scenarios, evolving technology costs, and the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of hydrogen-based mobility systems, considering both travel activity patterns and fluctuations in the primary energy supply for hydrogen production.

“Modeling the mechanisms through which the design of hydrogen-based mobility systems can achieve lower costs and emissions can help inform the development of future infrastructure,” says Trancik. “Models and theory to inform this development can have a significant impact on whether or not hydrogen-based systems succeed in contributing measurably to the decarbonization of the transportation sector.

The goals for the project are threefold: quantifying the emissions and costs of hydrogen production and storage pathways, with a focus on the potential use of excess renewable energy; modeling costs and requirements of the distribution and refueling infrastructure for different forms of transportation, from personal vehicles to long-haul trucking based on existing and projected demand; and modeling the costs and emissions associated with the use of hydrogen-fueled mobility services.

Analysis of forms of hydrogen for use in transportation

MITEI research scientist Emre Gençer will lead a team including Yang Shao-Horn, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and Dharik Mallapragada, a MITEI research scientist, to assess the alternative forms of hydrogen that could serve the transportation sector. This project will develop an end-to-end techno-economic and greenhouse gas emissions analysis of hydrogen-based energy supply chains for road transportation.

The analysis will focus on two classes of supply chains: pure hydrogen (transported as a compressed gas or cryogenic liquid) and cyclic supply chains (based on liquid organic hydrogen carriers for powering on-road transportation). The low energy density of gaseous hydrogen is currently a barrier to the large-scale deployment of hydrogen-based transportation; liquid carriers are a potential solution in enabling an energy-dense means for storing and delivering hydrogen fuel. The scope of the analysis will include the generation, storage, distribution, and use of hydrogen, as well as the carrier molecules that are used in the supply chain. Additionally, the researchers will estimate the economic and environmental performance of various technology options across the entire supply chain.

“Hydrogen has long been discussed as a fuel of the future,” says Shao-Horn. “As the energy transition progresses, opportunities for carbon-free fuels will only grow throughout the energy sector. Thorough analyses of hydrogen-based technologies are vital for providing information necessary to a greener transportation and energy system.”

Broadening MITEI’s mobility research portfolio

The mobility sector needs a multi-pronged approach to mitigate its increasing environmental impact. The four new projects will complement the MSC’s current portfolio of research projects, which includes an evaluation of operational designs for highly responsive urban last-mile delivery services; a techno-economic assessment of options surrounding long-haul road freight; an investigation of tradeoffs between data privacy and performance in shared mobility services; and an examination of mobility-as-a-service and its implications for private car ownership in U.S. cities.

“The pressures to adapt our transportation systems have never been greater with the COVID-19 crisis and increasing environmental concerns. While new technologies, business models and governmental policies present opportunities to advance, research is needed to understand how they interact with one another and help to shape our mobility patterns,” says Field. “We are very excited to have such a strong breadth of projects to contribute multidisciplinary insights into the evolution of a cleaner, more sustainable mobility future.”

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures.


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