Director's Corner

 A National Treasure: NETL’s Advanced Materials Research

As one of the Energy Department’s national laboratories, the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) has a distinguished history of conducting complex and fruitful research for cleaner and more efficient fossil energy innovations. There is an additional national treasure that developed as a central part of that quest: expertise in the discovery, development, and deployment of sophisticated new materials. Some of those innovations save lives, others improve the nation’s infrastructure, and some boost the nation’s economy by making new products and jobs possible. But all were discovered in pursuit of the laboratory’s mission to improve national security, energy reliability, and environmental safety, affording the nation a significant double bang for its buck.

The skills and talents of an array of materials engineers, metallurgists, ceramic engineers, geologists, chemists, chemical engineers, and mechanical engineers are part of the NETL research effort because a significant amount of energy research depends upon a deep and productive understanding of the harsh environments in which fossil fuels are produced and consumed. That adds up to an integrated, multi-scale, multi-discipline program approach that consistently produces an invigorating list of advanced material innovations with impact beyond the quest for energy improvements.

We are justifiably proud of the fact that NETL is one of the few places in the world where alloy development, melting, casting, fabrication, physical and chemical characterization, and performance testing is accomplished all in one place.

In NETL’s labs, metal, ceramic, polymer, and composite materials are fabricated from proof-of-concept through bench-scale testing in uncommon research facilities. Researchers melt, cast, and forge new alloys, create new strategies to enhance the performance of materials that enable advanced energy systems, develop sorbents that remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from power plant flue gas, and tackle dozens of other advanced material challenges. Along the way, they assess corrosion, erosion, creep, wear, and functionality in severe environments that simulate real-life application, and they eventually deliver innovations that move from the laboratory to the marketplace.

There are numerous examples of NETL advanced materials success:

  • Alloys—NETL has developed alloys and manufacturing processes for applications as diverse as in situ oil shale recovery, steam turbine components, rocket nozzle materials, and coronary stents. For example, a private company, Boston Scientific Corporation, worked with NETL to develop an innovative platinum-chromium alloy for use in coronary stents that are placed in patients’ narrowed or weakened coronary arteries, saving lives around the world.
  • Polymers—NETL researchers have discovered a way to use captured CO2 from fossil fuel–burning facilities to make new polymeric materials similar to epoxy that can be used in a variety of industrial functions, from adhesives to protective coatings.
  • Sorbents—An NETL-developed Basic Immobilized Amine Sorbent material developed to absorb CO2 in fossil fuel–burning facilities is so efficient and cost effective in confined spaces that NASA is considering adapting the material for use in space travel. The new sorbent can also be regenerated for reuse.
  • Coatings—NETL developed a simple way of coating solid oxide fuel cells, turbines, and boilers with a cerium surface treatment to improve oxidation resistance—an innovation that is being considered for use in a range of other applications, such as corrosion-resistant cooking grills.
  • Titanium and cast steel armor—NETL researchers developed a low-cost titanium alloy for use as vehicular and body armor and a process to produce complex steel cast armor that is lighter and more ballistically efficient, and costs less than conventional tank armor. 

Those are only a few examples of the many advanced materials developed by NETL's material science and engineering experts. More details on these innovations and stories about others are available elsewhere on the NETL website and in the online version of Research News, the monthly publication of NETL’s Office of Research and Development.