The recently approved $286 billion National Transportation Bill allocated $8 million in funding for the University of Tennessee's National Transportation Research Center (NTRC) and another $20 million for a new Joint Research Materials Institute. The institute will be a partnership between UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratories. According to Loren Crabtree, the big picture in transportation research involves thinking small:
Q: What will be the major areas of research for this new joint research facility?
A: This building will deal largely in nano-science, that is to say, on the molecular and atomic scale. It will be looking at ways to improve and develop fuel-cell technology and hybrid engines and will work towards the hydrogen economy. Of course, hydrogen is still 20 years off. We will also be looking into creating new materials for vehicles, engines, and roads.
Q: How does this differ from the work done at the NTRC?
A: The NTRC does a lot more work in the here-and-now. It studies current problems and things like the logistics of transportation.
Q: Does any of this have anything to do specifically with Tennessee?
A: Yes, absolutely. We do a lot of research, for example, on the large freight trucks that operate on Tennessee highways. We investigate how safe their brakes are. We look into ways to reduce the pollution they cause. Also, there is the research on pavement, how to make it better and prevent it from being torn up.
Q: What are some of the major changes you foresee in transportation?
A: Hybrid engines are the immediate future. We are going to start seeing them come into heavier vehicles like pickup trucks. I don't think it's a matter of convincing the public, because Toyota has a six-month backlog of orders. I think it's a matter of producing them and getting them into the hands of the people.
Q: How can America improve its transportation systems?
A: We really need to invest in mass transportation. It would be a delight to have some form of east-west mass transit here in Knoxville, but what I think the country really needs is both light and heavy rail. This would greatly benefit both concentrated areas of population in the east and sparsely populated ones in the west.