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Exploring Future Energy Scenarios with the Freight/Fuel Transportation Optimization Tool

July 19, 2017

As of this writing, there are no refineries turning bio-based materials into fuel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the U.S. DOT Volpe Center is headquartered.

But if there were, how would raw materials get to the refinery, or the fuel to its final destination: by road, rail, water, pipeline, or a combination of all four? What emissions would be associated with moving that raw material and fuel?

These are just a few of the questions that the Freight and fuel Transportation Optimization Tool (FTOT) can help answer.

FTOT: Providing the Best-Case Scenario

FTOT draws on a range of data to help government agencies analyze freight and fuel transport options and hone in on multimodal transportation flow patterns and emissions associated with future freight and energy scenarios.

Volpe developed FTOT on behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research.

“The way we like to think of FTOT is as providing your best-case scenario,” said Kristin Lewis, a Volpe environmental biologist who led the development of FTOT, during a recent Transportation Trajectories talk. “If you had the perfect system in place for your future scenario, what would this look like? Giving a best-case scenario helps people understand whether or not an approach is viable.”

Watch video highlights of Dr. Kristin Lewis' talk at Volpe.

How FTOT Works

FTOT has two core components: a GIS-mapping module and an optimization module. Its foundation is a multimodal network that Volpe developed from datasets covering road, rail, waterway, pipeline, and intermodal facilities, such as transfer stations where containers are moved from ship to rail.

With the GIS component, Volpe logistics experts can look at how commodities and materials flow over the transportation enterprise—using either actual or hypothetical infrastructure, like anticipated network links or potential refineries.

A network template then knits together parameters on costs and other factors into the nation’s multimodal network, and then generates route options among origins and destinations.

“Then the optimizer says, ‘OK, where is all this stuff going to go? How much is going to go where? What makes sense? What are the transportation needs and emissions?’” Lewis said. “We generate an optimal solution that is transferred back to GIS, and that’s where we get our reports and our mapping.”

Optimizing Transportation Flows for FAA and DOE

Volpe experts use FTOT to help FAA understand how much alternative jet fuel can be produced in the near term. Analyses focus on the availability of commodities like residues from timber harvesting, tallow from slaughterhouses, and municipal solid waste.

With FTOT, Volpe experts can use projected availability of those materials out to 2030 and anticipated demand to analyze how they would flow optimally over the transportation network.

For DOE’s Energy Policy and Systems Analysis group, Volpe experts examine crude oil and coal scenarios. Working with Oak Ridge National Lab data, these analyses drill down to county-to-county flows of crude oil and coal. Volpe experts use FTOT to map these data and identify the best paths for these materials—optimizing routes according to transportation costs, routing preferences, and other factors related to processing capacity and cost. 

“One way this has been really valuable has been in lifecycle analysis, looking particularly at emissions, greenhouse gases, and other things,” Lewis said. “A lot of times, we want to know what the contribution of something like transportation is to that.”

Future FTOT Enhancements

Lewis and her team are working to enhance FTOT’s suite of capabilities in several areas. One enhancement is to introduce capacity constraints, such as the maximum number of vehicles that could travel on a particular road over current levels, after which additional flows would need to be re-routed.

The team also anticipates delving into more detailed regional analyses with sponsors and partners.

Updated: Wednesday, August 2, 2017
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