NETL 40 Year History
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A History of the NETL and DOE


The Department of Energy is celebrating its 40th Anniversary this year, and NETL has been there since the beginning. Follow the timeline below to learn more.



40 Years of Innovation

The U.S. Department of Energy was created October 11, 1977.

Under the umbrella of the new cabinet-level agency, three-separate energy research laboratory sites that would become today’s NETL expanded its leadership role on a wide range of research areas incorporating coal-fired gas turbines; ways to loosen tight sandstone and shale natural gas reservoir layers; advanced emissions control technologies that are deployed on most of today’s operating coal-fired power plants; and new ways to produce pure rare metals like zirconium and titanium. The sites eventually became the Federal Energy Technology Center incorporating the Morgantown Energy Technology Center (METC) and the Pittsburgh Energy Technology Center (PETC). In 1999, we were elevated to the rank of national laboratory and became known as the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

Since the creation of DOE, we have examined moon rocks, experimented with underground coal gasification, helped monitor the Macondo Well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, pioneered new clean coal technologies, demonstrated effective carbon capture and storage technologies, created new high temperature materials, developed new approaches to burning coal more efficiently, and enhanced our research with new tools including one of the world’s fastest and most energy efficient supercomputers.

Today, our research portfolio contains 1,800 projects. We achieved successes on unconventional oil recovery on land and at sea, gas hydrates, and fuel cells, advanced power systems, improvements to the nation’s energy grid and much more. Throughout every stage of NETL’s evolution, our people have remained focused, committed and productive—hallmarks that will stand as traditions of our work as we work to ensure the nation’s energy security for the next 100 years. As we celebrate DOE’s 40th birthday, we are revisiting some of our key energy research milestones that occurred since becoming a part of the department.

1970s


As part of the drive for cleaner coal facilities to take the place of imported petroleum in the early 1970s, the Morgantown Energy Research Center (MERC), which would later become part of NETL, spearheaded the demonstration of the first industrial-scale fluidized bed boiler ever operated in the United States as the flagship campaign to push fluidized bed combustion toward commercial use. The demonstration was installed at the Rivesville Station of the Monongahela Power Company in northern West Virginia.

At MERC, the vision of combining coal gasification, gas-cleanup systems, and turbine engines to create the next generation of coal-fueled power plants caused it to emerge as one of the leading American centers of research on integrated gasification combined cycle technology. MERC worked with General Electric engineers to install a prototype combustor for use with low BTU synthesis gas. It allowed MERC and GE experts to study how burning synthesis gas affected turbine performance.

The Pittsburgh Energy Research Center (PERC), which would later become part of NETL, studied improvements to pulverized-coal combustion processes and operated the only publicly accessible testing facility in the United States large enough to simulate conditions inside the furnace of a commercial power-plant boiler.

Federal funding for energy research and development almost doubled between 1976 and 1980, with strong gains in the areas of fossil fuels, energy conservation, and renewable resources.  

NETL helped lead technology advancements that resulted in today’s oil and gas shale boom. The Laboratory’s work on horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and high-efficiency “down-hole” tool advancements contributed to increased shale gas production. By 2035, shale gas will provide 45 percent of all dry natural gas produced in the United States.

1980s


The first commercial sale of gas from a set of wells that had been built solely to collect usable methane from unmined coal occurred in 1984—the result of applied research work pioneered by METC.

NETL engineers helped introduce coalbed methane to market. This one-time “waste” fuel accounts for almost 8 percent of our nation’s natural gas production.

NETL partnered with General Electric to develop diamond composite cutting surfaces, which made polycrystalline diamond compact (PDC) bits possible. By 2002, PDC bits were favored for their drilling speed and increased bit life.




METC began studying another promising source of gas: methane hydrates—methane and water trapped in a cage-like lattice of ice. Methane is the chief constituent of natural gas. Methane hydrate is an ice that only occurs in subsurface deposits where temperature and pressure conditions are favorable for its formation.

The Coal Preparation and Solids Transport Division of PETC addressed the problems of cleaning coal more thoroughly and making coal fines more useful, helping transform waste into economic gain.




The Clean Coal Technology Demonstration Program
Congress enacted the Clean Coal Technology Demonstration Program to accelerate development and dissemination of technologies to use coal efficiently and cleanly in power generation and industrial production. Technologies focused on coal selection and preparation; combustion (controlling NOx); post-combustion (SO2). Researchers discovered that replacing conventional boilers with fluidized-bed boilers provided a comprehensive form of emissions control. The program also moved coal gasification and IGCC technologies closer to being viable alternatives to traditional coal-burning boilers. The technology was demonstrated in three commercial plants. By proving that IGCC technology could function well in everyday commercial service, these plants helped establish it as a viable option for the American electrical-power industry. The Clean Coal Technology Demonstration program funded 33 completed projects over its lifetime and assisted in commercializing proven pollution-reducing methods such as advanced flue-gas cleanup, fluidized-bed combustion, and IGCC.



1990s


NETL’s research programs were critical in the development of fluidized bed coal combustors, named in the 1990s as “the [power generation] commercial success story of the last decade.” As a result, every major U.S. boiler manufacturer offered an atmospheric pressure fluidized bed product for use in new industrial facilities. The technology led to sales of more than $6 billion in domestic sales and $3 billion in international sales.




The Federal Energy Technology Center (FETC) was launched through the unification of METC (Morgantown) and PETC (Pittsburgh). Although the sites were 65 miles apart, communications technology made feasible a seamless organization. FETC strengthened existing partnerships with industry, academia, and other government organizations, and forged new ones, reinforcing its role as a catalyst for moving advanced energy and environmental technologies into the marketplace.



The Secretary of Energy designated FETC as DOE’s 15th national laboratory, the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), signaling the importance of fossil fuels to the global energy economy. The Secretary also created the Strategic Center for Natural Gas at NETL.

2000s


 

NETL opened the Arctic Energy Office in Fairbanks, Alaska, with a two-part mission to promote research, development, and deployment of: 1) oil recovery, gas-to-liquids, and natural gas production and transportation and, 2) electric power in arctic climates, including fossil, wind, geothermal, fuel cells, and small hydroelectric facilities.



The Albany Research Center (ARC) in Albany, Oregon, was realigned by DOE and incorporated under NETL management. This realignment broadened the NETL material science capability.

MFIX, the Multiphase Flow with Interphase Exchanges software was introduced by NETL. MFIX is the preeminent software for modeling gas solids flow because it can simulate chaotic processes related to the interactions of solids, liquids, and gases. MFIX is so powerful that it can tell the position, velocity, temperature, pressure, and chemical composition of each tiny volume inside a gasifier every few seconds.



Through the Power Plant Improvement Initiative and the clean Coal Power Initiative, NETL managed commercial demonstrations of innovative retrofits to existing power plants. As a result, 50-70 percent cost reduction in mercury control at coal-fired power plants since 2000.

NETL’s funding and technical expertise helped with national efforts to develop fuel cells. Small fuel cells began to dot the American landscape to provide power to isolated areas that had little access to the electric grid.

Metallurgists at NETL Albany, along with partners in industry and academia, developed a range of nickel-based superalloys for use at high temperatures and established corrosion-resistant surface treatments for alloys, etching techniques for stainless steels, and methods of welding dissimilar metals together.



Since 2000, technologies resulting from the Clean Coal Program provided the following benefits: 37 million additional tons of avoided SO2; 16 million additional tons of avoided NOx; $111 billion in benefits; $13 return for every $1 invested; 1.2. million jobs created and thousands of researchers trained.


2010s


Regional-Carbon-Sequestration-Partnership-Regions.jpgNETL provided leadership and support for the creation of seven Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnerships to demonstrate the effective storage of captured CO2 from industrial sites.

Collaborators at NETL, ATI Allegheny Ludlum Corporation, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory successfully modified the metallic alloy AISI 441 and took an important step toward achieving the SOFC electrical interconnect lifetime target of 40,000 hours or more.

In the first demonstration-scale project in the United States to use CO2 from a biofuels plant, the Midwest Geological Sequestration Consortium captured CO2 from Archer Daniels Midland Company’s ethanol production facility in Decatur, Ill. After compression, the CO2 was injected 7,000 feet deep into the Mount Simon sandstone reservoir.

A new energy-production technology analysis tool available through NETL presented opportunities to help policy-makers, students, and interested stakeholders better understand the economic and environmental tradeoffs associated with various electricity production options. Developed in partnership with Sandia National Laboratories, the Power Systems Life Cycle Analysis Tool (LCAT) was designed to be used to analyze the entire life cycle of an energy technology—from raw materials acquisition to final product transport.

NETL, in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh, successfully tested an optical-based sensor that analyzed chemical composition, process temperature, and other conditions within the harsh environments of chemical reactors, solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC), and other advanced energy-related processes. The utility of the new sensing device was demonstrated in a SOFC capable of operating at 1500 °F and will assist operators in controlling the energy processes.

Four infrastructure improvement projects, managed by NETL as part of the DOE Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability’s Smart Grid Research and Development Program, successfully reduced the cost of electric vehicle charging equipment by 45–55 percent of the current price point.

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NETL played a key role in updating a 25-year-old testing standard that helps ensure quality, reduce cost, decrease waste, and support safer oil and gas operations around the world. The research into foamed cement was conducted by NETL scientists using the Laboratory’s CT scanning equipment and subsurface geomechanics facilities and was part of the Laboratory’s collaboration with the American Petroleum Institute. Safe and environmentally sustainable oil and gas operations require isolation between the wellbore and the surrounding formation. Foamed cement, created when gases are injected into cement slurry to form microscopic bubbles, is used to seal the gap between the rock face and a well’s outer casing.

A team of DOE researchers found that rare earth elements (REEs) can be removed from two coal byproduct materials through an ion-exchange process — a discovery that could expand the U.S. resource base of these critical elements. The findings, published in a peer-reviewed paper titled “A Study on Removal of Rare Earth Elements from U.S. Coal Byproducts by Ion Exchange,” also indicates that removal of REEs through an ion-exchange process can offer significant cost and environmental advantages compared to extraction from conventional ores.

Based on its successes reducing mercury emissions at power plants and addressing acid raid, NETL began its second century of service by focusing on the challenges of global climate change. The nearly 700 Pittsburgh-based employees of NETL are part of an energy research powerhouse for the region, tackling thousands of projects and activities that focus nationwide attention on their results from carbon capture and storage and development and advanced energy systems to methane monitoring and continued hydraulic fracturing research using captured CO2 and dozens of other innovation-rich projects.

Just as it has for more than half of the life of the city, the NETL of the 21st Century will— remain a solid partner in progress as Pittsburgh begins its third century. Spinning out new ideas and new technologies that create new companies and new jobs will remain a top priority as the men and women of NETL innovate a brighter future for the region and the nation.