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Welcoming a New Year of Energy Innovation 
As we usher in a new year, #NETL is poised for another productive year of technology development, especially innovations for carbon management and environmental stewardship

Director’s Corner

by Brian Anderson, Ph.D.

As we usher in a new year, I know many people are happy to put 2020 behind us. It’s been a challenging year, but as NETL researchers demonstrated throughout 2020, challenges can ignite progress. For example:

  • A public-private research effort led by NETL with Oceanit Laboratories Inc. produced an ultra-thin surface treatment that could significantly improve the reliability of the nation’s extensive energy pipeline network by reducing corrosion and surface friction on pipe walls. 
  • NETL-led research across multiple projects made significant strides in producing high-purity rare earth elements and critical minerals from coal and coal-based resources. 
  • The Lab’s pioneering Microwave Ammonia Synthesis took home a 2020 IChemE Global Award for its potential to aid in agriculture, energy production and other applications while also lowering costs and overall energy use. As part of a national lab collaboration, NETL researchers helped develop a modeling approach that significantly improves the prediction of hydraulic fracture propagation and has been adopted by many industry partners. 
  • These are just a few of our success stories. Looking into 2021, I’m confident this progress will continue as we build on these accomplishments in meaningful ways. 

Around the world, the research community has applied their expertise to finding cures and solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we greatly applaud their efforts. While the coronavirus has taken center stage, our energy-environmental challenges have not subsided. The need for technologies to enable clean, affordable energy — and especially to minimize emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) in these processes —remains urgent. 

This is a challenge NETL is well-positioned to address. In the 1990s, our researchers applied their talent to developing innovations to combatting acid rain. These technologies, including scrubbers and other environmental controls were applied to power plants around the world, drastically reducing emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide and eliminating the threat of acid rain. 

As you can see, environmental stewardship has long been a foundational tenet of NETL’s work, and as we’re now leading technology development for a carbon-constrained future. We’ve been pioneers in carbon management for many years, and we’re now rolling out successes. For example, a collaboration among DOE, NETL and the University of California, Los Angeles, recently demonstrated a process to create concrete masonry units using CO2 from power plant flue gas without the need for a carbon capture step. 

In another project, NETL researchers used advanced computational tools to repurpose CO2 generated by fossil energy plants and other industrial sources into chemical building blocks to manufacture fuels and a range of high-value items, including polymers and fertilizers. The technology could offer a strong financial incentive to reduce the amount of CO2 released in the atmosphere.  

Another impressive technology moving forward is NETL’s work to convert domestic coal into graphene, a valuable material that can be used to build stronger roads and bridges and manufacture various high-tech products. The technology was one of two innovations to be awarded a prestigious R&D 100 award for being one of the most technology significant innovations introduced into the marketplace in the last year, and I expect more accolades as this technology advances and continues toward commercialization. Enabling value-added uses for our abundant coal resources has potential to breathe new life into economies negatively impacted by the downturn in the coal industry. 

Our second R&D 100 award winner was NETL’s Institute for the Design of Advanced Energy Systems (IDAES), a center of excellence for the identification, synthesis, optimization and analysis of innovations to meet the nation’s growing energy needs. IDAES provides revolutionary capabilities for process systems engineering that exceed existing tools and approaches and aids the design, development, scaling-up and analysis of new technologies and processes to accelerate advances and apply them to address existing and future demand for abundant, reliable energy.  

One of the most exciting aspects of research is that it’s always moving forward, building and becoming more and more promising. Discoveries lead to innovations and advanced technologies with impact and the potential to improve people’s lives around the world. As I look back on our year of achievement, I’m filled with optimism and confidence that 2020 innovations will pave the way for greater achievements in 2021. I hope you’ll continue to follow our work throughout the year.