Source: R&D | Michelle Taylor | December 1, 2015

Multi-institutional partnerships that accelerate the pathway to innovation are key to solving the world’s energy crisis. 

Credit: Shutterstock

Credit: Shutterstock

In a Keynote speech at the R&D 100 Awards and Technology Conference in late November, Thom Mason, the Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) said energy “is the most important challenge of our time.”

And he expects scientific innovation and technology to solve it.

Energy boasts an extra helping of importance given how central it is to other compelling challenges of this advanced 21st century, including—environmental impacts of energy production, distribution and use; national and global security implications of energy scarcity; economic consequences of energy prices; and energy access in developing nations.

Specifically, Mason pointed to the lack of energy in developing nations as one of the world’s biggest hurdles.

“Our concerns about CO2 emissions mean we can’t simply take the way we generate, distribute and use energy today to the developing world, and mount that on to a population of 9 to 10 billion people,” he said. “You will only exacerbate the potential for conflict. We need a transformation of the way energy is used in the world in order for us to evolve to a point where a much larger fraction of the world can enjoy the standard of living we enjoy.”

According to Mason, the transformation can only come about through advances in the following areas:
•    Electrification of transportation
•    Renewable energy: solar, wind, geothermal
•    Biofuels and bioproducts
•    Advanced liquid fuels from fossil resources
•    Carbon management
•    Next-generation nuclear power: fission and fusion

So, how do we enable advances in these areas?

The short answer is innovative materials development. But it’s not as simple as that.

Materials solution
All of the aspects of materials development are intertwined with other scientific concepts.

To improve existing energy technologies, research requires robust and reliable materials. To understand complex materials and systems, research demands increasingly sophisticated tools. To deliver novel capabilities, research requires a detailed understanding of materials structure and dynamics at the molecular level.

Luckily, in the past few years, there has been tremendous leaps made to understand, measure, characterize and modify advanced materials—in part due to new resources like neutron sources, light sources, atomic resolution microscopy, nanoscale science and high-performance computing.

Therefore, while materials development may be key to the energy crisis, it’s major advances in basic R&D and supporting technologies that are key to materials development. You can’t have one without the other.

“You can’t put all your eggs in one basket,” Mason said. “You can’t get there with just one piece of the solution.”

For ORNL, the overall solution is a better pathway to innovation. The head of the government laboratory said he feels a close coupling of both basic and applied R&D can accelerate innovation, but it requires multiple parties. Academia should be involved for their emphasis on early discovery (basic science), and industry should be involved given their emphasis on near-term solutions (serial production). National laboratories funded by the government should be involved to bridge the gap between academia and industry, providing multi-disciplinary, long-term solutions that span fundamental to applied R&D.

“It’s important to establish an environment that supports this,” Mason said. “The ability for all these different sectors to interact and exchange people back and forth [is important] so they can be the carriers of these currents along the innovation chain.”

Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy
Most people rely on two energy sources as we go about our day—one as we drive our car to and fro, and the second as we conduct daily life in our house. Typically, these two energy streams are independent of one another—until now.

Teaming with 20 industry partners in unprecedented fashion, ORNL turned normality on its head when it debuted its Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy (AMIE) demonstration project two months ago.

The research team manufactured and connected a natural gas-powered hybrid electric vehicle with a solar-powered building to create an integrated energy system. Power can flow in either direction between the vehicle and building through a laboratory-developed wireless technology. Essentially, on overcast or rainy days, your car can power your house; on sunny days, your house can power your car.

The demonstration also showcased additive manufacturing’s rapid prototyping potential in architecture and vehicle design, as the car and house were both built using large-scale 3-D printers.

ORNL researchers said their integrated energy approach was developed to inspire potential improvements to the modern electric grid. The technology would be a vital step toward renewable energy (away from fossil fuels) in the transportation sector, which is one of the critical industries Mason mentioned at the beginning of his Keynote.

Additionally, and also in line with Mason’s message, the integrated technology could bring clean, reliable and stable energy production to nations that are trying to move toward the standard of living. Theoretically, it could be the bridge from developing to developed nation.

Perhaps as impressive as AMIE is the timeline of the project. It was just a dream in August 2014, an idea in September 2015 and a full-blown, completed demo project by September 2015.

Institute for Functional Imaging of Materials
In addition to working with industry partners, the Dept. of Energy has created Bioenergy Research Centers and Energy Innovation Hubs combining resources from all sectors, and ORNL itself has established institutes dedicated to societal challenges.

The Institute for Functional Imaging of Materials is one of five institutes created by ORNL to exploit its capabilities and expertise in the ultimate goal of accelerating the discovery, design and deployment of new materials. The Institute is built upon the principle of connecting physical imaging with theory via big data and data analytics to develop a deep knowledge base for materials discovery. From data analytics to data modeling, the Institute boasts many microscopy and imaging techniques across various disciplines, from chemistry and environmental to biomedical, security and biology.

The national laboratory in Tennessee is the perfect place to house the Institute as it is home to several major DOE user facilities, including America’s fastest supercomputer, the world’s most intense pulsed neutron beam and high-performance facilities for electron/atom probe and scanning probe microscopy, mass spectrometry and optical, x-ray and chemical imaging.

The integration is helpful for researchers when, for example, they use multiple imaging tools to explore a material, only to be confronted by an immense amount of resulting data. Now, capturing and analyzing those data streams can be done in real-time with high-performance computing capabilities and data experts right next door.