Clean transportation and future mobility

Over the last century, the progress in transport has shaped our world we know today, one of growth and globalization. But this progress did not come without costs for society, especially in terms of pollution. In addition, transport is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. It has become urgent to transform our transport infrastructure and invent cleaner, safer and more efficient mobility solutions in all the sectors: aviation, shipping, rail and automotive. CERN's multidisciplinary expertise can play an important role.

Some examples of relevant poles of competence and related projects/collaborations:

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High Temperature Superconducting (HTS) Rare-Earth Barium Copper Oxide (also referred to as REBCO) power transmission cable used at CERN (Image: CERN)

SC Lines for on-board and grid power distribution

Superconducting technologies have fuelled some of the greatest discoveries in high-energy physics. Superconducting lines (cables, cryostats, current leads) dare an enabling technology to reduce losses and cost where high power transmission is necessary.

This can be the case for instance in aviation: CERN and Airbus have launched an innovative collaboration to explore the potential use of superconducting technologies developed by CERN for particle accelerators in the electrical distribution systems of future hydrogen-powered aircraft. Superconducting technologies could drastically reduce the weight of next-generation aircraft and increase their efficiency. The partnership focuses on the development of a demonstrator known as SCALE (Super-Conductors for Aviation with Low Emissions).

More in general, large transportation systems like ships, trains and trucks can benefit of on-board SC power distribution, especially if they are anyway equipped with liquid hydrogen tanks and fuel cells delivering significant electrical power.

Superconducting power lines are suitable also for long distance grid applications or for power distribution in big data centres. To meet our increasing electricity demand despite seasonal fluctuation in wind and solar energy, future transmission grids will have to reliably transfer high electric power over distances of hundreds of kilometres – connecting consumption hubs with areas of production, which are often located far away. Superconducting electrical transmission lines can substitute overhead transmission lines and may represent an economically viable option. A part from SC know-how, the integration of SC cables in the grid requires the development of complex equipment operating in challenging conditions (including sub-sea), like cryostats with thermally insulated walls requiring vacuum layers. This is the topic of CIPEA project IVAC-RED (Insulation Vacuum of Superconducting Cables for Renewable Energy Distribution) in collaboration with the company SuperNode.

CERN and Airbus UpNext sign a collaboration agreement to assess the use of superconducting technologies for future low-emission aeroplanes.

Liquid hydrogen storage and handling systems

Hydrogen is considered by all CERN’s Member States as a critical low carbon solution for the transition to net zero, but its safe high-density storage in liquid phase is a challenge as it requires cryogenic temperatures (20 K, below -253 ºC). CERN has key competences and unique facilities that can be shared with companies and organizations working on the development of systems for the storage and handling of liquid Hydrogen, in particular:

  • Cryogenics (test benches, thermal flux measurements at 20K)
  • Materials (welding process, leaks, mechanical tests at 20K)
  • Vacuum (outgassing, modelling, pumping, evacuated walls)
  • Surfaces (coatings and cold spray, including on composites)

An example of on-going project in this field is the collaboration with the Spanish company Applus+ in developing new testing capabilities for the mechanical characterisation of composite materials used for hydrogen tanks. A cryostat based on a CERN model, and adapted to the company’s needs thanks to CERN’s experience in cryogenics, will be built by the company at their premises and then be used to provide testing services to organisations developing compact liquid hydrogen storage solutions.

Autonomous and fast long-distance transportation

Autonomous driving solutions can help to decrease traffic congestion and contribute to cleaner cities. (Photo: Deva Darshan on Unsplash)

The development of future mobility should not exclude improvements in safety, security, reliability and comfort. Autonomous driving will bring tremendous benefits in safety, for the driver and passengers, as well as for other cars, bicyclists and pedestrians. It will improve driving efficiency by optimising transport flow, thus reducing transport-originated air pollution and fuel consumption. This technology relies on hardware-optimised machine learning algorithms that allow vehicles to take fast decisions and make quick predictions; software quite similar to the ones used at CERN to study collisions in the Large Hadron Collider. Together with CERN, Zenseact, a Sweden-based company owned primarily by Volvo Cars, has been exploring how CERN’s machine learning algorithms can be applied to other fields including avoiding collisions in autonomous vehicles.

Safe, effective and sustainable, railway transport will take a major role in future mobility systems. For both freight and passengers, speed will be determinant when choosing rail over other alternatives, such as plane, boat, or road. Among the most promising solutions are Hyperloop systems. Set to reduce travel times from hours to minute, this pod-like transportation system would travel at sonic or even ultrasonic speeds in high-vacuum tubes over several hundreds of kilometres. Initiated by SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk, this project might find inspiration in existing CERN technology and know-how in vacuum, cooling or civil engineering. It is the case of CERN's innovative CO2 cooling technology, currently being explored by the EuroLoop company for efficient cooling inside the Hyperloop capsule.

CERN and software company Zenseact wrap up a joint research project that could allow autonomous-driving cars to make faster decisions, thus helping avoid accidents