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An energy-hungry world requires innovative approaches to meet the increasing needs of homes, hospitals, schools and businesses, military installations and industries—the kinds of innovative approaches that NETL pursues daily under the research banner of one of its major core competencies known as energy conversion engineering.

NETL is America’s only national laboratory dedicated to fossil fuel research and the work it tackles seeks to discover, refine, and disseminate new technologies that embrace the abundance of fossil fuels while carefully considering and addressing challenging requirements and opportunities

Energy conversion is the process of changing one form of energy to another. For example, energy conversion is used to change the chemical energy in coal to thermal and mechanical energy that can turn a power plant’s turbine. Many of NETL’s energy conversion engineering efforts focus on increasing power cycle efficiency, enabling more power generation for less fuel and fewer emissions.

The Laboratory’s Associate Director of Energy Conversion, Dave Berry, explained that the research can be sorted into short-term and long-term efforts.

“Near-term, we focus on improving existing coal or natural gas power plants to make them more efficient, and flexible, meaning they are able to operate in tandem with variable wind and solar energy” he said. “That includes work like improving power plant turbine blades, developing better sensors and control systems, and investigating how advanced manufacturing approaches can help create components that make power plants more efficient and productive.  The benefit is that we get more energy out of our coal or natural gas, thereby extending our natural resources, reducing emissions, and insuring that the nation can benefit from low-cost energy while protecting the environment.”

An example of near-term efforts includes the continuing development of advanced, low-emission, high-efficiency gas turbine technology. The gas turbine is a workhorse of today’s power generation and NETL researchers are discovering approaches for a high-efficiency, near-zero-emission turbine power systems that depend on advancements in thermal protection using thermal barrier coatings and aerothermal cooling technologies.  Recent advances are enabling innovative cooling designs that were not possible before.

NETL is combining its lab capability with research partnerships to test new designs versus the current state of the art.  The best concepts could be adopted in new engine designs, providing a boost to generating efficiency in the years ahead.

In the long-term, Berry explained that NETL’s energy conversion engineering efforts are developing a spectrum of innovative technologies in a wide range of topic areas from future combustion technologies to solid oxide fuel cells, and the potential for using geothermal energy sources.

NETL’s pursuit of these and other energy conversion engineering projects led to the development of critical capabilities that are used daily to tackle emerging energy challenges. NETL maintains advanced research capabilities in clean energy systems; multiphase flow science, combustion science, innovative energy concepts, reaction engineering and diagnostics and controls. The Laboratory’s researchers use a supercomputer and complex modeling devices, sophisticated sensors and multiphase flow science tools that show how liquids and gases mix and flow.

Berry explained that, “The core of the laboratories capabilities and research success resides in the excellence and dedication of our research staff and cutting-edge facilities without which, achievement and innovation would not be possible.” 

A robust fossil-based economy supports a high quality of life for millions of Americans, sustains its manufacturing and high-tech industries, and fosters economic growth. Using abundant fossil energy resources with sustainable environmental stewardship is critical. The advanced energy conversion technologies being explored by NETL can enable efficiencies that increase power production and reduce overall power generation costs.