The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) has a long and colorful story of success to tell, and I’m happy to spread the word of our many accomplishments this month, as the Energy Department’s national labs celebrate their history and contributions.
NETL is, arguably, the oldest of the 17 national labs. It had its beginning in 1910, as a single research facility dedicated to improving coal mine safety. Over the next century and beyond, the laboratory has taken on a range of other important assignments that made key contributions to the growth and prosperity of the United States. I’m proud not only of our long record of success, but also that our work continues to make a difference in fueling America’s economy, strengthening national security, and improving the environment.
Over the years, the laboratory has operated under a variety of banners. Once under the wing of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Mines, we are now the research arm of the Office of Fossil Energy in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Whatever the name, and whatever the parent federal agency, the life-improving and often life-saving innovation resulting from generations of research and development has remained consistent.
Researchers at the Pittsburgh Experiment Station blew up a coal mine on October 30, 1911, to prove that coal dust alone, without the presence of methane gas, could explode given the right flame or spark. Flames shot 500 feet out of the mine’s three entrances during the planned explosion. The dramatic demonstration likely saved hundreds, if not thousands, of miners’ lives.
Our work began as a response to tragedy. In 1907, coal production reached a record high of 480 million tons, but it came at a heavy price. Mining fatalities rose to 3,242 that year, including “bloody December” when 692 miners died in four explosions in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Alabama. Congress responded by tasking the U.S. Department of Interior to investigate mine explosions. Research was first conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey at the Pittsburgh Arsenal in the Lawrenceville section of the city. Within three years, the newly created U.S. Bureau of Mines opened the Pittsburgh Experiment Station in Bruceton, Pa., 12 miles south of Pittsburgh, to take up this important work, and our history began.
Saving lives in the coal mines was a big mission, and our predecessors responded with big results—a tradition that continues today. As the petroleum and gas industries grew, our researchers began to investigate ways to keep water out of producing wells and to better analyze gas. Our predecessors even became crime scene investigators when they were called upon to get to the bottom of the 1920 Wall Street bombing, which killed 38 people and injured hundreds others. Our scientists began to realize that their work had application far beyond mining. Pipelines and tunnels and power plants sprang up, and dangers of fire, explosion, and gases resembled the hazards that miners had known for years.
World War II brought demands for greater levels of safe, efficient mining to fuel the nation’s war efforts. The laboratory answered with mine safety improvements as well as equipment, people, and techniques that helped match specific coal types with the needs of specific war materiel manufacturers and steel makers to improve efficiency and production.
By the 1950s, researchers in our Pittsburgh and Morgantown facilities were working on coal gasification, synthetic fuels, and mine methane controls. In the 1960s, our laboratory began using spectroscopy, X-ray diffraction, electron microscopy, and other techniques to probe the geological origins of coal and the differences in coal types so that specific coals could be matched to specific industrial needs. The laboratory became a leader in research on coal-fired gas turbines; ways to loosen tight sandstone and shale natural gas reservoir layers; development of 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.
In the 1970s, NETL helped pioneer horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques, allowing trapped natural gas to be released from deep rock formations known as shales. Gas produced from shale has become an important part of the Nation’s energy mix, allowing us to reduce our dependency on foreign energy sources.
In the 1950s, the Northwest Electrodevelopment Laboratory in Albany, OR, now NETL’s Albany site, developed and supplied 85 percent of the zirconium raw material for the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, which was launched January 17, 1955.
We transitioned from the U.S. Bureau of Mines to the U.S. Department of Energy in the 1970s and 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. Then, in 2005, the Albany Research Center joined the lab becoming our third research site.
Our scientists and engineers 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 burn 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 can report solid progress in a range of important energy research areas from unconventional oil recovery on land and at sea, gas hydrates, and fuel cells, to advanced power systems, improvements to the nation’s energy grid and much more.
In 2010, in celebration of our first 100 years, NETL published a history of our organization entitled A Century of Innovation. I urge you to browse through this rich chronicle of our sites and achievements. I believe you’ll find that, throughout every stage of NETL’s evolution, our people have remained focused, committed and productive—a tradition that will continue as we work to ensure the nation’s energy security for the next 100 years.