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SwRI is hosting its first Global Decarbonized Mobility Summit, an opportunity for transportation industry members worldwide to convene in one place and discuss sustainable mobility solutions for all types of transportation. The impactful gathering, which is set to be an annual event, will bring together different perspectives and ideas to tackle the global emissions challenge as the industry strives for net zero emissions by 2050. Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions requires a clear action plan and the exploration of numerous sustainable options. The Summit will illuminate transportation needs and research opportunities to achieve lower global emissions on a rigid timeline.
Listen now as SwRI Engineer and Summit Organizer Chris Bitsis discusses the vision for the inaugural Summit, the challenges the transportation industry is up against and why it is a critical event for everyone on the planet.
Visit Global Decarbonized Mobility Summit to learn more about the global gathering.
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for clarity.
Lisa Peña (LP): Decarbonization conversations and sustainable solutions are the focus of SwRI's upcoming Global Decarbonized Mobility Summit. The inaugural summit will bring together transportation industry members with the common goal of optimizing mobility while lowering greenhouse gas emissions. We'll learn about this groundbreaking gathering next on this episode of Technology Today.
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Hello, and welcome to Technology Today. I'm Lisa Peña. Southwest Research Institute will host its first Global Decarbonized Mobility Summit November 13 through 17 in San Antonio, Texas. SwRI is leading research, development, and the demonstration of sustainable transportation technology. The summit will showcase these advances and bring together transportation industry players to connect and discuss decarbonized mobility solutions and challenges. Our guest today is SwRI engineer and summit organizer, Chris Bitsis. Thanks for joining us, Chris.
Chris Bitsis (CB): Thanks, Lisa. Happy to be here.
LP: So this is going to be an impactful event. So first, tell us about the Global Decarbonized Mobility Summit. What can attendees expect at this event?
CB: Yeah, the Global Decarbonized Mobility Summit is a really exciting event for us at Southwest Research Institute. It's a week-long event designed around our advanced research consortia and topics that relate to those, with several parallel sessions taking place at the same time. We start the week off with three of our consortia meetings coming to a close and having their final meetings. Then we move into an open day of industry professionals and SwRI speakers, as well as the kickoff meeting for our clean, highly efficient, decarbonized engines 9 consortia.
The last two days of the week, we have a Life Cycle Analysis for Transportation Symposium, which is also an event meant to bring together a lot of these professionals. In the middle of the week, we'll take all the attendees on a tour of SwRI's advanced transportation labs. We'll have plenty of networking opportunities at lunches and dinners. I'm just really excited to be able to meet everyone again in person.
LP: And what is the overall goal of getting everyone together? What do you really want to talk about?
CB: So decarbonization is a complicated topic. And there's no clear answer to what does that mean for different industries. Specifically, in transportation, we have combustion engines with aftertreatment systems today. We have a lot of introduction of electric vehicles. And it's not so clear how do we get from one point to the other, and is the end to answer electric vehicles. Especially when it comes to commercial vehicles off-highway, locomotive, and all the way up to marine and aviation, you can see how it's not easy to just put some batteries in there and plug it in, and we're done.
And so there is a spectrum of solutions that we have to come up with. And so, really, what I'd like to get out of this summit is have us all talk about what are our different industries, the different customers that our customers serve, and what are some of the solutions that we can come up with today that do put us on a path of decarbonization without having to wait for some of the technology that's still maturing.
LP: And Southwest Research Institute is already spearheading a lot of this technology. So we'll get to that in just a moment. But I want to know more about how the idea for this global summit, this global gathering, came to be. What were some of the early conversations that got the ball rolling?
CB: Yeah, we actually started talking about this at least two years ago, kind of within our team. And the idea was, kind of in the middle of the pandemic or even towards the end of the pandemic, our interactions and meetings with our clients and a lot of the public conferences have really changed. Attendance is different. Being able to justify coming to meetings is different. And frankly, how we interact has changed a little bit with the pandemic over the last couple of years.
And so we started talking about if instead of hosting individual meetings for some of our programs, where people may come to that, but have to balance that with their other commitments, what if we really combined a lot of that stuff together? And so not only are they coming to Southwest Research for the program that they participate in, but giving them an opportunity to interact with others, learn about related topics, and really just provide some extra value for coming down to San Antonio.
LP: So they're really getting immersed in the topics.
CB: Right, we're trying to wrap a lot of information around the programs that we already have so that they're not just getting an update on the technical work here, but they're hearing about related projects taking place at national labs and vehicle manufacturers across the world because a lot of these challenges really are global challenges. So it's not just, what are we doing here in San Antonio. It's, what's taking place around the world and how are these working together to really solve the problem.
LP: And this will also present an opportunity for exchange of ideas. Are you hoping that that's one of the benefits of coming together?
CB: Absolutely. So SwRI is not trying to dominate the conversation. We're trying to provide a platform. Of course, we have a lot of work here that's going on that we want to share. And so we'll do that. We also have a lot of invited speakers that we're allowing to share their research that's taking place that's related to what we're doing here.
And so we really hope to learn what they're doing. Is there a way for us to collaborate on that? Is there a way to open up the door for some of the other people that are attending to collaborate with those other speakers? And we're just generally looking for new ideas and technologies that we should be pursuing as an industry to really tackle decarbonization.
LP: So let's talk about this challenge that you're tackling and that you'd like to address during the summit. So the summit is a response to this global problem, the buildup of greenhouse gas emissions. We've discussed this issue before on the podcast, but let's recap here. What are we up against?
CB: Yeah, so greenhouse gases are kind of a generic term. And for what we're going to talk about, we can really think of those as mostly CO2, or carbon dioxide. What they do is rise into the atmosphere, reside there for quite some time, and really trap radiation from the sun. Now we need a certain amount of that greenhouse gas effect. I was reading an article that said if we didn't have any of that greenhouse gas effect, the Earth would be about 90 degrees Fahrenheit cooler. So our summers in Texas would be about 10 degrees Fahrenheit, which clearly would really affect the way we could survive on this planet. So we need some level of that.
But what's very clear to a lot of us is really, since the Industrial Revolution, the last 100 years, we've been emitting a significant amount of CO2 into the atmosphere that's new CO2 that wasn't there previously and is enhancing that greenhouse gas effect. So really, what it boils down to is, we need to understand that impact that we're having on the environment, and how do we mitigate that and possibly even reverse that. And that's a big challenge because fossil fuels and things that produce those CO2 emissions have really enabled the world to grow to where it is today. But we now have to figure out how do we maintain the technology, the lifestyle, the infrastructure, and communities that we have without burning those same fossil fuels. It's a big challenge, but it's something that we can't ignore. We have to overcome that.
LP: Let's talk a little bit more about the CO2, the impact it has on people, the environment, the oceans. We're seeing some warming happening.
CB: Right, so specifically, when we think about transportation, there's kind of emissions from a vehicle with a conventional engine and fossil fuels. One of those is CO2, which is what we just talked about. The other one is criteria pollutants. We're not talking about criteria pollutants, and those really cause a local problem. Local air quality changes, like smog or acid rain, are an impact of those criteria pollutants. And so locally, we have different solutions for that. The bigger challenge with CO2 is that is a global problem. That CO2 can be emitted anywhere in the world, rises into the atmosphere, and affects the whole world. So we also can't look at this in a vacuum. We have to understand, globally, what's taking place and how are we changing all industries, transportation included, to reduce those emissions. CO2 is a fact of life. There's a tremendous amount of fossil fuels that are still used to power everything today.
And so, some areas, we can start to reduce that use faster than others. Transportation is seen as one where we have a little bit more flexibility. It's a little bit easier to change the vehicles and things that we have on the roads versus the power plants and other larger infrastructure that we have. So I'm happy that we're focusing on transportation. There's still also a lot of work to be done, and there's no silver bullet to how are we going to solve this problem in the next 5, 10, or even 15 years. The criteria pollutants are a different set of challenges, and we do have a lot of good solutions. That's where regulations work really well to manage those emissions and really protect the communities that are highest population and highest concentration of vehicles and places like the Los Angeles basin. And we've seen the progress that that has made over the last 50 or 60 years. The CO2 is much more challenging because you can have a city full of cars emitting CO2 that is affecting the warming of oceans and rainforests on the other side of the planet. And that's not so easy to manage.
LP: OK, so you've touched on this a little bit already, but why is the transportation sector such a vital part of this conversation? This mobility summit is targeting the transportation industry. So why do we need them to be part of this conversation?
CB: Yeah, so actually, globally, as far as all greenhouse gas emissions are concerned, transportation is about 15% of those. And things like heating and electricity generation are about 25%. So those are a larger fraction, but we're talking about something that's more than half of the CO2 that is also emitted from power plants and electricity comes from transportation. So it's a big challenge.
The other thing that's very difficult to manage is how flexible transportation is. It's not in one stationary place. It's mobile, and it's on the ground, in the sea, in the air. And so it's not so easy to design systems that try to capture that CO2 or just simply change out that system. We have a whole infrastructure for how we fuel and manage these vehicles that does happen to produce CO2. But it's based on the last 100 years of the automobile technology that isn't going to change overnight.
LP: So if you figure out the transportation part of this puzzle, you're able to make a pretty good sized dent in the problem.
CB: Yeah, exactly. And a lot of our technologies are related to those other industries, like agricultural building or electricity. And so we'll even have a little bit of discussion at the summit where we talk about those related technologies. Stationary power, and a lot of those use generators with engines, they also work on power plants. So some of the technology that we look at for reducing or mitigating CO2 emissions does actually share between the transportation and other sectors. But for the most part, transportation is fairly unique in that it is quite different and varied across industries, regions, and transportation modes.
LP: The summit really is of interest to all of us, whether we are in the transportation industry or not. So tell us, again, why is this a pivotal gathering for, really, all people and the environment?
CB: Yeah, so the importance of the summit really cannot be understated. We have to mitigate these greenhouse gas emissions. And for the last several years, there's been plans and action plans that have come out. And frankly, we're missing those, not just as a country, but as a global entity. And so whether the plan is wrong or not is one thing.
But I think what we really need are more options on the table. That's the biggest learning from studying a lot of these plans and current technologies and pathways, is that, frankly, we may not have enough pathways to get there. And the idea with the summit is we get together and we understand where are some more opportunities for improvement that we can build our research around.
LP: Your guest list is expansive. This is beyond our city, beyond the state. Where are your speakers and guests coming from?
CB: Right, and so we were very conscious to make sure this had a global impact because, again, CO2 is a global phenomenon. And so what we did was we looked at our current consortium member base, of course, which is global. And we started looking for speakers. And it didn't take long before now we have attendees coming from several countries within Europe, China, Japan, Korea, and maybe more to come, as the summit approaches.
And I think it's really important that we have that representation because it's not just that we do things differently in different parts of the world but we have different access to technologies, different infrastructure, different acceptability of technologies. And so one size is not going to fit all. We have to make sure everyone's included in that conversation.
LP: OK, so who can participate, and how can they sign up?
CB: Yeah, so there are several sessions taking place, which are closed to our consortium members. So we have a lot of members that are part of those programs. However, there are at least four days of the summit that are open to industry professionals and related transportation engineering companies.
And so the way to sign up is go to gdms.swri.org. On that website, we have a list of the different days, the topics. Soon there'll be some agendas posted. And there's also a link to register for the hotel, the venue will take place at. And then there's a link to register for which sessions you're interested in so that we can make sure we have a good head count for lunches, dinners, and all the networking opportunities.
LP: So gdms.swri.org is the place to go for more information and to sign up for the summit. And so a big part of your attendance will be the consortium members. So let's talk a little bit about that. Explain SwRI's automotive consortia and joint industry programs. What is their purpose and their role in the summit?
CB: Yeah, so one of my favorite things about Southwest Research Institute is our consortia programs. I really enjoy the research that we do, and I really enjoy doing that in a collaborative environment. So our consortia are actually enabled by some federal legislation starting in 1984, the National Cooperative Research Act. And that was founded as a way to allow companies to get together who, in all aspects of the real world, are competitors, but get together and focus on future challenges that we're facing, and not be in violation of any antitrust laws.
So it's a really unique concept that was initiated by the federal government to encourage that collaborative research. Now Southwest Research has taken advantage of that and had consortia programs since 1991 or earlier. And so this is really the continuation of a lot of that. Those are really important because we need to rise above just how do we develop a product that kind of beats the other person. That's not what we're trying to do in these consortia. We have a vision of 10 years into the future or greater. And so it's just a lot of fun to have two companies that advertise against each other for "buy our product versus that one", in the same room, both contributing to a combined solution. It's just a lot of fun to have that.
LP: Competitors working together for a combined solution.
CB: Absolutely. I mean, because at the end of the day...
LP: They both win.
CB: ...they both win, and really, society wins. And that's the main goal. We're not helping any one technology and/or any one company win. We're following Southwest Research's mission to improve society. And so that's what the research consortia allow us to do in a safe environment that everybody feels comfortable in.
LP: So, as you said, as part of this mission to improve humanity, improve society, we are already working on sustainable transportation solutions, a lot of them being explored here at SwRI. What are some of these solutions currently in the works?
CB: Yeah, so again, I love the type of work we do here at Southwest Research. And we have activities going on from passenger vehicles, looking at advanced electric solutions and fuel cell technologies, all the way up to locomotives and large off-highway engines. Or we're looking at alternative fuels, all the way up to things like ammonia or hydrogen that don't even contain carbon, so they eliminate CO2 emissions from the engine. We're also looking at applications of those large equipment where we can put battery electric powertrains and really everything in between.
Just, again, how do we provide the right solution for each of those industry challenges where it may be different? Because battery electric vehicle is much different than a battery electric mining truck. And so the technology behind that is different, but Southwest Research is well aware of the needs of both of those industries and able to provide solutions for both of those. And it's a lot of fun.
LP: So researching and developing several, many technologies for the goal of 2050. So I want to talk a little bit about that. Again, we've touched on this topic before on the podcast, but it's always good to have a refresher. So the target year to get to net zero emissions is 2050. What are some of the challenges the transportation industry faces to meet that goal? And if you could also explain to our listeners again, what are net zero emissions?
CB: Right, so the key word there is "net zero," and not just zero without the net in front of it, because there are a lot of ways that we can, what we're trying to actually do is eliminate new carbon emitted into the environment. One of the ways we can do that is by using carbon that's part of a cycle. Things like when we grow crops, use those crops to develop renewable fuels like ethanol that we use in our cars, that is not new carbon being introduced in the environment. That's carbon that's captured by a plant, turned into fuel, burned, emitted again, and then captured by those crops again. So that carbon is part of a cycle.
And so there is carbon emissions. We call those net zero because they don't have any impact on the environment. They're captured and reused, as opposed to the fossil fuels, which are trapped carbon that we're emitting and not recapturing. So that net zero term is really the key there. To get to just truly zero is an even larger challenge, some could say impossible. So there are a lot of ways, though, that we can get to those net zero solutions. Now, being able to scale it to the level at which fossil fuels are used today is a significant challenge, but we're already making a lot of good progress. Again, I mentioned renewable fuels. There's a very large amount of renewable fuel production in the US, and both from bio-based and from waste products. And so the used cooking oil example is a good one that we have vegetable oils we use for French fries and things like that.
But we can actually reuse that waste product that's otherwise stored, and we can turn it into diesel fuel. And so that's done quite heavily in California with a lot of refineries. And all of those refiners are looking at how to double and triple their capacity because the demand is there. In fact, collecting the waste products sometimes is actually the limiting factor, which has created a whole lot of business opportunities for those refiners and other companies. So it's a really interesting challenge. The 2050 goal is seen as kind of the tipping point where we really need to bring those emissions of carbon to that net zero level by 2050. Or the idea is, we've really put the planet on a warming path that may be irreversible. And it may not seem like a lot, but 1 and 1/2 or 2 degrees C increase on an annual basis is something that we cannot survive long-term. It's kind of an interesting thought that we don't really see that day to day.
We see some of the weather patterns changing, but what's difficult to comprehend is that we get to some level where those kind of become out of control. And at that point, there's not a whole lot we can do. So it is an important challenge, and it's something that has to be addressed everywhere. Transportation, as I mentioned, is a big slice of that pie. So it is very important, and it's not something that we can keep kicking down the road.
LP: What are the benefits of getting everyone, members of the transportation sector, under one roof for this pivotal discussion?
CB: Right, so I think the biggest takeaway of doing something like that is that we get the diversity of opinion and the diversity of representation. As I mentioned, when we say transportation, we don't just mean passenger vehicles. We mean commercial vehicles. A lot of times, that also includes rail and locomotive, and you can even lump in marine and stuff like that in there. So, clearly, one solution doesn't fit for each one of those. And also, the markets are much different as far as what do those industries have access to when you talk about the US versus Asia. There may be different filling and energy stations. And so, the solution we develop here in the US as a net zero tractor application may not work in other countries where there's not the same access to that energy or that different fuel source.
And so the important part is really having that diverse representation. It also shows that we're all interlinked. Again, this is a global problem. So we can do a whole bunch of work in one region to reduce carbon emissions, but one of the biggest oversights that has taken place and that we hope to mitigate is thinking of an area where the electric grid is still powered by a lot of fossil fuels, or worst case, even coal. If we're asking a lot of things that are fossil fuel powered to be switched over to electricity, only to turn on more coal power plants, we're only moving those CO2 emissions. And as we talked about, that doesn't even matter. They're all still emitted into the atmosphere. So with the wrong representation, we can really put a lot of effort into the wrong solution and really not have a benefit at all.
LP: So as with anything, it's good to have different perspectives in the room when trying to solve these problems.
CB: Absolutely, those different perspectives and then the different use cases that we may or may not be considering for what are all the ways a tractor is used and what are all the different environments, how easy is it to get fuel to different farms and different construction sites, and there's not going to be one answer. So what are the kind of minimum amount of different options that we do need to have available? And how is that going to change in the future?
LP: So you've mentioned all types of transportation in this conversation. And is that really the goal? This summit isn't just for cars and trucks on the road. We're talking about all forms of transportation.
CB: We really are. And we'll have representation from a lot of the passenger vehicle, commercial vehicle on-road, but also off-road and construction and all the way up to locomotive size engines, because those are all lumped into that transportation slice of the pie. And there are different solutions needed for all of those. Now, a lot of the technology can make its way through those different applications. And a lot of times, what we see is, is things beginning in the passenger car space where the volumes are higher. So we can get that cost of manufacturing down. However, the power level is lower, too.
So what we see is some technology makes its way into passenger vehicles. We see that kind of scale up into commercial trucks. And from there, though, we see a little bit of a divergence. How does it migrate from commercial trucks to off-highway construction equipment or to marine applications? The technology does move through those, but that's really where we see the options start to open up. And really, no one solution fits all.
LP: When you think about these impactful five days, what do you want to achieve from the summit? What's your big goal?
CB: Yeah, so our biggest goal is to really make sure that we've brought together a unique opportunity for people to talk specifically about decarbonization in the transportation area. There's a lot of transportation conferences. There's a lot of decarbonization conferences. We're trying to focus that in quite specifically on decarbonized transportation. We think that this is a unique opportunity for people to get together and focus on this topic without it being too hard to follow. I don't want to say that it's a bad thing to include other topics in there, but frankly, it gets to be challenging to understand. And it can be a bit overwhelming.
So by focusing on this topic, I think we're going to create a unique opportunity for people to want to get together on an annual basis and check ourselves, how are we doing? Those technologies we talked about last year, how's the research going? And what new ideas do we have for the upcoming year?
LP: Yeah, so again, this is the first Global Decarbonized Mobility Summit that SwRI is hosting, but you are envisioning this to be an annual gathering. So what do you see for the future of the summit?
CB: Yeah, so it's a really exciting event for us, as I mentioned, and the starting point for us this year is focused around a lot of our consortia activity. Starting next year, what we'd like to do is have even more parallel sessions that are open to the public, I would say, or open to other industry professionals. We want to make it a place where we will have that combined leveraging of the different groups, the consortium members, and other industry professionals.
But we really want to turn it into an even larger event where it's a little more recognized. We'll have some additional speakers, probably even some regulators and ability for us to finish out that conversation of not just researchers and industry, but also regulators speaking as well. And I think that will give us an opportunity to really build on the platform and be able to be recognized as a not just a place doing the work, but also a place really leading the conversation.
LP: So we've heard about your work. We've heard about your efforts to organize this summit. But we'd also like our listeners to learn a little bit more about you, Chris, the engineer. So you have an interesting hobby that ties into your work, and you mentioned you like working on cars, trucks, and engines. So tell us about how that influenced your career path and your current restoration project.
CB: Yeah, so ever since I turned 16, I was able to drive. I really had a passion for vehicles and wanting to experience different cars, trucks, transportation modes, and just kind of fascinated with just the concept of transportation. And so, as I was going to school, I was wanting to be in the automotive industry. And actually, here in San Antonio, where I went to school, I still wasn't even aware of what Southwest Research was doing. Southwest Research sponsored an event at the local university here where I was going to school, and I got to meet a lot of the people doing the type of research that I'd always wanted to do. And so it was a great opportunity to get to meet those people, get to work here as a student, and then continue working here full-time.
And what I really found out is, a lot of what we do here is not just a job to people. It is really a passion. It's not, I come to work here and just want to get the job done. I really am passionate about transportation and work on vehicles and engines myself. And I really want to see those continue to improve. And so I enjoy the work that I do here in the office. I enjoy going home then and kind of working on my older projects. And one of the vehicles I'm working on now is a 1985 Toyota pickup, which anyone that's seen the Back to the Future movie, that's Marty McFly's dream truck that he ends up with at the end of the movie. And so I have the exact same one. It's not black. It's rust color right now, but.
LP: "The Power of Love" is playing in my head, as we speak.
CB: And so that's fun to be able to tell people it's a 1985 Toyota. And they may or may not realize what that is. I say it's Marty McFly's truck. Everybody knows what that is. I just don't have the KC lights or anything on it at this point.
LP: So I think that's just really neat that those seeds for what you're doing now were planted so long ago. You've always enjoyed this type of work. And here you are, ushering us into this new era of transportation, as you plan the summit. So going back to the summit, now what is most exciting for you about launching this event, and as we said, ushering in this new automotive era?
CB: Yeah, I think there's really the whole experience has been exciting for me. As I mentioned, being local here to San Antonio, I'm excited that we're hosting this here in San Antonio. There's a lot of conferences that take place in some of the real major industry areas for automotive. But San Antonio is our home. And I'm very happy and proud to host it.
I also really enjoy meeting those individuals also working in this industry, specifically in the research and innovation areas. And so I enjoy going to other conferences, meeting people, seeing their presentations. And I'm very excited to have them here. I was actually, we've been promoting this quite heavily with all of the people that we do know. And I was at some conferences a couple of weeks ago and actually heard some other people talking about, hey, I'm going to the Global Decarbonized Mobility Summit.
And to me, it just really made me proud that something that we're doing here is getting some recognition, even for the first time, where I'm sure we'll have some room for improvement and growth. But people are already talking about it. And to me, that's just very exciting and rewarding that we're already putting it out there and it's being recognized.
LP: Yeah, that is really neat to just kind of overhear that conversation. You're like, I know a thing or two about that. I'll be there, too. So the Global Decarbonized Mobility Summit, really an important and impactful event for all of us, as we discussed. Speakers, presentations, tours, there will be an international presence. And as you mentioned, research, developing technology, and overcoming challenges is critical for all of humanity, as we strive for net zero emissions by 2050.
So this summit is bringing everyone together under one roof to have these important, impactful conversations. And for our audience today, all the information you need to learn more about the summit is at gdms.swri.org. And that information will also be available on the Episode 60 web page. So thank you so much for being here today, Chris. Really enjoyed hearing about this upcoming global summit.
CB: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. Like I said, proud to talk about it and really excited to get into it and meet everyone that shows up.
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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.
The Summit takes place November 13-17, 2023, at the Holiday Inn Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas. Multiple sessions will be covered with an introduction on public policy and rulemaking leading into R&D and pathways for decarbonized powertrains.