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Special Report - Creative Energy: PNNL researchers are generating real-world solutions to a global problem

PNNL positioned to meet nation's energy challenges

Innovative science and technological advances will play a key role in solving the energy challenges facing the United States, and PNNL stands ready to help.

"I don't think there's a more important problem in the world right now, both near- and long-term, than energy," said Jud Virden, director of Energy Programs Business Development. Virden leads the charge to align the Laboratory's science and technology contributions with the nation's energy mission and to execute related business opportunities.

PNNL is addressing the energy challenge with research across the entire energy spectrum—from cleaner and more efficient uses of fossil fuels to next-generation nuclear technologies, to a more reliable electricity grid to energy efficient demand-side technologies.

Hydrocarbon Conversion

A major focus of PNNL's energy research is exploring "air- and water-neutral" conversion of domestic hydrocarbons such as coal to liquid transportation fuels, specifically finding ways to design plants that capture and safely store emissions and use as little water as possible (see related story, Coal: an energy bridge to the future).

PNNL's catalysis expertise, as well as biofungal capability, also will be applied in advanced research to convert biomass, another hydrocarbon, to transportation fuel and chemicals at the Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Laboratory (BSEL) being built in Richland, Washington. BSEL is a multi-user facility established jointly by PNNL and Washington State University.

Power Grid Reliability

The Laboratory is heavily involved in research activities to enable enhanced grid reliability and productivity, including building capabilities for wide-area monitoring and real-time analysis of grid operations.

In 2006, PNNL established the Electricity Infrastructure Operations Center, a user-based facility dedicated to energy and hydropower research and operations training. One focus of the facility is to use advanced software to process data in real time to enable a better handle on the current status of the grid as well as predict how the grid will behave in the near future (see related stories, Moving grid operations from minutes to seconds and Operations center is the real deal).

Expansion of Nuclear Power

The interest in nuclear power is on the rise as energy demands continue to grow. PNNL, which has world-class expertise in the nuclear licensing arena, will be substantially involved in shepherding the construction and operating licenses of as many as 16 or more new plants through the regulatory process for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the coming years. Activities will range from performing environmental reviews to evaluating fuel designs.

PNNL also anticipates contributing to the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, a comprehensive strategy to increase U.S. and global energy security, encourage clean development around the world, reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation and improve the environment (see related story, Nuclear energy and the 21st century).

Demand-side Technologies

Traditionally, most of PNNL's energy business has focused on energy-efficient technologies and includes areas such as energy-efficient building and vehicle technologies. The Laboratory continues to lead development of solid oxide fuel cells (see related story below) and plays a major role in solid-state lighting. It also has an active role in the development of codes and standards for building efficiency and ongoing work on advanced diesel engines to reduce emissions in auto engines, and is working on advanced forming and fabricating technologies to produce lightweight materials for transportation. PNNL will strengthen this demand-side area with further development of innovative and novel approaches to energy efficiency in buildings (see related story, PNNL's building sciences: from concept to commercialization), transportation, lighting and fuel cells.

Opportunities for Growth

According to Virden, PNNL's energy business has grown steadily the last several years. He estimates that energy sales will total around $93 million in 2006, up from $65 million just two years before. "I attribute this growth to our staff staying focused on the most important problems and contributing the right solutions to solving our clients' critical challenges."

PNNL also teams extensively with industry to develop solutions. "Our industry partners are savvy as to what works in the real world," Virden said. "Working with them gives us a better perspective of industry needs and strengthens our ability to turn our science into real-world solutions."

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