If you watch TV or read the papers, you'll see lots of coverage of people who are pretty unhappy with one facet or another of the U.S. government. This post is about something government seems to do relatively well: pre-commercial research and development.

Here at GreenCarReports.com, we usually cover specific green cars, most of them now on sale or coming within a year or two. Once in a while, though, we look at some of the broader research on green cars and renewable energy.

The Argonne National Laboratory--one of a network of 17 national labs funded by the Department of Energy--has a slew of programs aimed at making renewable energy practical, and enabling carmakers to build better, cheaper electric cars. We picked four to focus on.

Ohio State University EcoCAR Challenge team, first-place winners in 2009 (first of three years)

Ohio State University EcoCAR Challenge team, first-place winners in 2009 (first of three years)

From Challenge X to Eco-Car

We'd already met Argonne through their participation in the Challenge X competition among colleges to build greener cars. That four-year program, from 2004 to 2008, saw 17 teams compete to make the most energy efficient adaptation of a stock 2005 Chevrolet Equinox crossover.

The latest iteration of the competition, which started last year, is known as the Eco-Car Challenge. This time, 17 college teams from the U.S. and Canada are competing, and the starting vehicle is a 2009 Saturn Vue Two-Mode Hybrid.

Ohio State University triumphed in the first-year competition, winning First Place Overall for their design. Their extended-range electric vehicle uses a 1.8-liter engine, fueled by E85 ethanol, as a range extender.

Better batteries for electric cars

Looking further into the future, one vitally important area of research is better lithium-ion cells. They'll be used in the battery packs that will power tomorrow's electric cars, which will recharge from the electric grid rather than filling up with gasoline.

In June, the chemical company BASF signed a world-wide licensing agreement to mass-produce and market composite cathode materials, invented and developed at Argonne, to manufacturers of advanced lithium-ion cells. BASF expects its facility in Elyria, Ohio, to be the largest cathode plant in North America.

Argonne's cathode material is expected to increase power and energy density in lithium-ion cells, make them last longer, and reduce safety risks as compared to today's cathodes.

Roadside buffers might provide biofuel crops. Photo by George Joch, courtesy Argonne National Lab.

Roadside buffers might provide biofuel crops. Photo by George Joch, courtesy Argonne National Lab.

Biofuels from wasteland?

Returning to liquid fuels, Argonne environmental scientists Cristina Negri and Gayathri Gopalakrishnan studied the potential of using contaminated or undesirable land like highway medians and soggy ditches for growing hardy, inedible plants that could be turned into biofuels.

Simple on the surface, their concept addresses two problems at once. It alleviates the concern that plants grown for use in biofuels displace food production, an issue that got much air time when corn-based ethanol fuel was luring big investment dollars. (That boom is over now.)

Their process also removes contaminants from soil, and soaks up nutrient-rich irrigation runoff that could cause algae blooms in lakes and rivers. The nutrients and contaminants can more easily be contained and then removed from the residue of biofuel production than they can be captured in or on the ground. In essence, the plants mop up the bad stuff and hand it over while providing fuel.

Approximately 8 million acres could be planted with these biofuel crops; Negri and Gopalakrishnan estimate that harvest could supply 22 percent of annual energy demand in a state like Nebraska—even more if the state irrigated the land.

There are challenges, of course. Steep slopes on roadway buffers would be harder to harvest than flat Midwestern plains. State transportation departments keep highway borders mown flat to increase driver visibility. And it's unclear exactly how much carbon would be sequestered or how many pollutants taken up. Still, the concept seems to warrant further study.

More end-of-life recycling

Finally, Argonne has built a pilot plant to test out ways of recovering and reusing the 25 percent of a vehicle that isn't currently recycled after it's shredded. Of 12 million vehicles scrapped yearly, 5 million tons of material is just "shredder residue" that's now sent to landfills.

Argonne's plant first mechanically separates the materials in the shredder residue:  ferrous metal (steel, nonferrous metals (aluminum, copper, brass, and stainless steel), seat foam, and then a "polymer concentrate" made up of several types of ground-up plastics.

Then the concentrate is separated into different polymer types in a flotation chamber, so that each type can be melted down and reused without the contamination that comes from mixing different polymers together. A mixture of polypropylene and polyethylene, for example, can be made into knee bolsters and other plastic moldings for a car's interior.Altogether, Argonne says the process could remove most of that 5 million tons from landfills, save the equivalent of 24 million barrels of oil, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 12 million tons every year.

[Argonne National Laboratory Transportation Technology R&D]