Features - July 2015

The Science of Success: NETL’s Legacy of Achievements

Embracing science, and the advances it can unlock, has always been a key component behind the economic, technological, and societal growth of our country. Science has raised our standard of living, increased our life expectancy, and has even taken us into space. At the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), scientific research and development is the lynchpin that has kept our lab generating and delivering vital scientific innovations to the American people—from a solution to acid rain to the metal that made the dream of the first nuclear submarine a reality.

NETL has a rich and complex history that spans over a hundred years – from the predecessor agencies to which we trace our lineage to our modern incarnation as one of DOE’s National Laboratories. But over this century of research and innovation, what has remained constant is a shared vision, consistently guided by the principles expressed in our current mission statement: "Advancing energy options to fuel our economy, strengthen our security, and improve our environment." The Laboratory has tirelessly pursued this mission by developing basic and applied scientific knowledge about fuels and materials; fostering safe, efficient, and environmentally responsible methods of extracting and using fossil fuels; and partnering with private industry and state and local authorities to solve energy-related problems and commercialize energy innovations.

Here’s a brief timeline of some of the significant accomplishments that have helped make NETL an integral member of the Department of Energy’s National Laboratory system:

  • In 1911, NETL, then known as the Bureau of Mines, set out to pinpoint the causes of mine accidents and find ways to keep miners safe. On October 30, 1911, a "well-planned explosion" was detonated inside the Bureau’s experimental coal mine at Bruceton, Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh. This event—the first of many such controlled blasts—conclusively demonstrated that coal dust was an explosive hazard. Further research conducted from the 1910s through the 1930s revealed how mine disasters could be prevented through dust control, cooler-burning explosives, and equipment that minimized sparks and flame. These efforts saved many lives and made the Pittsburgh station a center of expertise on coal, toxic gases, and the phenomena of ignition, explosion, and combustion.
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The USS Nautilus was the first nuclear submarine in the world, and relied on zirconium rods produced at NETL’s Albany laboratory.
  • Advanced metallurgy entered NETL’s portfolio in 1943 with the founding of the Northwest Electro-Development Laboratory in Albany, Oregon. This station’s earliest task was to manufacture pure and malleable zirconium, a valuable rare metal. Under the leadership of the brilliant metallurgist William J. Kroll, Albany achieved success; it eventually supplied zirconium for the power plant of the USS Nautilus, the United States Navy’s first nuclear-propelled submarine. Further breakthroughs during the 1950s with other rare metals provided additional materials that could endure extremes of temperature and corrosion.
  • During the 1950s and the 1960s, as concerns about the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels grew, scientists at NETL conducted groundbreaking research on the causes of air pollution in American cities. Using an artificial "smog chamber," the researchers simulated how automobile exhaust gases interacted with air and sunlight to create photochemical smog. Their findings illuminated the chemical mechanisms through which byproducts of fossil-fuel combustion fouled the atmosphere.
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The Morgantown lunar materials team: Patricia A. Estep, seated; John J. Kovach, left; and Clarence Karr, Jr., right.
  • NETL was instrumental in keeping American coal research alive and progressing. In fact, in 1969, the laboratories in Pittsburgh and Morgantown contributed not only to developing domestic energy resources but also to exploring outer space. Using technical capabilities originally established for coal-chemistry and mine-safety investigations, the Pittsburgh station studied rocket propellants and the likely behavior of explosives outside the Earth’s atmosphere. A team at Morgantown analyzed lunar rocks and dust obtained by the Apollo missions to the Moon.
  • The Clean Air Act of 1970 put strict air-pollution regulations into effect. In response, NETL researchers built and operated the first U.S. industrial-size fluidized-bed boiler at Monongahela Power Company’s Rivesville, WV, power plant. Fluidized-bed combustion proved to be a lower-cost, higher-efficiency, and cleaner way to burn coal. In the early 1990s, POWER Magazine called the development of fluidized bed coal combustors "the commercial success story of the last decade in the power generation business." Today, fluidized bed boilers are generating electricity throughout the world.
  • To reduce SOx and NOx emissions and neutralize the threat of acid rain, NETL’s Clean Coal Technology program spurred commercialization of low-NOx burners, wet scrubbers, selective catalytic reduction, and other technologies. Today, 75 percent of our Nation’s coal-fired power plants use pollution-control devices that were supported by NETL during their research, development, and commercial-demonstration phases.
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Gary Covatch, a petroleum engineer, using a computer program to monitor and analyze the results of fracturing experiments in a natural-gas field in the 1970s.
  • In the 1970s and 1980s, NETL helped lead technology drivers for shale gas production. Horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and high-efficiency "down-hole" tool advancements have contributed to increased shale gas production, which now amounts to nearly 14 percent of dry natural gas produced in the United States. By 2035, that share is expected to reach 45 percent, including resources associated with Marcellus shale.
  • Mercury contamination of lakes, rivers, and streams and its impact on aquatic life living in these ecosystems spurred Congress to amend the Clean Air Act in 1990 to address this concern.  Through the early 1990s to 2008, NETL partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the electric-utility industry, and other research organizations to develop cost-effective technologies to capture the mercury emitted from coal-based power systems.  One of those technologies, activated carbon injection, is currently installed on more than a third of the nation’s coal-based power plants.
  • Funded by the U.S. Army’s Tank and Automotive Research and Development Center, the Army Research Laboratory and Tank and Automotive Command, NETL researchers developed both a low-cost titanium alloy for use in body and vehicular armor along with a complex cast steel armor that was lighter and more ballistically efficient and cost less than conventional armor. The program began in 1987 and ended in 2007. Armor developed by these processes or spin-offs from these processes was fielded in the First Gulf War and the involvement in Somalia, a ready reaction force in the Balkans, and for specialized applications in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
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NETL’s award winning heart stent saves lives.
  • Boston Scientific Corporation and NETL developed a unique high-density, platinum-chromium alloy for coronary stents. A stent is a small, self-expanding metal mesh tube that saves thousands of lives every year by opening blocked arteries and allowing blood to flow freely again. The element platinum gives the stent high visibility with x-ray scanning. Better visibility means greater ease and precision in placement of the stent inside the patient’s blood vessel. After its introduction in 2010, the platinum/chromium coronary stent series became the leading stent platform in the world.