Features - August 2013

Adapting Energy Research for Further Innovations: A Little Sharing Among Scientists Brings a Beneficial Bounty


Of course, there are fables about products’ origins that are just as interesting as the actual stories of innovation. One tale tells of how the Pringles can was supposed to house tennis balls but that the originator of the chips received a shipment of potatoes instead. Not true. However, Fredric Baur, the chemist and food storage technician who designed the can to protect the hyperbolic paraboloid chips determined that he would find an alternate use for it. He was so proud of his novel idea that he actually decided to have some of his ashes buried in one of these cans instead of just an orthodox urn when he died in 2008. His family chose the “Original” flavor for him to take his idea to the grave.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

And what if the answer isn’t what you expect?

Dinosaurs laid eggs long before chickens roamed Earth. Since the egg protected these bouncing baby lizards so well, the chicken borrowed the concept, evolutionarily speaking, for her little ones.

This is also how some common products come about. Take WD-40, GPS, Teflon, and any number of familiar items. They were all initially created for another purpose—corrosion prevention of nuclear missiles, military defense, and refrigerant—but became popular instead as a slippery solvent, a must-have for civilian travel, and a non-stick surface for your skillet.

NETL, too, has found that some of its novel ideas can be adapted for other uses. Over the years, many of our technological breakthroughs have been borrowed by other industries for novel applications, leading to unexpected benefits. Here are just a few examples of projects that took a leap into other fields.

How Preventing Heavy Metal Poisons Went Platinum

Granulating the molten metal—pouring it into a high-speed water jet—produces a fine material suitable for the final step in the platinum group metal recovery process

It may sound like a special about an 80s rock band, but this behind-the-scenes story is actually out of an NETL lab. Researchers were trying to convert hazardous wastes containing heavy metals into nonhazardous wastes that could be disposed of at any landfill. The project was designed to mitigate heavy metal poisons caused by ground and surface waters reacting with sludges, slags, dusts, and other byproducts from mining, manufac-turing, and the incineration of waste materials.

Such waters—originating as liquids from landfills, acid mine drain-age, and solutions of wood wastes, leaves, and other biomass—are aggressive due to the pres-ence of reactive agents and are not easily detained. Landfills can’t hold them forever because their plastic liners eventually decompose, unleashing the liquids on our fragile environment. The best solution was to convert the solid wastes into a glassy product that doesn’t react with water, preventing these hazardous liquids from ever forming. The iron and steel industry was already using this process, called “vitrification,” so NETL researchers borrowed the idea and developed a unique water-cooled, sealed electric arc furnace system to vitrify the wastes.

Platinum group metals are recovered from used catalysts in the electric arc furnace. Then the molten metal is “tapped” in this furnace

A few years later, while presenting results from this work at a conference, an NETL scientist met an employee with the Engelhard Corporation who wanted to recover platinum-group metals from catalysts used by the petroleum and transportation industries. Engelhard’s previous processing methods were becoming cost-prohibitive, but the platinum-group metals in the catalysts were just too valuable not to recycle. Could NETL’s arc furnace technology be the answer?

A partnership sprung up, and NETL scientists adapted their unique equipment and helped Engelhard develop a process to recover the valuable metals economically. The resulting high-temperature melting process recovers over 98 percent of the platinum-group metals during processing, leaving very little in the waste material. NETL also provided engineering consultation during the construction and shakedown process at the site and, after Engelhard’s processing plant was built, helped train their startup personnel.

The solution to Engelhard’s quandary helped develop a process that created a new domestic processing plant and produced sustainable jobs, and it recovers millions of dollars of precious metals every year and recycles an important energy resource—petroleum and transportation catalysts.

The Surprising Relationship Between Digger Teeth and Shotgun Shells

This cross section of mining equipment shows the hard surface alloy bonded to the steel.

What do digger teeth and shotgun shells have in common? They both utilize a tungsten-based conglomerate, of course.

Large-scale mining operations crush and grind enormous amounts of rock to recover valuable minerals: an abrasive process that reduces the service life of digging equipment and requires expensive, time-consuming parts replacement. So NETL started a project that added extremely hard particles such as economical tungsten carbides to the surface of mining equipment during manufacture to improve its wear resistance. The project produced a variety of prototype parts for mining equipment, as scientists developed their expertise in metal casting and familiarity with high-density materials.

Years later, NETL engineers were discussing the project with a colleague from a local metal producer who had an idea for producing a low-cost, high-density, non-toxic substitute for lead shot in shotgun shells. Lead used in shells for upland game and water fowl hunting dramatically increases the amount of lead in the soil and groundwater, damaging delicate ecosystems. With the 1980s push for governments to ban lead-containing shells from wetlands and other areas, ammunition manufacturers were on the hunt for a competitive substitute for the favorite long-distance projectile.

Their new shot would be composed of an environmentally benign iron-tungsten material with lead’s density. However, developers were unsure of how to make spherical shot from this material. One NETL-industry collaboration later, researchers had found a way to make the shot from iron-tungsten waste material in a process adapted from the one used to coat digger teeth. It was refined for economical commercial production under a new company, Environ-Metal, Inc., which then built a plant in nearby Sweet Home, Oregon, an area distressed by the decline in the timber industry. The resulting Hevi-Shotâ„¢ shotgun shells are now sold across the United States and Canada for use in hunting a wide range of game birds.

Quick Prediction of Flow Motion

NETL’s research in the high-speed imaging of flowing gases and liquids began with its effort to improve the efficiency and environmental friendliness of coal-based energy production. In most advanced energy processes that use coal, the fuel is crushed into fine particles about the size of coffee grounds, and then carried through energy systems at high velocities by air or other gases. These air streams full of tiny particles were not well understood because their harsh, opaque nature makes seeing and measuring the flow fields difficult—imagine trying to watch an individual coffee ground as you dump it into a filter, let alone at fifty miles per hour!

NETL’s high-speed particle imaging system has been used to track particles in energy, medical, and environmental applications. Imagine trying to watch the movement of each of these particles without it!

NETL’s high-speed video systems allow researchers to see and measure particle motion in great detail, deep inside fast-moving fields thick with particles—not only in coal-based energy systems, but in artificial hearts as well.

Cardiac transplant surgeons at Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, Penn., and Baxter Healthcare learned about NETL’s imaging capability and asked the Laboratory to help them solve a blood flow problem in an artificial heart: Baxter’s Novacor Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD). Areas of stagnant flow were causing blood clots that could eventually dislodge and cause strokes. Because blood is a flowing liquid with a high concentration of tiny particles, NETL developed a new high-speed video tool to see and measure blood stagnation in the artificial organ. The data allowed bioengineers to modify the LVAD to stop the production of blood clots. It also helped improve the design of other cardiac devices, such as the Nimbus AxiPump and the Hattler Intravenous Membrane Oxygenator.

Golden Goose Awards was developed to honor the federally funded geese who laid these golden eggs. And yes, in this case, the fowl did precede the egg.

We shared our high-speed video techniques again in 2010, this time to lessen the impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. NETL led a team of elite engineers and scientists charged with quickly generating official estimates of the oil leak rate from the Deepwater Horizon. Using video of the oil leaks taken by small submarines, this group produced the first accurate government estimates of the oil leak rate. NETL’s estimate helped responders design of a system to permanently cap the well and implement the cleanup effort. For this effort, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu recognized the team with a Secretary of Energy Achievement Award, and the Director of the U.S. Geological Service presented the team with an award for “Exemplary Service to the Nation.”

Hey, Can I Borrow That?

NETL technologies prove to be both novel and versatile. Because so many natural systems have similar attributes, is it any wonder that so much borrowing goes on across different fields of research? Our scientists are proud that their research results can be used to solve problems both inside and outside the energy field.

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