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Government Lab Looks for Renewable Energy Solutions

posted on August 22, 2008

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Despite this week's rally, crude oil is down more than $30 from its all-time high posted last month. But prices are still up about 60 percent from last year.

And, it may seem like ‘Déjà vu' for survivors of the oil shortage of 1973, when Arab nations cut oil production and placed an embargo on shipments to the West.

In the wake of the crisis, Congress established a government laboratory tasked with developing renewable energy resources. Three decades later, more than 1,100 scientists and engineers continue the effort at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. David Miller toured the facility last spring and filed this report.

Since the late 1970s, scientists and engineers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, have been working to decrease the time it takes energy-saving ideas to go from laboratory bench to real world application. Over the years, work at the NREL facility in Golden, Colorado has been responsible for landmark developments in solar, wind and biofuel energy.

Some of the first work performed at the South Table Mountain facility was done with solar cells at what is now known as the National Center for Photovoltaics. Utilizing technology developed in the 1950s, NREL scientists have been making steady improvements to solar cells for the past 30 years.

Dr. Larry Kazmerski, Director, National Center for Photovoltaics, NREL: Solar is real now....I always tell people they say 'well should I wait five years to do this?' and I say 'well you know, yeah, things will be a little bit different then, costs will be down, but the incentives we have will be different.' I tell them 'that's the equivalent of buying a computer.' You know, you always wait for the next fastest processor for that computer you'll never buy one... We are actually at the tipping point now. There's one thing about being practical to use technically and of course this has been, been always practical technically. The problem comes, the tipping come economically and that's the tipping point we're at right now..."

Kazmerski's team has been part of the effort that has reduced the cost of solar cells by more than 50 percent over the past 15 years. And work continues with evaluation of new devices like these roof shingle units.

NREL also is uniquely positioned to bring its resources to bear on improving the production of photovoltaics through innovations in processing.

Steve Robbins, Process Integration Engineer, NREL: "If you're making photovoltaics you don't want to talk about making little pieces of it right? You want to make square miles. You want to make just as much of it as you possibly can and that's one of the advantages of the thin film technologies that NREL has really focused on over the last 20 and 30 years is that you can really look at doing these in high volume continuous line processes."

To that end, Robbins is working with a new device called the silicon cluster tool. This unique innovation allows engineers to stack layers of materials thinner than a human hair without ever leaving the clean environment of a vacuum chamber. Until 2007, no one had built a processing station like this one.

Steve Robbins, Process Integration Engineer, NREL: "I like to tell people if you were to dream up, if you were to give a material scientist just a wide open field, say 'dream up a way you're going to do research so that you can really rock the boat", this is what you end up with. This would be the dream machine.'

The influence of NREL's work can already be found on objects in use today. This tarp is being used by the U.S. Army to charges batteries in remote locations like Iraq and Afghanistan. And builders in nearby Lafayette, Colorado are integrating solar cells into new construction.

Just down the road on the 327-acre research campus is the Alternative Fuels User Facility. Here, research teams have been working with various industry partners to improve techniques and procedures for making biofuels. Currently, the staff is concentrating on making ethanol from various cellulosic sources like wood chips, switchgrass, and corn stover.

Andy Aden, Process Engineer, Alternative Fuels User Center, NREL: "...this is pretty much the nation's predominant laboratory in terms of researching the key steps of making cellulosic bio-fuels, in particular ethanol."

Combining work in the lab with their small-scale process development unit, Aden and his colleagues have been able to get the estimated cost of production down to $2.30 per gallon. Their ultimate goal is to drop the cost to $1.30 per gallon in the next five years.

Andy Aden, Process Engineer, Alternative Fuels User Center, NREL: "I mean the key thing about this laboratory is we deal with all levels of the whole cellulosic and bio-fuels picture from the sustainability. How sustainable is this in terms of greenhouse gas benefits, water usage, water quality, we do what's called life-cycle assessment to really qualify these and quantify them in a holistic manner."

About 20 miles from the Table Mountain facility is the National Wind Technology Center or N-W-T-C. Research at the 305 acre site has been instrumental in optimizing wind turbine blade and generator efficiency for various national and international manufacturers.

Jim Johnson, Senior Engineer, National Wind Technology Center, NREL: "The work we do for the Department of Energy here is on, in the most cases on the leading edge. I won't say the bleeding edge but the leading edge relative to any number of things that you want to talk about whether it's blades or whether it's gear boxes or generators or control systems or the interaction that we have with utilities all of that stuff is in the, the formative stages."

According to NREL, over the past 20 years the cost per kilowatt hour has dropped from 80 cents to between 4 and 7 cents but the group at the N-W-T-C hopes to push the cost even lower by 2012.

And the work isn't limited to turbines with 150 foot blades. Research is being conducted on smaller models that can be erected in your back yard.

As the price of oil remains over $100 per barrel, the scientists and engineers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory plan to continue their search for ways to reduce energy consumption in practical and economical ways. Virtually all of them agree that several sources of energy will be needed in the future to handle our needs and it is likely that work at NREL will play a part in that final mix.

For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.


Tags: alternative energy biofuels Colorado Congress Energy/Environment engineers news oil renewable fuels science solar wind power