Path to Zero
Path to Zero
3.14 - The Many Paths to Decarbonization with Southwest Research Institute’s Dr. Graham Conway

Keeping all options open to decarbonize, not just the all-electric route, is the view of our guest in this episode of Path to Zero.

Dr. Graham Conway is a principal engineer in the Automotive Division of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, where he specializes in evaluating automotive technologies for both government and the private sector. He’s been comparing the environmental impact of gas-powered, electric and hybrid vehicles. His findings are detailed in his TED Talk, The Contradictions of Battery Operated Vehicles. And if you watch it, you won’t be alone. His TED Talk on this subject has received more than a million views on YouTube.

Conway wore a T-shirt in his TED Talk saying “The Future is Eclectic,” a phrase coined by another Path to Zero guest, Dr. Kelly Senecal, the co-founder and owner of Convergent Science and an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“The perception is that a battery electric vehicle is zero emissions and that’s the answer and decarbonization means making everything electric,” Conway tells Tucker. “I think those on the engineering side, understand the challenges behind doing that and that we need to keep our options open. There are many, many pathways to decarbonization, not just a full electric route.”

Conway points out that 100 years from now, battery production should be more efficient and more progress will be made towards renewable energy and electrification.

“We need to make sure we’ve got the minimum CO2 emission footprint over the next 100 years, not just being lower in 100 year’s time, says Conway. “That’s where the alternative technologies can make a big step.”

Hybrid technology benefits

Dr. Conway says hybrids are a nice intermediate step to full electrification.

“Hybrids offer a very big efficiency benefit to a traditional internal combustion engine vehicle. To get a big increase in efficiency over the fleet and reduce emissions, moving to hybrids would be a great intermediate step for everyone involved,” says Conway. “You can greatly expand and use those resources much more effectively to allow everybody to get into decarbonization. It’s not possible for a lot of people just to buy an electric vehicle today, it’s very expensive. You can do your part to lower emissions without having to make the big jump to the electric vehicle.”

The future of the internal combustion engine

“The pathway to reducing climate change and reducing temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions is an integrated approach,” says Conway. “We need to be making changes today to make sure we get to where we want to be in the future at the right pace and on the right trajectory.”

According to Conway, we’re seeing big improvements in the internal combustion engine recently.

“We’re seeing new technologies enabled by advanced computer fluid dynamics techniques. We’re seeing advances in automation, machine learning, really pushing the engine forward,” says Conway. “When we look at emissions from engines over the last 20 years, it’s been slashed and there’s still lot of potential there.”

Hydrogen potential

Dr. Conway discusses with Tucker Southwest Research Institute’s work with hydrogen as an automotive fuel.

“Because you don’t produce any CO2 when you burn hydrogen in an engine, it’s really exciting to look at how we can move towards that as a potential option for this eclectic future,” says Conway. “Hydrogen is different to all the other fuels out there. It’s a very extreme fuel, it burns very quickly and ignites very easily. But has a lot of potential and we are trying to figure out how much can we get out of that fuel.”