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News

Energy system of the future being developed by PNNL

DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory : 26 August, 2006  (Technical Article)
America got a wake-up call when the East Coast suffered a wide-spread power outage that left millions without electricity. Before the lights came back on, people began trying to determine who should take the blame. Regardless of the cause, the fact that the outage occurred and spread so quickly revealed a much larger problem. Our energy system lacks the flexibility and responsiveness it needs.
At the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, we are looking at how to make the transformation from the antiquated energy system of today to the energy system of the future, one that addresses concerns about security, reliability and the environment as well as the desire to reduce our nation's reliance upon imported oil.

Bringing the grid into the information age
We are exploring how to modernize the energy system by infusing it with more information and telecommunication technologies. In other industries, real-time information, e-business systems and market efficiencies already minimize the need for inventory and infrastructure while maximizing productivity and efficiency.

Our GridWise vision embraces an information-rich system that allows two-way communication about how much power is being produced, the cost of that power, the demand for that power, and the condition of the system over which it is transmitted. This integrated network would allow the various pieces of the system to work in concert to increase efficiencies and keep costs down for everyone. Our calculations show that taking this approach can cut about $80 billion from the estimated $450 billion needed for new energy generating resources and infrastructure to meet growth by 2020.

Adding intelligence to individual devices also can help prevent future outages. For example, a computer chip, or Grid Friendly controller, could be installed in household appliances such as refrigerators or water heaters to detect disruptions on the energy grid and automatically turn off appliances for a few minutes. While unnoticeable by consumers, the short interruption could buy enough time for the system to stabilize, preventing the system from crashing and the need to dip into expensive standby resources.

Making way for fuel cells
We also believe that a smarter grid will maximize the opportunity for clean and efficient technologies such as fuel cells, windmills and solar energy by allowing them to serve as 'plug and play' resources on the grid. These distributed resources are located closer to the end user and reducing the need for transmission lines and large-scale generation plants.

Our work to advance fuel cell technologies for transportation and to provide electricity for homes, buildings or the military builds on our strong expertise in chemistry, catalysis and materials science. We focus primarily on solid oxide fuel cells, which can convert the hydrogen in conventional fuels such as gasoline or diesel into electrical energy without producing the harmful emissions created by combustion-based processes.

Hydrogen: A powerful alternative
Hydrogen is a potentially limitless energy source that doesn't emit greenhouse gases or carbon dioxide, so it can play a major role in meeting growing energy needs both for electricity and for transportation. At PNNL, we are addressing two major challenges related to the widespread use of hydrogen, hydrogen storage and hydrogen safety.

Using the resources of the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, our researchers are looking at various chemical storage mechanisms. By studying how hydrogen is bound in molecular structures, how it is released, and the catalysts that could be used to facilitate the release, we are helping address the single greatest challenge to making the hydrogen economy a reality.

As the Department of Energy's lead lab for hydrogen safety, we are developing the training, codes and standards necessary to ensure that hydrogen-related infrastructure and technologies can operate with minimal risk to the public.

Paving the way for bio-based products
In another research area that relies upon our chemistry and catalysis expertise, PNNL is developing processes to convert low-value agricultural byproducts such as corn hulls into high-value industrial and consumer products. Bioproducts could contribute to the region's economy by expanding agricultural markets as well as providing cleaner alternatives to petroleum-based processes and reducing the nation's dependence on imported oil.

To continue scientific advancements needed to build a thriving bio-based products industry, PNNL and Washington State University Tri-Cities are building a Bioproducts, Science, and Engineering Laboratory. This facility, expected to be complete in 2007, will house capabilities to rapidly translate scientific discoveries into commercial technologies and provide an educational experience that is aligned with industry needs.

Making progress together
We realize that it takes more than a national laboratory to turn science into real-world solutions. However, by working closely with our clients at the Department of Energy and collaborating with industry and academia, we can help the nation meet its energy needs while bringing benefits to the region.
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