A Record Achievement of R&D 100 Awards Speaks to NREL’s Impact

By Peter Green, NREL Deputy Laboratory Director

NREL’s Greg Glatzmaier determines the high-temperature thermal and mechanical stability of sealants used in a lab prototype of the integrated hydrogen sensor/separator module, an R&D 100 Award-winning project. Photo by Dennis Schroeder/NREL

People call the annual R&D 100 Awards from R&D World magazine the Academy Awards of innovation. And while that analogy may be true up to a point, I like to think the technologies spotlighted have more long-term impact than the Oscars. Breakthroughs that reduce the cost of solar energy or make wind power more available will pay dividends longer than, say, memory of the Best Actor Award winner a decade ago — no offense to Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart.

Quite simply, R&D 100 Awards are among the most prestigious science and technology awards available, celebrating the top advances of the past year. The honors are chosen by an independent panel of judges, and we are up against the best of the best, with competition from across other national laboratories, academia, and industry. Receiving these awards demonstrates the high quality, innovation, and potential impact of our research to the U.S. Department of Energy, industry, partners, and others.

And for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), this year’s recent announcement yielded a bumper crop indeed. NREL won four R&D 100 Awards with two more NREL entries earning Special Recognition Awards. That brings our tally up to 69 R&D 100 awards since 1982 — which is an impressive total. But during this year of the pandemic, it highlights our ability to continue to contribute to our mission at the highest levels even under unprecedented conditions.

The fact that we did so well reflected significant, and strategic, efforts of the NREL R&D 100 selection committee, together with excellent nominations by the center directors, the principal investigators, and the folks who wrote the nominations collaboratively. After we completed this year’s selection and nomination process, I was cautiously optimistic that we would have an outstanding outcome, considering the level of competition.

We were elated about the results! That NREL placed in the top three among all national laboratories this year was even more rewarding. As world-class leaders across so many fields — with this year’s portfolio including solar research, the power sector, wind, and biofuels — this performance should not be unexpected:

  • Dimethylammonium-Containing Wide-Bandgap Perovskites to form high-performance tandem solar cells that could allow vehicles to be powered directly by photovoltaics (PV). As the technology matures, the research could also enable the use of portable or wearable PV devices. This technology won in the Mechanical Devices/Materials category, with David Moore as lead principal investigator (PI).
  • Dynamic Hydride Vapor Phase Epitaxy (D-HVPE) for Low-Cost III-V PV Devices provides a means to bring high-priced, high-efficiency solar technology now used in the space program down to Earth at a reasonable cost. The D-HVPE process removes key barriers to the mass production of III-V semiconductors. This earned honors in the Process/Prototyping category, with Aaron Ptak as lead PI.
  • The Regional Energy Deployment System (ReEDS) 2.0 is a free, open-access tool that empowers users to explore least-cost pathways for large-scale power sector transformation. NREL’s flagship energy capacity planning model for the North American electricity system allows users to examine the interactions between policy, technology, economics, and the environment when integrating renewables onto the grid from now through 2050. This technology won in the Software/Services category, with Wesley Cole and Dan Steinberg as lead PIs.
  • The Process for Mitigating Hydrogen Build-up in CSP Parabolic Trough Power Plants and Increasing Plant Electricity Output offers a solution to a problem that occurs as concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP) plants age, after several years of operation. Hydrogen gas builds up within the receiver tubes of a parabolic trough plant, significantly reducing the plant’s thermal efficiency, and therefore its electricity production. NREL and Acciona Solar Power Inc. developed a process and technology to reverse the effects of hydrogen buildup in operating plants and return production to original levels. This earned honors in the Process/Prototyping category, with Greg Glatzmaier as lead PI.

In addition to the four R&D 100 Award winners, the judges honored two other NREL technologies with Special Recognition Awards for being “market disruptors”:

  • The Thermoplastic Resin System for Wind Turbine Blades will disrupt the wind and water power industry’s current turbine manufacturing process, enabling the production of recyclable blades that are stronger, longer, and less expensive to manufacture, increasing energy capture, decreasing energy and transportation costs, and increasing blade reliability. Developed in concert with Arkema Inc., the resin system — coupled with NREL’s thermal welding technique — allows many of the materials to be recycled and reused. Lead PIs for this technology were Robynne Murray and Derek Berry.
  • The Fully Renewable Polyurethane Polymers from Bioderived Oils and Amino Acids offers a product with a variety of potential uses including as a coating for tents and backpacks. Made from lipids produced by algae as well as terrestrial crops, the polyurethane polymers have the potential for complete biodegradation and even upcycling. Lead PIs for this technology were Phil Pienkos and Tao Dong.

Two additional NREL submissions were R&D 100 Award Finalists.

Ever since NREL opened its doors as the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) in 1977, our researchers have been helping push the possibilities of renewables and efficiency forward. Our R&D 100 winners — as well as other innovations which did not take home trophies — have changed the marketplace. Industry has commercialized many of these to make our energy system more reliable, secure, and affordable. As we see in this year’s honorees, there are many paths toward energy independence, and many steps along the way. Of course, going back to watch old Academy Award winners such as those found in Crazy Heart or other Oscar winners can be enjoyable. But looking at our R&D winners over the years will provide something even more concrete: a way to understand the path forward to a clean energy future. And that’s a real win for everyone.

From breakthroughs in fundamental science to new clean technologies to integrated energy systems that power our lives, NREL researchers are #TransformingEnergy