Getting Goods to Market: MTU Awarded Department of Energy Grant to Strengthen, Improve and Decarbonize Intermodal Freight

A Michigan Tech researcher working on intermodal freight transportation improvements is seen smiling in this portrait in the civil engineering department at Michigan Tech.
A Michigan Tech researcher working on intermodal freight transportation improvements is seen smiling in this portrait in the civil engineering department at Michigan Tech.
Kuilin Zhang leads a team working to create a cohesive logistical tool that will save the shipping industry time, energy and money, enabling adjustments when unexpected and unpredictable events occur.

Michigan Technological University has received $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to develop a practical tool that will help shipping, rail and trucking companies develop cohesive logistics for both predictive planning and real-time decisions that save time, energy and money.

Led by Kuilin Zhang, an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geospatial Engineering, the Michigan Tech project is titled “A Decarbonized and Resilient Intermodal Freight Transportation (DRIFT) Modeling Platform for Intermodal Logistical Decisions Under Uncertainty.” DRIFT will model a low-carbon, intermodal freight transportation system of the future. It’s one of six projects nationwide funded by the DOE through an Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) exploratory topic called INcreasing Transportation Efficiency and Resiliency through MODeling Assets and Logistics (INTERMODAL). Michigan Tech’s project is the only one in the state of Michigan.

Intermodal refers to freight shipments moved internationally or domestically using more than one mode of transportation. Zhang and his research team plan to develop, validate and demonstrate the DRIFT modeling platform as a way to build efficiency and supply chain resilience into the maritime, rail and road transportation of goods. Renewable energy experts from Argonne National Laboratory will provide energy and greenhouse gas emission-related data and modeling support for the platform.

“We plan to model container routes, modes and schedules from ports to warehouses,” Zhang explained. Currently, a variety of private and disparate logistics systems are used by individual carriers or private logistics companies. DRIFT would offer a comprehensive network. 

"Our goal is to minimize time, cost and energy, including under disruptions, in order to improve resilience, with all the modes — maritime, rail and road — working together to get the goods from ports to warehouses and then to the final customers."Kuilin Zhang, DRIFT project lead, Michigan Tech

The team will consider new technologies, such as connectivity, automation, electrification and other renewable energy sources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including when and where to install charging and fueling stations for transportation that will run on renewable energy sources.

About the Researchers

“The transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to anthropogenic U.S. greenhouse gas emissions,” said Audra Morse, dean of the College of Engineering at Michigan Tech. “Engineers and policy makers need data so they can make informed decisions. For this reason, the work of Dr. Zhang and his colleagues will be absolutely critical to advancing our country’s sustainability efforts.”

Leading the DRIFT project alongside Zhang are Chee-Wooi Ten, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Tim Colling, director of Michigan Tech’s Center for Technology and Training. Each will provide extensive expertise to the project. “Dr. Ten will bring his experience with power system resilience, while Dr. Colling will lead the technology-to-market section of this project to develop a software commercialization plan for the platform,” said Zhang. 

Zhang's own expertise includes mathematical optimization, control theory and simulation analysis, as well as game theory, machine learning, data science and on-road vehicle testing. A 2019 recipient of the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, his research addresses safety, congestion, energy, environment, resilience and equity issues of critical civil infrastructure systems.

"In my vision of the future, we have more predictable, more robust, safer and greener transportation and logistics systems — and it’s based on being connected and the data we can gather."Kuilin Zhang, DRIFT project lead, Michigan Tech

Project Seeks Industry Input

Zhang said industry collaboration will play a vital role in driving the project forward over the next 30 months.

“In particular, we want to partner with industries that are interested in developing and implementing decarbonization, connectivity and automation technologies for intermodal logistics,” he said. “That includes intermodal logistics brokers, container ship carriers, intermodal trains and trucking.”

Zhang is forming an industry advisory board from those sectors. It will meet quarterly to offer feedback to improve the new models, refine platform development and provide transformative tools that can help decision-making for intermodal logistics.

“The involvement of direct industry representatives and trade associations is critical to the development of solutions that address their core needs within the constraints of operating a viable commercial enterprise,” said Jim Baker, Michigan Tech associate vice president for research administration. “Feedback and guidance from industry advisory board representatives will ensure that the outcomes of this project can be immediately adopted within their operations upon completion.”

Zhang envisions a user-friendly graphics interface for configuring scenarios. 

“DRIFT users will be able to conduct full-system planning analysis and quasi-real-time decision-making under uncertainty,” he said. “For example, I cannot change a hurricane’s impact, but my model can change the schedule and routing. DRIFT will enable carriers to identify new optimal intermodal routes and transition pathways, while seeing various options in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, costs, travel time and resiliency.”

He is confident that DRIFT will be able to achieve two primary goals: reducing overall energy use per ton-mile of freight transported, while minimizing the levelized cost of ton-kilometers (LCOTKM) with increased supply chain resiliency.

Intermodal transportation has been key to the development of a global supply chain, said Pasi Lautala, the College of Engineering’s associate dean for research and director of Michigan Tech Transportation Institute. “There is continuous pressure to keep improving the economic and environmental footprints. The research by Dr. Zhang’s team is another critical piece toward solutions that can efficiently move freight to customers in the U.S. and beyond.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.