Features - June 2012

NETL-RUA: Celebrating 2011

The Alliance partners are NETL, Carnegie Mellon University, Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, West Virginia University, and URS Corporation.

Looking back at fiscal year 2011, the NETL-Regional University Alliance (NETL-RUA) has much to celebrate. From research successes to new educational opportunities, from growing our research portfolio to bringing technologies to market, NETL-RUA is reaping the benefits of daily collaborations undertaken by our scientists and engineers, faculty and students.

Just ask NETL-RUA Manager Juli Klara.

“The achievements we are realizing simply wouldn't be possible without the cooperation, expertise, and passion of NETL's onsite research staff and our university, national laboratory, and industry partners.

“All of us are committed to NETL-RUA's important work—reducing our nation's CO2 footprint, protecting human health and the environment, ensuring U.S. energy security, and speeding the development and commercialization of important energy technologies. We strive every day to bring energy solutions to the American people, and we are passing our knowledge and love of science and innovation to the next generation of researchers.”

Let's take a peek at some of NETL-RUA's top successes of 2011 and where the Alliance is going next.

R&D Highlights—Reducing the CO2 Footprint

Reducing the CO2 output of our nation's power plants and industrial facilities is an important step in reducing total manmade CO2 emissions in the United States and around the world. NETL-RUA is pursing improved power plant efficiencies and the means for separating, capturing, using, and permanently storing CO2.

NETL and the National Institute for Standards and Testing developed and demonstrated new metal-organic frameworks that identify and absorb CO2 in gas streams that also contain nitrogen and methane. Metal-organic frameworks are composed of two major components: a metal ion or cluster of metal ions and an organic molecule called a linker. These frameworks can be porous and used to store, purify, or separate gases. Separating CO2 is the first step in efficiently capturing it for use or permanent storage underground.

The NETL-RUA Carbon Capture Unit (C2U), a circulating fluidized-bed coal reactor located at NETL, began operations. Researchers are using C2U to validate the performance of dry CO2 sorbents, which they believe can avoid the energy penalty associated with wet CO2scrubbing systems—a major barrier to the widespread adoption of carbon capture for controlling manmade CO2 emissions. From the information gained, computer models will be designed to speed further dry sorbent development.

The NETL Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership's biannual Carbon Sequestration Atlas of the United States and Canada has proven to be an invaluable resource for information about underground storage that may be available for captured CO2. Our researchers improved the method for developing CO2 storage estimates for the Atlas by reevaluating parameters and revising underpinning quantifications. This method has proven comparable to another estimate approach being developed by the U.S. Geological Survey.

R&D Highlights—Protecting Human Health and the Environment

Reducing pollution from fossil fuel plants is critical not only to the health and welfare of the United States, but of the world. For decades, NETL has been instrumental in developing technologies that reduce power plant emissions, and we have helped drive down levels of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, and particulate matter by as much as 90%. Yet there is more to do. Increasingly stringent regulations require plant operators to quickly and cost-effectively measure gas composition and trace contaminants so pollutants can be caught before they reach the open air.

A new gas analyzer package, which uses fiber optics and Raman light-scattering to analyze the composition of industrial gas streams, was developed and demonstrated by NETL-RUA in 2011. The analyzer identifies the composition of process gas streams in less than one second at greater than 0.3 percent accuracy. This can allow power generator control systems to adjust fuel mix for optimal performance. The packaged sensor is scheduled for testing by a commercial partner in fiscal year 2012.

R&D Highlights—Ensuring Energy Security

By safely, cleanly, and affordably producing our own unconventional natural gas and oil resources, the United States can greatly reduce its dependence on foreign sources of these fuels. NETL-RUA achieved key developments in fiscal year 2011 that have improved our researchers' understanding of the behavior of shale gas, methane hydrate, and other important domestic energy resources, as well as the impacts and issues associated with their production.

Laboratory experiments conducted by Alliance researchers confirmed that methane hydrate—ice with natural gas trapped inside—can form in methane-bearing sand reservoirs during gas production, impeding gas flow and potentially endagering workers. Until confirmed in these experiments, the phenomenon had been predicted but never observed. Findings will inform computational modeling efforts, allowing researchers to understand and examine the process in detail and form strategies to address this important problem.

NETL-RUA researchers also spearheaded collaboration with a prominent shale-gas producer to document environmental baselines at a Marcellus shale production site and changes resulting from shale gas development. Using a state-of-the-art field monitoring device developed by Alliance researchers, the project will track potential air emissions impacts attributable to shale-gas development. NETL-RUA researchers are pursuing similar opportunities with other industrial partners.

R&D Highlights—Accelerating Development and Deployment of Energy Technology

By combining experimental research with computational modeling, we accelerate energy technology development and deployment. Using computer models and simulations, researchers rapidly screen potential concepts, virtually optimize system performance, eliminate steps in scale-up design and testing, and ultimately reduce the risk of commercial deployment. Computer models and simulations can also be used to train the workforce needed to operate and maintain advanced energy plants and other state-of-the art energy systems.

In 2011, NETL-RUA established the first-of-its-kind Advanced Virtual Energy Simulation Training and Research Center, known as AVESTAR™AVESTAR uses plant-wide integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) power plant simulators to train operators in managing coal-gasification plants, which promise to be the cleanest coal-based power plants. Using AVESTAR™, the Alliance hosts industry training and presents engineering courses. We are also pursuing a research and development program for high-fidelity dynamic equipment and process modeling, advanced process controls, and 3-D virtual plant simulations that will capitalize on AVESTAR's™ unique capabilities.

NETL's Carbonaceous Chemistry for Computational Modeling, or C3M, software was licensed in 2011 to a Brazilian coal organization. Coal gasification is at the forefront of a worldwide clean energy initiative; however, designing advanced gasification processes and devices requires that researchers understand the physical transformations, chemical reactions, and mechanisms at work. They couple C3M with other modeling software to better understand and design to the complexities of these systems.

NETL-RUA's Carbon Capture Simulation Initiative (CCSI) was also launched in 2011. CCSI is a partnership among national laboratories, industry, and academic institutions, including members of NETL-RUA, to develop and deploy state-of-the-art computational modeling and simulation tools and accelerate the commercialization of carbon capture technologies from discovery to deployment. This partnership promises to advance carbon capture technologies with the goal of enabling widespread deployment in 8–10 years, taking concepts from the lab to the power plant more quickly and at lower cost.

Growing Strategically

The collaborative environment of NETL-RUA has enabled significant “early career” successes for this young alliance. In only our second year of operation, NETL-RUA has harnessed the varied experience, knowledge, skills, and resources of our members to achieve research successes, garner awards, and help educate dozens of up-and-coming scientists and engineers. To carve a clear pathway for our work, the Alliance established two Strategic Growth Areas—Power Grid Technologies and Rare Earths/Critical Materials—and initiated development of two others—Shale Gas and Advanced Materials. Much of NETL-RUA's 2012 portfolio growth will spring from these areas, bringing the teams' capabilities to bear on the important issues the Strategic Growth Areas are designed to answer.

The Power Grid Technologies team is building a Grid Technologies Collaborative with researchers from NETL-RUA and industry. The Collaborative will execute a comprehensive program of fundamental research on power electronics technologies for transmission and distribution systems; technology development, simulation, testing, and commercialization; and professional training for the advanced grid technologies sector. In its first full year of operation—2012—the team plans to consolidate capabilities across partner institutions and build market and brand recognition for innovative research and development, technology integration, and training services within the initiative.

The Rare Earths/Critical Materials team has assembled a unique capability that includes a major materials industry partner and heavy participation by each NETL-RUA university partner. NETL-RUA's capabilities in mining and materials research are well suited to uncovering new, cost-effective, domestic rare earth elements and critical material resources, as well as finding lower-cost, more readily available materials as alternatives.

Preparing Tomorrow's Energy Leaders

Creating a culture of energy leadership through promotion of education and entrepreneurship is a major NETL-RUA driver. There is a critical need in our nation for multi-stakeholder partnerships to provide knowledge, expertise, mentoring, and financial support in educating the next generation of energy leaders. NETL-RUA, through research and educational programs, is mentoring young professionals to prepare them to perform innovative research and transfer new technologies to the marketplace.

Students participated on projects that totaled 41% of the fiscal year 2011 NETL-RUA research budget. During 2010–2011, 61 students obtained advanced degrees while working on NETL-RUA-funded research efforts. A total of 240 students have been involved to date in NETL-RUA research.


2010 2011
Total student researchers 107 133
Doctoral degrees earned 20 20
Masters degrees earned 13 8






In addition to student involvement, 58 partner faculty members conducted research at NETL's Pittsburgh and Morgantown sites, including Alliance consortium area leads, principle investigators, and co-principle investigators. A total of 45,120 hours of university faculty research were completed at NETL in 2011. NETL researchers also participated in NETL-RUA educational initiatives as adjunct faculty for member universities and presenters within NETL-RUA. These efforts build reciprocal researcher relationships and provide students with ready access to subject matter experts.

Looking Ahead to 2012

NETL-RUA promises advanced energy technologies and growth in our regional and national economies. It promises high-tech jobs for our nation's engineers and scientists. And it promises the education of a new generation of researchers and entrepreneurs who are passionate about pursuing sustainable energy sources for our children and our children's children. 

  • Anthony Cugini
    Director, NETL

NETL-RUA's framework, commitment, and integration of regional capabilities, united with our objective of meeting the nation's demand for clean, affordable, abundant energy, uniquely positions us to advance the U.S. Department of Energy's mission of ensuring America's energy security and economic prosperity.

In fiscal year 2012, NETL-RUA will accelerate the momentum we built in 2011. Our Strategic Growth Area teams will pursue new research opportunities and further develop their goals and visions. Our members will pursue opportunities for establishing centers of excellence within the Alliance. We will further foster collaboration and outreach among our researchers. And we will investigate new educational initiatives, including expanding our current student research program to include more undergraduates and focusing more closely on entrepreneurship.

Henry Ford said, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” Advancing our partnership and the shared work of our researchers will position NETL-RUA to serve as a priceless source of regional economic development and nationwide job creation. Continuing to engage students in energy research that provides them with hands-on experience in multi-disciplinary areas of science, technology, and entrepreneurship will give them the experience that industry and our nation can and will rely on in the future. Looking ahead, we will achieve great things in 2012 and beyond.