Podcast    ·    Episode #20

Inside the Department of Energy Labs

MIT Energy Initiative · #20 - Inside the National Energy Technology Laboratory

Guest

Brian Anderson, director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory


In This Episode


Transcript

Bob Armstrong: Hi, I’m Bob Armstrong. I’m director of the MIT Energy Initiative.

Brian Anderson: I’m Brian Anderson, director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

Bob: Welcome, Brian. It’s good to talk to you today. I’d like to ask you something about the National Energy Technology Laboratory or NETL, I believe you call it. What are some of the exciting things going on at NETL right now?

Brian: Bob, thanks for having me first. A couple of the things that I’m really excited about, what we’re pushing at NETL is, one is advancing the areas of artificial intelligence and machine learning deeper into the energy space. Be it through process controls, simulation, optimization, the advancement of the use of computation to design and develop new materials.

We have some great success stories about how we can use computation to design a new material from the computer, synthesize it, test it, and then iterate on new materials. Then finally, in the subsurface. It’s amazing how much we don’t know about what’s under our feet. Being able to use the tools that we have at our fingertips today and data that are coming in at the terabyte today level in the subsurface to understand what’s going on under our feet. This has application to CO2 sequestration, recovery of hydrocarbons, and minimizing the environmental impact of the recovery of hydrocarbons, as well as even applications in the potential for other waste storage in the subsurface, like nuclear waste storage.

Bob: Each lab at the Department of Energy is focused on a different research area or different focus. Can you tell me a little bit about how NETL fits into that set of research themes? I believe there are 17 National Labs?

Brian: Yes, absolutely. We are a complicated organization. There are 17 National Labs, hundreds of thousands of scientists, but yet not many people in the United States or even around the world really know what goes on at the National Lab. You can loosely define us into four different types of National Lab within the department.

There are three that manage the nuclear stockpile. They do measurement and verification and have really enabled the ability to manage that nuclear stockpile without nuclear testing for the last few decades. There are three labs that are nuclear labs.

There are three that are applied labs, including NETL. There’s the Idaho National Lab, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and then NETL. Of those three, we all fit into different programmatic areas. The Idaho National Lab focuses on nuclear energy. NREL, the National Renewable Lab, focuses on renewable energy. Then at NETL, we’re stewarded under the Office of Fossil Energy. We started research a little over 100 years ago, 110 years ago, really coming out of a spate of mine disasters that were happening in the early 1900s. Congress passed an act, trying to set up a national laboratory to solve the problem of these underground mining deaths. That was our Pittsburgh laboratory. We have three laboratory sites managed around the country.

The second that came on board was in Albany, Oregon. During the Second World War, the Navy needed better materials for submarines. The Albany lab spun out of that in 1943 and has been developing new materials, mostly alloys and metals, ever since. It has added a number of capabilities since then.

Then the third laboratory, in 1946 after the Second World War was over and we learned about the technologies that the Germans had to develop synthetic fuels, and a synthetic fuel synthesis laboratory was opened in Morgantown.

Now, today’s lab, we still have that sense of trying to find solutions and develop commercializable technologies, it’s not just focused in the fossil energy space. Granted, most of our work is on fossil energy technologies and largely around reducing the environmental footprint of fossil energy technologies. But today we’re a little bit different than the other 17 labs. Of course, I digressed and got away from the fact that there are 10 Office of Science labs that focus on fundamental science and then one in environmental management. What makes us a little bit unique is that much of our focus and history has come from fossil energy technologies.

However, when you really get down to science, just like an academic organization like MIT and other research organizations, the ability to apply your knowledge to any problem at hand certainly comes to bear. We’ve done work in the subsurface in geothermal, we do work in materials development that’s specific to energy-efficient transformer materials for the back of solar panels. NETL also does a lot of work in program management for the department.

We have a whole portfolio that includes the renewable energy space, in the vehicle technology, in solid-state lighting. We also manage a large portfolio in the Office of Electricity and the Grid. In general, we have an interest of what the entirety of the energy sector looks like. Transportation, electricity, and heating fuels as well.

Our structure, we have a number of researchers, a couple of hundred researchers who are federal researchers focused in the aspect of research across a number of core competencies. In short, we’re trying to solve some of the energy challenges and even lower carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

Bob: One of the natural extensions it seems from your interest in how do you reduce the environmental footprint of fossil resources is your focus on lifecycle analysis. We’re aware, some of our researchers here at MIT, quite aware of the outstanding research that goes on in NETL in lifecycle analysis, so mapping the emissions from different parts of the value chain in a product. Can you tell me a little bit about that team that you have on LCA or lifecycle analysis?

Brian: It’s really important for us to understand the full scope of the impact of all energy production to the entire environment. We as a human species over our lifetime has underestimated the impact we have on the environment when we develop technologies. For us, in our lifecycle assessment team, with a focus on understanding each step along a value chain or developing a technology, understanding what the ramifications are to the environment.

Certainly, we know that by burning fossil fuel you create CO2 and that has its impacts to climate. We also have particulates. We have other aspects of the emissions along the value chain. Even in creating the cement that you use to build a plant, we have to take that into account. The full balance of the impact we have on the environment to the way we live.

We’ve built over the years a lifecycle assessment group, as has MIT. You guys do great work on understanding our true impact and our footprint that we have on the environment for everything we do. Be it energy production or even the inherent environmental impact that we have when we hold a cell phone in our hand and all the components that go into that.

It’s a complicated mess of not just the CO2 emissions at the end, but where did the metal that went into the semiconductor chip come from and what was its environmental profile as it was developed?

Bob: Is some of that lifecycle analysis work, that has led you to your interest in carbon capture technology? Tell me a little bit about what you see as really promising carbon capture technologies.

Brian: My personal story has certainly an MIT connection and that’s where my interest in lifecycle started, was here at MIT, and specifically the carbon capture. Back in, I think it was 2001, I did a semester’s worth of work with Howie Herzog on CO2 capturing and sequestration, understanding how we could either capture or dispose of the CO2 we’re emitting. Then all throughout my career, that sense of understanding the full impact and environmental footprint had followed me through academia and then now to the National Lab. Now certainly, the lab’s work long preceded me, but the expertise that NETL has in understanding that environmental footprint is certainly driving a lot of the work that we’re doing in carbon capture and sequestration.

There’s another big component of it, beyond lifecycle assessment, is how the entire energy system fits together as a whole. That has ramifications, certainly, when we flip on our lights, and our entire economy is built upon reliable energy that we have at our fingertips. Beyond even our environmental footprint, it’s our way of life in the developed world. We have to be able to try to develop and assess all of the potential pathways that lie in front of us so we can take the next right step when we deploy new energy technologies.

Bob: A big problem with carbon capture has been cost. I think we’ve known how to do carbon capture for many years, but it’s just too expensive to deploy on a very large scale. What kind of progress do you see in lowering those costs?

Brian: If we back up about a quarter of a century, it was when NETL started doing some CO2 capture research, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of progress since then. The problem is that the starting point on the cost was pretty high. It’s still high. But when we look at the deployed technologies for just the carbon capture piece, we’ve seen decreases in that carbon capture cost that have driven from starting in the $100 per metric ton cost frame, now down in certainly well into the 60s. Even the new technologies that are on the verge of being deployed in commercial settings are certainly pushing the $40 per metric ton range. When we look at that progress and we think about the diffusion of innovations, we need to actually deploy technologies at scale to then start moving down a learning curve so that we can have an optimized process.

One of the issues and boundaries that we’ve seen, particularly in bringing down the cost of carbon capture, is the fact that the investment necessary to deploy it at the commercial scale is so large. Couple that with the current policy framework that we have in the United States, currently we do have incentive for CO2 capture and sequestration or use, but that’s really the 45Q tax credit that’s on the books now, is really recent in the timeframe of the development of carbon capture technologies.

I see a tremendous potential in the very near term to get a number of projects out in the commercial space as leaders and innovators in bringing the technology to scale. When we start tackling the second and third generation of carbon capture materials that can pull CO2 out from flue gas, and then couple that with experience in the subsurface and long term storage, I think we’re right at the cusp of seeing some larger-scale deployment of carbon capture and utilization.

Bob: For listeners, there are three steps here, right? There’s capture of the carbon itself, the CO2 in a flue gas for example, there’s compression and piping of the gas to a site where it can be stored underground, then there’s the so-called sequestration part where you pump it underground.

Brian: Yes, Bob, thanks for adding that. I would add a fourth one, is you then have to regenerate the material you used to capture it. We do that as part of the capture process, but that’s one of the huge barriers that we have.

Bob: The prices you were quoting earlier, are those for just the carbon capture piece or is that for the entire chain, so all the way through sequestration?

Brian: That’s really just for the carbon capture piece. The National Petroleum Council has just released a report, not too long ago, on the cost of carbon capture. Their numbers include the entire value chain. That’s why they’ll be significantly different than the numbers I was just saying. I’m just focused on the capture technology.

Bob: I think that’s three-quarters of the cost, right? The biggest cost in CCS is the carbon capture?

Brian: It is. Our analysis is between 63% and 77%, so close to three-quarters.

Bob: We can round off to three-quarters.

Brian: We can round off to three-quarters.

Bob: How do carbon capture and sequestration technologies impact climate change, do you think? What’s the opportunity space there going forward?

Brian: I see it that we need all available technologies. That includes the non-emitting sources of energy that have seen tremendous gains both in deployment and reductions in cost. You look at the reduction in cost curves that we’ve seen for solar and wind are tremendous. The energy system is extremely complicated and a lot of people do quote that wind and solar are intermittent, they’re variable, we can’t control them. We can’t control the clouds and we can’t control the wind. When we start seeing very deep penetration of renewables, we start running into some issues, in that reliable energy that we still rely on in our economy in the developed world.

There’s, again, a number of technologies that can fill that gap. Storage is coming along, the price of storing electrons is decreasing. It hasn’t decreased as fast as we really need it in the near term on the grid. That’s where the characteristics of fossil energy turned into electrons provides a tremendous opportunity to keep the cost of electricity down, make sure that the grid is reliable and stable and has good… everything, from the frequency of the grid that comes in relies on the actual mechanical motion of spinning the generation capacity. Those attributes that the fossil energy sector has are very valuable.

Now, if you can develop the technology to capture carbon and sequester it, now we’re really able to try to tackle the climate problem. I view it as a key component in the near term to try to put us on a pathway for carbon reduction. Certainly, in the United States, with the coupling of the non-emitting renewables that have been deploying over the last few years, plus the fact that we have seen tremendous increase in natural gas power generation, we have been able to start on the pathway of decarbonizing. Then if we have the technologies to decarbonize those natural gas resources, the coal resources, coupled with increased renewables, we can start to see the pathway to decarbonization.

Bob: Carbon capture and sequestration can help us to quickly reduce the emissions from fossil fuels. What’s the opportunity for using CCS for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, the so-called negative emissions technologies?

Brian: I’m so glad you asked that because the technologies are perfectly portable from coal generation of CO2 to natural gas generation of CO2, or biomass. I think that’s where you’re leading me, leading me down that path, because one viable option is growing biomass. That’s grabbing the CO2 out of the atmosphere in what looks like something some people call direct air capture. Biomass is doing it naturally, pulling CO2 out of the air. Then if you were to use that biomass for energy production and capture the CO2 on the backside, you are in fact creating a negative emission product.

I think there are lots of other opportunities beyond just the biomass on its own. In negative emissions technologies, particularly if you start moving the needle on the cost of capturing CO2 directly from the atmosphere. Similar technologies really… it’s the same, but tailoring the technologies we’re developing for capturing CO2 from a power plant, if you can then tailor that process to capturing CO2 directly from the air at 400 parts per million, then you can also have negative emissions processes. I really do view carbon capture and sequestration as a vital technology that we have to develop.

Bob: How about other parts of the economy? We talked a little bit earlier about in your LCA analysis, or lifecycle analysis, emissions that come from cement or steel manufacturing. Is there an opportunity to use CCS there or are there different technologies we should pursue for cement manufacturing, or for steel manufacturing, or other large industrial products?

Brian: Really, the CO2 capture process—I guess I should have really started with this—it’s just simply about being able to separate the CO2 from other gases that are coming out of any process. It’s perfectly portable, the technologies, but they need to be tuned to the type of mixture of gases that one might be separating them from.

One perfect example, we at NETL, we’re managing a project with Archer Daniels Midland in Illinois where they’re capturing the CO2 from an ethanol plant. The ethanol is biomass-derived ethanol for the transportation sector. Their project is capturing the CO2 and injecting it in a permanent storage in a saline aquifer. That’s a perfect example of other types of processes beyond just power plants. We also have a very recent agreement with ExxonMobil and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory where the three organizations, the three of us, are working together on porting those technologies of carbon capture into the industrial sector, further into the industrial sector.

Some of those industrial sector emission streams are even higher concentration than you have in an ethanol plant or a power plant, so the separation is easier. The problem is those streams are smaller, they’re dispersed, and like you had mentioned earlier, it’s a three-step process. You capture it, then you have to compress it, you have to pipe it, put it somewhere in the ground and sequester it, so it’s a balance.

You have a higher concentration stream in, say a refinery of CO2, but it’s more diffused in a number of streams, so the costs go up again on that side.

Bob: I like the ethanol example. That’s a good one. What other areas does NETL cover?

Brian: NETL, as I was talking about before, our researchers really can apply their skills to just about any sort of technology challenge. But one thing I didn’t mention about NETL is that, of the 17, we’re the only one that’s a government-operated laboratory. I and the majority of my colleagues are all federal employees. Whereas at the other 16 National Labs, the federal government has issued a contract to a contractor who then executes on behalf of the department.

The reason that’s an important distinction is because we do project management not just for the Office of Fossil Energy, but the Office of Electricity, Cybersecurity, Energy Security, Emergency Response, and the renewable energy portfolio—at least parts of the renewable energy portfolio.

The staff at NETL, not only the researchers but the project managers, all span the range of renewable energy, electricity, cybersecurity and fossil energy. One of the things that we try to do as a lab is integrate the technologies that folks are working on across the country with what we’re working on inside NETL. It’s a challenge. We are managing 900 different projects across the country with 600 different project partners and it’s a total research portfolio of just shy of a billion dollars a year.

What we challenge our project management teams, as well as our research internally, is to get the best value out of all of that money that we’re managing for the taxpayers. Where we see technologies being developed at a university in electricity, versus what we see coming from industry in the fossil sector, if we see some overlap, we want to try to bridge that gap. That’s something that really excites me because we’re not focused purely on fossil energy, we’re really focused on the entire energy sector as a whole.

Bob: As you’ve described, fossil energy falls under the purview of NETL, and yet clearly the world needs to reduce emissions of CO2 and reduce it rapidly. How do you make progress in that at NETL?

Brian: I think I agree with you. We are stewarding the bulk of the fossil energy research program, but yet we do in fact need to dramatically reduce emissions. One of the things that makes me proud of what we do is the fact that globally, fossil energy is a huge part of our energy portfolio. It’s a huge part of people’s daily lives. I’m not sure we can solve the climate problem, solve the emissions problem, without developing the technology specifically for fossil energy.

We live in a global world and in the U.S., we might have resources that can allow us to get to a much, much deeper penetration of non-emitting fuels than we can around the world. The technologies we’re developing, it’s why we have relationships across the globe, so that the technologies that we’re working on can then be deployed to help decarbonize the entire footprint across the planet.

Even though we’ve made tremendous strides over the last few decades in the deployment of non-emitting renewable energy sources, we’re still at 85% fossil energy in the U.S. When we really break that down even just in the last couple years is when the transportation sector has surpassed the power generation sector in being the largest sector of CO2 emissions.

We still have a big challenge ahead of us. Either if we electrify our transportation fleet, or if we go to hydrogen fuel cells to decarbonize, the type of transportation system we have in the United States still has tremendous challenges in front of us. We’re trying to work on all those. To decarbonize the petroleum-based fuel system that we have today all the way through the electricity sector.

Bob: I think you said once, which I think is interesting from the… this is a conversation I have with a lot of the oil and gas companies. Those companies have as core expertise, subsurface science and engineering. We’re moving away from fossil energy resources. What do you do with all that expertise? There’s nuclear waste disposal, there’s geothermal. You have to frack to get a geothermal field to perform well. There’s understanding subsurface processes that can help you predict earthquakes to understand those seismic activities. We did touch on the key role that plays in CCS, right?

Brian: Yeah.

Bob: I don’t know if you want to say any more about where that part of NETL is headed or whether that’s something you see as a core theme for NETL going forward.

Brian: I would love to talk about geothermal, not just because I’m the second co-author on the MIT Future of Geothermal report. [Both laugh] It’s Tester, Anderson and… [laughs] not just because of that.

One thing I was trying to highlight is energy research requires collaboration. Sometimes people get siloed in both directions. They get siloed on their expertise—the chemical engineers might not work with the mechanical engineers as much as they should—but they also get siloed on the topic area.

Most academics are pretty good at, if I do oil and gas, I know a bit about fracture mechanics that I can apply to geothermal as well. But the industry isn’t doing that right now as well as we need them to, for geothermal. It’s an area where, as you said, there’s a lot of subsurface advancements of technologies and science that are needed because the potential is so great.

If you calculate the amount of heat and converting that heat to work under our feet, if we can lower the cost of drilling to deep depths and be able to stimulate rock—by stimulate, I mean create water-flow pathways in the rock deep below our feet—then we can create vast amount of energy. I’m talking on the order of what is deployed today in wind and solar if we can really crack that nut.

Some of that’s in The Future of Geothermal Energy report, but one thing that I do see a bit missing in technology crossover is taking the wealth of knowledge that exists in today’s subsurface fossil energy extraction industry—those folks who have been doing oil and gas for a century and come up with tremendous advancements in technology. To be able to take those technologies and cross them over into the geothermal space, can really unlock a tremendous resource that we have.

Geothermal has been around for a long time. The Larderello well in Italy was drilled, I think now, 115 years ago or so. It’s not new, but we’ve been drilling oil and gas wells for a long, long time before we developed the way to do horizontal drilling and stimulation of multi-zonal fracks under the subsurface. Today, the oil and gas industry is drilling horizontal wells that are tens of thousands of feet, multiple miles horizontally. If you can take just a fraction of that technology advancement in the oil and gas sector and get it deployed into geothermal, then we actually have at our disposal a baseload non-emitting renewable energy resource. I know MIT has done a lot of work here, and NETL has too. Our geoscientists are certainly not afraid to apply their expertise into anything in the subsurface, including and especially geothermal.

Bob: You mentioned the work you do with developing countries, other parts of the world, and how important that is. I reflect on the fact that in the developed world, generally, use of coal has gone down. Yet in developing countries, coal use is going up as they increase standard of living, as they increase energy use per capita. How can the technology being developed at NETL help address that challenge? As developing countries use more energy, how can we continue to drive emissions down?

Brian: What you’re describing is the dual challenge. The dual challenge of trying to increase the quality of life that we have globally as a planet. We still have a billion people on the planet without access to reliable energy. There are 700 million or so that don’t have electricity at all. We can’t walk away from the quality of life benefits that we see around the globe when you do add low-cost energy in.

The reason coal is the first one in is because as the developed countries are decreasing their coal usage then the price of coal goes down and it enables the electrification of a lot of the developing world. If we’re able, which I believe we will be able to so I’ll change that to when we develop the low-cost methods of producing electricity from coal, those technologies can certainly be deployed around the world. It’s why we do have a major effort going on in how you scale down the production of electricity from coal. How can we make a small, modular, flexible power generation unit that uses coal but yet is specifically designed to capture carbon on the back end? Then can we take another step and have that particular small, modular unit designed to be able to blend in biomass?

If we blend in biomass, then we can actually start deploying negative carbon emission technologies at low cost that have the appropriate scale for distributed generation that would be appropriate to the developing world. That particular effort I think has a tremendous potential for wide-scale deployment in the areas that need better, reliable energy.

Bob: You got your PhD here at MIT, as you mentioned earlier.

Brian: Very proudly. Yes.

Bob: What are some of the learnings from your experience here at MIT, and how has that helped you in your career, your university career first and now at NETL as director?

Brian: If I focus first on the academic career, I spent almost 14 years in academia, in the chemical engineering department at West Virginia University, in creating an energy institute at the university to help bridge researchers across, at that university, 13 colleges and about 150 researchers. I grew up in my academic career doing my PhD work in what was then the MIT Energy Lab, one of the precursor organizations to the Energy Initiative.

In that type of environment, I saw the level of collaboration that MIT tries to engender on all the faculty, the level of collaboration across departments. One particular example is the sustainable energy course that at one point was co-listed in about seven different departments. Having multiple advisors, even from multiple departments, on a thesis was more the rule than the exception.

That really influenced the way that I looked at tackling larger collaborative problems in an environment in the academic setting. When I moved into an academic role, first as an assistant professor, I was the odd bird of the assistant professor who wasn’t going after the single PI grants as often as I was going after the multiple PI grants. That further influenced my decision to work at the university level to create a WVU Energy Institute to be able to help foster collaboration.

Then further in my career, as I’m now at the National Lab, that is exactly what we try to engender at the laboratory as well. We’re trying to tackle some of the world’s greatest problems and you can only do that through collaboration. That’s absolutely one way that MIT has put a footprint or an imprint on me throughout my career.

Another way, which is somewhat similar but a little bit different, is to not be afraid to try to tackle the really big problems and not think incrementally. I give the environment here at MIT a lot of credit for helping shape the way that I try to tackle problems.

Bob: You mentioned single PI versus multiple PI. Just for non-academics in the audience, PI is…?

Brian: The principal investigator. Please forgive me for that academic-speak. The single PI is when oftentimes you’re trying to tackle one very specific problem in one research group with a particular toolset where you have one faculty member or researcher that’s leading the project. The multiple principal investigator is when you’re bringing in teams with multiple tools and techniques and talents.

Bob: Energy is a great area for multiple investigator projects. You’ve hit on some of those during the conversation, began with artificial intelligence expertise, machine learning, new methods to the energy space, but also chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, material scientists. I assume you have that range of people at NETL?

Brian: We do. But we also always want to reach out and bring in the best collaborators as well. The connection of artificial intelligence, data analytics, and machine learning to specific problems requires collaboration. It truly does, I think, to move to the next generation of data analytics and artificial intelligence. This is not a knock on that entire field and the development that has gone on. We are just now, I think, achieving the capabilities of bringing fundamental science, subject matter experts in particular fields, in with the folks that know how to craft algorithms for machines to learn and for data analytics and artificial intelligence to really come to bear.

As we start having higher computational power and capabilities in our computers, and then we’re bringing together those data scientists with subject matter experts in specific fields like chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, chemistry, and physics. When we actually have those two merged well together, I think we’re just at the verge of unlocking a lot better understanding of solutions of our energy problems as well as understanding of our universe, frankly, when it comes to some fundamental science connections to data analytics and artificial intelligence. That’s an area where we at NETL are absolutely not just relying on our own in-house expertise.

We’re building a collaboration across many of the other National Laboratories, both on the subject matter expert side and algorithm development, as well as reaching out to our academic and university partners. MIT has a wealth of knowledge and a long history of bringing artificial intelligence to bear, so that’s a tremendous opportunity for us all to work together.

Bob: You’ve described a lot of interesting work going on at NETL in the recent past. What are some of the new announcements we might expect to hear coming out of NETL in the near future?

Brian: The most recent one that was announced is this artificial intelligence initiative for the specific areas focused on the subsurface. It’s called the Smart Initiative. That’s for building toward real-time decision making. Some of the ones that are coming in the future out of NETL and out of the department as a whole, is how we put together the modernization of our electric grid with the pathways to get to a decarbonized future.

That’s one that I’m really excited about, the potential for us to be able to develop some coherent pathways toward what we all see as a shared future. Some of the other areas I see some tremendous potential looking forward—again, sorry to go back to this artificial intelligence space—but in the area of developing extreme materials. Materials for extreme environments, that, again, doesn’t just focus on fossil energy, but we need better alloys for the small modular nuclear reactor. We need better alloys and materials for solar concentrating units and stations. We have an effort that’s called eXtremeMAT, materials for the extreme environments. I see that there’s just some really exciting results and accomplishments that are coming out of that effort that has the potential to really change a lot of different technology pathways.

Bob: A developing new area in energy, very exciting, is hydrogen. Hydrogen needs new materials as well. Is that part of your portfolio in materials research?

Brian: It certainly is. It is. It’s in the area that we’re examining. How you can not only convert existing infrastructure that we have across the United States to being able to distribute and deploy hydrogen and what advances need to be made in everything from coatings and even new materials that would go into that space. Ultimately, it’s on each end of the infrastructure is how you generate hydrogen. That has implications both for increasing the efficiency of electrolysis—that’s a great way to get hydrogen directly from renewable sources—or ways that you can get hydrogen from… we do have plentiful natural gas in the United States due to the recent revolutions in technology.

If you take natural gas, it’s a great source of hydrogen. It is the commercial source of hydrogen today. Then if you capture the carbon off of the generation, then you have carbon-free hydrogen generated from natural gas. That does require some new materials development to lower the costs and increase the efficiency of that process.

Then on the other end, how do we use hydrogen in the most efficient way? Are we going to combust it in a typical internal combustion engine? Or can we take another leap in efficiency? Even jump past the second law of thermodynamics and create electrochemical conversion through solid oxide fuel cells. I know there’s a lot of work going on here at MIT and at NETL in that area. Again, materials need to be developed that can last a long time, that don’t degrade over time if the technology of solid oxide fuel cells could see commercial viability in the future.

Bob: A big challenge for using hydrogen is going to be infrastructure for moving it around from sources, from places where it can be produced cheaply, whether from renewable energy or other ways. Can we reuse the natural gas pipeline we have today? Is that going to need serious modification, upgrading or replacement? What are the possibilities there and what are the materials challenges there?

Brian: It would be great if we could leverage the existing infrastructure. That’s exactly some of the areas that we at NETL and the department want to explore.

We know today that we can start blending in hydrogen at low concentrations with the natural gas that’s in the existing infrastructure. The infrastructure doesn’t really know the difference at low concentrations, but how far can we go? Not only the materials that we can develop that might be able to create retrofitting opportunities. Imagine being able to take what might look like a polymer plastic coating, spray it on the inside of a pipeline using a, what’s called a pig, that runs through a pipeline. Then in the end, having a pipeline that will not leak, that can actually hold hydrogen at high pressures, to be able to reuse that existing infrastructure. Those technologies are… there are some ideas and some development that’s happening on some of those today, but we don’t know yet the potential capacity at very large concentrations, or even pure hydrogen, as we move into the future. We have quite a distribution network already built in the United States over the course of 100 years or more that it would be terrific if we could take advantage of that.

Bob: Where can people learn more about NETL?

Brian: They can certainly visit our website. There’s a good bit of information there. We’re constantly updating what information is on the website. You’ll find there information about the lab and about the science we do and about the programs that we’re managing. If folks are interested, there’s also all the opportunity announcements for funding that we post every day and every year. I think it’s a great place to start. Then certainly if they want more information, there’s contact there to a dive a little deeper.

Bob: Thank you very much, Brian, for an interesting conversation about what’s happening today at NETL and how that work can help transform us to a new low-carbon energy system.

Brian: Bob, thank you very much for having me. It’s been a great pleasure.


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