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Episode 36: Fluids for Electrified Vehicles

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SwRI’s new Advanced Fluids for Electrified Vehicles (AFEV) Consortium is a research program seeking solutions for a growing industry. The hardware used in electric and hybrid vehicles is quickly evolving. The fluids and lubricants used to protect EV hardware must keep up. The AFEV Consortium is bringing a global community together to invest in key electrified vehicle research, specifically the changing fluid and lubricant requirements of EVs. Their findings will optimize EV performance and drive the entire industry forward.

Listen now as SwRI engineers Peter Morgan and Rebecca Warden discuss the critical functions of electrified vehicle fluids, and the research and vision of SwRI’s new AFEV Consortium.

Visit Advanced Fluids for Electrified Vehicles Consortium to learn more.


TRANSCRIPT

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for clarity.

Lisa Peña (LP): As more drivers choose hybrid and electric vehicles, there's a greater focus on the unique demands placed on these vehicle systems. One group is turning their attention to the fluid and lubricant requirements of electrified vehicles. We're plugging into an in-demand growing area of research next on this episode of Technology Today.

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We live with technology, science, engineering, and the results of innovative research every day. Now let's understand it better. You're listening to the Technology Today podcast presented by Southwest Research Institute. Transcripts and photos for this episode and all episodes are available at podcast.swri.org.

Hello, and welcome to Technology Today. I'm Lisa Peña. More and more, we are sharing the roads with electrified vehicles charging stations are popping up all over our cities. Every year, automakers are adding more electrified options, both hybrid and electric, to their lineups. As hardware designs change for electric vehicles, fluid and lubricant requirements also change. The New Advanced Fluids for Electrified Vehicles Consortium, launched by SwRI, is addressing these needs. SwRI engineers Rebecca Warden and Pete Morgan are leading this effort, connecting companies with a common interest in electrified vehicle research and development. Thanks for joining us, Rebecca and Peter.

The electric vehicle industry is seeing rapid advancement. EV hardware and parts are changing, and the fluids used in these vehicles need to keep up. It's a key part of electric vehicle operation. First, let's talk about your efforts to make this research a priority. What is the Advanced Fluids for Electrified Vehicles Consortium.

A Chevy Bolt electric motor and gearbox were installed in a test cell controlled with SwRI’s open inverter. During this test, researchers evaluated motor efficiency based on fluid changes.

Rebecca Warden (RW): Sure so first off, what is a consortium. They are joint industry projects that were enabled by the National Cooperative Research Act of 1984. And it allows us to pool everyone who's working in this area together. So we have everyone from suppliers, competitors all looking at the thing at the problem from a pre-competitive level. Advanced Fluids for Electrified Vehicles is specifically looking at the fluids requirements for electrified vehicles, both pure electric as well as hybrid electric vehicles.

LP: All right, and Pete, how did the AFEV consortium come to be? Why was it formed?

Pete Morgan (PM): So as Rebecca mentioned earlier, this is a way to pool resources. So what we ended up hearing from our clients, and we work from OEMs, tier one suppliers, and oil companies, additive companies, kind of the whole group of companies that we work with regularly, we started to hear a lot of questions about people wanting to know what kind of research we were doing in this area. What testing they could do to compare their fluids to look at new powertrain or new motors. And a good way to do that is with a consortium.

So if every individual company was to try and do it on their own, it would cost a small fortune. But since everyone is looking at doing this, and in general, it's pre-competitive, we can pool resources together and allow everybody to contribute a small amount, and move the whole industry forward.

LP: All right, so this pooling of resources is key for this consortium. And your team is tapping into multiple areas of expertise here at SwRI to meet the unique needs of this growing industry segment. In fact, you're both from different areas here at the Institute. So who are you teaming up with here and what are you guys doing as far as pulling in these different areas of expertise to really make this successful?

RW: Yeah, so electrified vehicles and especially electric vehicles, we're seeing them diverge more from conventional vehicles than any other technology. So for example, speeds. We're seeing motor speeds pushing 20,000 RPM, probably 30,000 RPM, maybe even more into the future. That's something on the automotive side that Pete and I aren't necessarily used to working on. But we have a whole division who focuses on high speeds 45,000 RPM they don't even bat an eye at. So we've been able to pull them in, look at the rotational dynamics.

We've got groups who are focusing on materials compatibility, other electrification properties of lubricants or fluids. So really, we've been able to tap into probably five or six different divisions out here, multiple sections, departments. It's kind of been an all hands on deck to pool the knowledge of the Institute and really tap into the depth and breadth and what makes the Institute special, and apply all of those experts into this consortium.

LP: Yeah, that's so great that your colleagues are right here, just here at SwRI, and you guys are making this happen. So let's talk about your membership. Who are your members, how many members so far, where are they from?
 

SwRI Manager Rebecca Warden is an engineer in the institute’s Fuels and Lubricants Research Division. With the new AFEV Consortium, Warden seeks to answer pressing questions about fluid requirements for evolving EV hardware.


PM: So we have members from basically all over the world. I'm not going to go through and read the list, we have a pretty large list of members, actually, we have 15 currently. Ranging from OEMs, tier one suppliers, oil companies, and additive companies. So kind of the whole gamut in the industry that would be interested in this area. We're trying to keep it as diverse as possible, because we don't want one specific area to kind of influence the path that we go down.

LP: So then this is quickly becoming a global effort. How are you conducting business right now during the pandemic? Has that been a challenge?

PM: It has been a challenge. I think both Rebecca and I do like to meet with people face to face. We have been doing a lot of Webex's, just like everyone else around the world. As this is a global consortium, we have a lot of members in Asia, Europe, even in California. So we kind of span all of the different time zones. So finding a time that works for everybody is difficult, and we are scheduling meetings throughout the day and even late into the night. I think later today, Rebecca and I are going to be on the call with someone at 8 o'clock tonight. So it is difficult, but it is doable, and it's kind of the norm now.

LP: Yeah, it's quickly become the norm. Here we are on a video conference right now recording this podcast. So 15 members so far. And can you talk a little bit about the industries your members are from?

PM: Yeah, so for the most part, we are we have companies from all different industries. Most of these most of these companies are specializing in automotive. But a lot of the oil and additive companies do work in other areas. So from an OEM standpoint, we have both heavy duty and light duty OEMs, as well as tier one suppliers. So suppliers that kind of supply the motors to the OEMs. We have both light duty and heavy duty.

And then on an oil and additive company standpoint, we have almost all of the major oil and additive companies throughout the world that are part of this consortia.

LP: So we mentioned this consortium is very new, just formed this year. It is growing. And new members are invited to join. So how can new members become a part of the AFEV consortium?

PM: So there's a couple of different ways to do it. The easiest one is to reach out to either Rebecca or I, and that'll obviously have to happen at some point anyhow. But we have a website that we set up, which is afev.swri.org. And on there, there's a webinar that we put together when we were starting. So if someone is interested and they want to go learn more about it, you can go on there. And it'll go through kind of why we're doing things, how we're doing things to different topics that we're looking at and get kind of a first glance at things.

From there, our information is on there, so you can reach out to Rebecca or I. And we can start the discussions with the individual companies. So if you have specific questions, we can answer those questions. If you don't and you're ready to move forward, then we can send a contract over and you can start reviewing that contract.

LP: All right, afev.swri.org. And we'll have that web address on our episode 36 webpage.
 

SwRI Senior Program Manager Peter Morgan is an engineer in the institute’s Powertrain Engineering Division. Through the AFEV Consortium, Morgan is conducting research with a global community committed to advancing EV technology and fluids.


RW: One thing I also wanted to add on top of what Pete was saying. We not only have members that are ranging across the entire industry from base oils all the way through OEMs, but a lot of our members are at different levels in terms of how much research they've done on this in the past. So we have some folks who have been looking at electrified vehicle fluids for decades or electric vehicles for decades, and some who are just starting to get into that industry and really trying to learn more about it. So there's a wide range there as well.

LP: All right, and Rebecca, wondering why is it so important to focus on electric research now. We are seeing more electrified vehicles on our roads, but what are you currently seeing in the industry that motivates you to take this type of research on right now?

RW: Right now, what we see in the industry is just the tip of the iceberg. What's coming is right now below the sea, but it's coming quick. Every model that you look at, electrification, both on hybrid electric as well as electric vehicles, is the future, is going to be our pathway to net zero. And there is a ton of research happening on both the hardware side as well as the lubricant side.

The reason that we want to focus on it from the lubricant side is there's so much changing in the hardware, and what the vehicles look like today is not what the vehicles are going to look like in five or 10 years. And we want to help develop the tools for the formulators so that they can formulate the products for what the vehicles are going to look like into the future. So that's not only going to allow them to get ready and have the best products available on the market, but it's also going to allow the tier one suppliers and OEMs to have those lubricants available in their actual development process.

One thing this industry has always had a problem with is generally, we're developing tomorrow's lubricants on yesterday's hardware, and we're developing tomorrow's hardware on yesterday's lubricants. Well, when you're using the wrong lubricant in an application you can end up making very expensive design decisions in order to overcompensate for that lubricant problem. So we want to try and help move the industry as a whole together so that both can develop together into the future.

LP: So will you explain specifically what fluids and lubricants are used for in an electric vehicle?

RW: If you're looking at a purely electric vehicle, there's a few things that the lubricant is doing. So first of all, you're going to have your electric motor. In some cases, that motor is going to be cooled by a coolant. But in a lot of applications, and it's anticipated that more and more applications into the future, the lubricant is being used to cool that electric motor. And that's a very, very important thing, because if that motor gets too hot, it can start to prematurely degrade, which is obviously a big problem.

The other thing that lubricant is doing is it's actually lubricating the reduction gears and preventing any sort of gear wear in there. The lubricants can play a big part in efficiency. If you can improve lubricant efficiency, then you can improve range capacity without adding more batteries, which can also correlate to cost. So it's really a key part in keeping that powertrain running. And it has a lot of unique requirements that we're not used to seeing in conventional internal combustion engine applications.

LP: So earlier, you mentioned electric is our pathway to net zero. Will you explain what that means?

RW: In general, just reducing the emissions in our world. Climate change-- I won't get into politics I won't get into large discussions-- but it's one of the ways that we can reduce our global emissions.

LP: So has research already started through the consortium? If so, what are some of the first projects you're tackling?

RW: It absolutely has. We kicked off in June and have really hit the ground running. So some of the things that we're working on right now, we're looking at high speed durability, how the fluid interacts at speeds 20,000 RPM, 30,000 RPM like we're expected to see into the future.

We're looking at materials compatibility, because there's a lot of new materials going into these transmissions that you're not normally used to seeing in internal combustion engine applications. And we want to ensure that the lubricant doesn't degrade the material, but also, that the material doesn't degrade the lubricant, which both of those can be bad.

Now the third thing that we're looking at in year one is electrical properties and better understanding how the fluid interacts with the electric field. How it changes, how those lubricants' electrical properties play a role in the powertrain.

LP: So what are the top research areas you plan to focus on? What questions would you like to answer through the consortium?

RW: All of them. And I know that's not a great answer, but quite truthfully, there is so much that we don't know. And the more we dig into it, the more questions we have that we want to answer. And the more that we're finding, they're all kind of interrelated.

So when looking at the electrical properties, yes, that's obviously going to play a role in the actual electrification. But it also starts to play a role in durability. It starts to play a role in how the fluid oxidizes. So there's a lot of interdependencies there that we hope to learn more about.

This is not a one year, two year project. Right now, the consortium is set up for a three-year project. But I fully anticipate at the end of those three years, we'll start AFEV 2, and then AFEV 3, AFEV 4, just because there is so much for us to learn and know about this industry.

LP: So I know we talked a little bit about how the consortium came to be and why it was formed. Can you guys delve into that a little bit more? Were you guys in a room one day talking about all the questions surrounding this particular area of research and you just had these big goals to tackle them all? Where did that idea sprang from to create this consortium?

RW: Yeah, so I think quite truthfully, Pete and I got so sick of answering the question-- people would come to us and say, what do I need to know about electrified vehicle fluids? And we'd say, well, we can test whatever you want-- what do you want to test? And we got stuck in this chicken and an egg situation, where they didn't know what to test and we didn't know what to test, and everyone's just kind of looking, saying, we know we want to do research, but we don't know where to start.

So Pete and I got a group together and we really just brainstormed. What are all of the big problems that we can foresee happening. What do we have available right now as formulation tools that formulators can use to actually formulate a product, and that tier one suppliers and OEMs on the hardware side can use to evaluate if a lubricant is going to be suitable for their application.

And where do we have holes. Where are these just not good enough for what we have in the electric vehicle. Pete mentioned the webinar. There's a lot of discussion on that webinar of what a lot of those holes are, where the missing information is. And we hit the virtual pavement and went out and talked with all of our clients. And did the webinar and had other new clients come and join us of basically everyone saying, yeah, we have those same questions too.

LP: You know, I watched the webinar, I can vouch for it. It's very informative. From somebody outside the industry, it's very easy to understand. So yes, definitely go check out that information on the AFEV web page-- again, afev.swri.org. So what are the risks when the wrong fluids are used in an electrified vehicle?

RW: Everything from complete destruction to just very expensive choices. In some cases, you can have a very expensive fluid that you might not need. But then in other cases, you can have a fluid whose formulation is not appropriate for the conditions that it's being put through. And in a lot of times, at the end of the day, that will result in hardware failure.

LP: All right, so really, really important to get it right. And your research is checking out, like you said, filling in the holes, and hopefully getting us where we need to be in this area of research. So just wanted to clarify-- go ahead.

RW: Sorry, I was just going to add one thing. A lot of people who aren't part of this industry when they look at oils, they think oils, oils, oil. Oil is a huge industry in terms of the technology that goes into it to change the oils' characteristics and allow it to offer the proper protection, whether that's durability, oxidation performance, high speed, low speed. There's a lot of facets that go into it that folks who are just driving the vehicle, getting their oil changed are really unaware of.

LP: So one quick note. I wanted to clarify what you guys explained to me ahead of this recording. So electrified is kind of the umbrella, and under it falls hybrid and electric. So if you are wondering why we are saying electrified and using it interchangeably with hybrid or electric, hopefully that explains that.

But I did want to ask, and if either one of you want to chime in on this question, how does your research impact the end user, the drivers choosing electric? What are your hopes for this research benefiting drivers in the end?

PM: So I mean, in the end, it really depends on the driver. If you are a driver that just gets in their car and a car is a car, and you don't really care too much, the benefit to that driver is we're going to be able to design a fluid that works for it so they don't have any durability issues long term. And then also, it's going to be a fluid that is specifically designed so you don't have extra things in the vehicle, whether you have to put expensive bearings in to protect it. If the fluid can take care of that, that's a much easier and cheaper option. So the end result will make the vehicle cheaper for the end user.

LP: All right, and so Pete, we often hear that electric is the future. Do you believe that? Will we all be charging up instead of filling up in the not too distant future?

PM: So I may be a little more of a pessimist than Rebecca, but I believe that I mean, electric is the future. I don't know how quickly it's going to come. I mean, we've been talking about this for a while. OEMs are definitely on board and are starting to move forward with new vehicles, whether it's heavy duty or light duty.

I think whether it's the future for an individual end user really depends on your driving schedule. So what I mean by that is if you're like me and have, say, a 20 mile drive to work, then electric is fine. If you have a hour drive to work for a two-hour drive to work, then you may not want an electric vehicle, and you may be better off with the hybrid, which in the end is still electric. It's just not full electric.

I think long term, we're going to see that almost all vehicles will have some sort of electric, whether it's full electric or hybrid, for the light duty applications. Once you get into the heavy duty applications, I think it's really going to depend on what the specific applications are.

One of my colleagues, Ian Smith, gave me a great example. He was working with a heavy duty OEM which had a specific application for mining. Where basically, what they did is that basically, they started at the bottom of a, hill drove up to the top of a, hill and then loaded up the mining truck with materials, and then went back to the bottom of the hill.

And that application is perfect for electric vehicles, because you're unloaded and driving up the hill, so you're using, I would say, minimal amount of electricity going up the hill. And then after you load the truck up, you're basically doubling or tripling or even quadrupling the weight of the truck itself, and then you're essentially coasting down the hill. And as you're coasting down the hill, you can use regenerative brakes to charge up the battery. So by the time you get to the bottom of the hill, the battery is fully charged again.

So there are applications out there that it makes perfect sense to do electric vehicles. And then there's other applications where maybe we don't see electric vehicles unless there's new chemistries that make them a whole lot more efficient.

LP: A really neat example. So a little personal question here, putting you on the spot. Have you guys made the switch to hybrid or electric or do you have plans to do so?

RW: I personally have not, but do have plans to do so. My oldest will be out of daycare next year, so hopefully, with that pay raise, there will be a new vehicle in our future.

LP: OK. And Pete, you don't mind answering.

PM: Yeah, so I would say I am different than most people. And I guess you haven't met me personally at work, but I'm the kind of person that doesn't drive normal vehicles. So I have a lot of older vehicles that I've worked on in the past. And I like to drive more unique things. So I've actually looked at, I haven't done it yet, but I've looked at taking an older classic car-- I actually I actually own a '64 Chevy C10 pickup right now, and I've actually looked at what it would take to kind of convert it over to electric.

Currently, it's not that cheap. I'm kind of waiting for battery costs to go down a little bit before I make that leap. But I have actually put a down payment on electric motorcycle, so I've heard delivery dates of early next year. So that's one thing that will be coming soon in the future.

LP: That's neat. And electric motorcycles, does that work pretty much you just charge that up? It's the same as an electric vehicle, huh?

RW: Yeah, exactly. Except for it's less expensive and a lot smaller.

LP: All right, really cool. Just wanted to get a peek inside into what you guys are doing in your daily lives. So what is intriguing about this research for each of you? If you guys want to take turns answering this one.

RW: Sure, I'll go first. So the really cool part about this project in this research is there is so much that we don't know. I'm learning something new every single day, being able to tap into the experts at Southwest Research, diving into complex problems. And a lot of times, they're becoming even more complex on top of that. At some points, it's almost daunting, the amount of things that are kind of rolling around in my head and trying to make connections.

But that's made it really fun, especially for someone who the majority of my career, I've worked on the driveline side. The changes and innovation have not been huge. So to dive into a fun new project like this has been really exciting, interesting, and also, really rewarding.

Another thing I'll say, not just more on the consortium side, it's been fun to have a global project where we've pulled in people. Like Pete mentioned, we've got clients from Korea, we've got Japan, we've got the United States, Europe. And we're all sitting around talking about these problems and where we want to go. It's a very global, very diverse group. And getting everyone sitting at the virtual table and discussing is really unique and very cool.

PM: Yeah, and I would second a lot of what Rebecca said. I think that the things that appealed to me the most are the global reach. So working with all of these clients, there's a lot of new clients that we haven't historically done a lot of work with. So there's new clients in that area.

And then the other aspect for me is to work with all of the different areas within the Institute. So While Rebecca and I work with each other fairly regularly, there's other divisions like mechanical engineering division that I don't historically work a whole lot with, or like the chemical engineering division. So there's a lot of different divisions at the Institute that we don't talk to on a daily basis. And this is, as Rebecca said, a global project. But it's also a global project from an Institute standpoint as well. So we're talking to all of the different areas within our organization.

LP: And what is your long term vision for the AFEV consortium?

PM: So Rebecca touched on this a little bit earlier on. So right now, this industry is moving very quickly. So problems that we think are an issue right now, obviously, we're starting to work on those. But a year from now, two years from now, three years from now, we completely expect that the motors are going to change, the fluids are going to continue to change. And we'll be continuing to morph what the problems are.

So the way that we have this setup right now, since it is a consortium, we like to break it out into different blocks. So we're doing a three year consortium initially. After that, I have every expectation that we'll have more things to work on, so we'll probably break it out into another three year block.

And the reason we do that is because since the different research projects are, I would say, additive, so stuff that we're working on in year one, you need to know that in order for it to make sense what we're working on in year two, and then continuing year three. So since that's the case, if a new company wants to come and join in year two, they're going to have to go back and pay back year one so that they can get access to the research that we did in year one.

So by the time you get to year three or year four or year five or year six, obviously that payback gets to be a very large number. So that's why we break it out into kind of three year blocks. So after the three years are up, we'll kind of wipe the slate clean and start over. And it's entirely possible that things that we were working on in year three of the first AFEV 1 will transition into AFEV 2 year one. But from that point on, it could be a new group of people, but also, it's probably going to be a lot of the same people.

So that's kind of what we see for a long term. We think this will kind of continue to grow and continue into the future for some time as things continue to move. I mean, if you look back at the internal combustion engine, we're still doing research on that, and that's 100 years old at this point.

LP: So you have a strong model for growth there. And it sounds like every year, you'll be adding some interesting findings to the mix, and hopefully, more and more members as the years progress. So what would you like our listeners to take away today to remember about your work and the consortium?

RW: I would just say in general, where the market is today is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much coming both on the light duty side as well as the heavy duty side. Everything from full electric vehicles through hybridization. The way the market looks today is not how it's going to look in 10 years. So there's a lot of really exciting groundbreaking research happening, both with hardware design as well as the lubricants, in order to push this technology into the future.

So like Pete mentioned, if anyone is interested in joining, please take a look at the website. Reach out to Pete or myself. Always happy to have new members.

PM: Yeah, and I'll add to that a little bit. So she talked about light duty and heavy duty, but a lot of people look at electrified vehicles and they think, oh, well, maybe fuel cells are the future. But in general, fuel cells is still an electrified vehicle, because all you're doing is changing the power source. So everything that we're working on right now also applies to fuel cells. You're just replacing the batteries with the fuel cells.

LP: All right, certainly a growing area of research here. Great discussion today. Thank you both for being here and helping us understand electrified vehicles and their very unique needs.

PM: Thank you for having us.

RW: Thank you.

And thank you to our listeners for learning along with us today. You can hear all of our episodes and see photos and complete transcripts at podcast.swri.org. Remember to share our podcast and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.

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Ian McKinney and Bryan Ortiz are the podcast audio engineers and editors. I am producer and host, Lisa Peña.

Thanks for listening.

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The global automotive market is changing as electrified powertrains make their way into light-duty vehicles and heavy-duty trucks. Hardware designs vary greatly and are changing rapidly as cars and trucks look less like conventional internal combustion engine vehicles. Lubricant requirements are also changing in order to protect and cool these new drivetrains.