After Five Years at NREL, I’m Brimming with Pride — and Filled with Anticipation

By National Renewable Energy Laboratory Director Martin Keller

Five years ago, on Nov. 30, I walked into the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, as employee number 17990. Although I was familiar with the laboratory from my time at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and had met many members of the NREL Leadership Team during my interviews, stepping on campus for my first official day was different.

When I started, I had many aspirations for the laboratory. For example, I wanted to ensure our fundamental science was world class, and I believed that we could increase our mission impact by increasing our partnerships.

My tenure has been everything I had hoped for, and our accomplishments are many.

Among my favorite highlights: After hundreds of interviews with staff, the NREL Leadership Team established our 10-year vision. Subsequently, the U.S. Department of Energy endorsed this plan and our focus on its three key research areas: Integrated Energy Pathways; Electrons to Molecules; and Circular Economy for Energy Materials, which now guide our efforts to transform the future of energy.

Also, in Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, I challenged the greater Business Development Team and our leaders to shoot for $100 million annually in new partnership work. To end FY 2020, we hit an all-time high in new Technology Partnership Project agreements signed, which surpassed our lofty $100 million annual goal. This team’s efforts resulted in numerous notable partners working by our side including Eaton, Shell, and ExxonMobil.

During the past five years, we also continued to develop our capabilities through other focused initiatives, bringing on the Eagle high-performance computer and expanding our Flatirons Campus. We also launched the new Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) research platform and broke ground for our new Research and Innovation Laboratory (RAIL).

Of course, 2020 was one for the books. Like many organizations, we pivoted to handle the COVID-19 pandemic, with many staff transitioning to remote work. It didn’t hold us back. Our researchers continued to exceed expectations, and NREL won four R&D 100 Awards with two additional projects cited for Special Recognition Awards in the annual competition this fall. That brings our total to 69 awards since 1982 — an impressive number for a laboratory our size, or any size.

I don’t want to rest. We’re on a roll. So, what’s next?

We see a range of opportunities and, as a laboratory, are well-positioned to lead the United States and the world in expanding the use of renewable energy. Our three key research areas will light the way.

For example, our Integrated Energy Pathways research focuses on maximizing the value of existing power systems while integrating renewables, building and industrial loads, energy storage, and transportation. How? We create new ways of generating, storing, and integrating renewable using innovative controls, as well as multi-scale physics and analytic-based modeling.

Our researchers, mindful of security risks, will examine ways to boost resilience, choosing cyber-physical systems, energy resiliency science and analytics, and especially our security and resilience visualization capability. I look forward to seeing the outcomes from our Cyber-Energy Emulation Platform (CEEP), which leverages our 8.0 petaflops high-performance computer, Eagle, to visualize energy systems in unprecedented ways to better predict and defend against attacks.

And finally, under this pathway, there’s advanced mobility, which explores transportation systems and medium- and heavy-duty transportation electrification in everything from battery, fuel cell, and hybrid electric vehicles, along with charging/hydrogen fueling infrastructure/behind-the-meter energy storage.

In our Electrons to Molecules research, we focus on how industry can best draw from renewably generated resources. We will find ways to take abundant electricity and combine that with small waste gases — such as carbon dioxide, water, or nitrogen — and form new molecules that are then usable to make materials and goods.

We can reduce carbon dioxide via the green route to form “renewable methane” for many industrial uses. In the near future, researchers can undertake electrocatalysis, a process that employs electrons to refine carbon dioxide to methane. Then, beyond carbon dioxide, we could take electricity to reduce other small molecules and build chemical bonds. That could allow production of ammonia from nitrogen for fertilizer and other uses.

In my opinion, there’s nothing so timely as Circular Economy for Energy Materials. Take polymers, which are common in plastics. NREL has world-class capabilities and expertise to upgrade polymer waste, but also to design new polymers so that they can be readily recycled or biodegradable. Then there are fuels. NREL scientists have already worked for years on converting plant waste to cellulosic ethanol, and now drop-in fuels. This has been done with major advances in engineering and science, including synthetic biology. Today, we can apply our know-how to redirecting polymer waste.

Three pathways to new terrain. NREL is ready and poised to deliver great things. Our strategy is clear, our funding is strong, our facilities are top-notch, and our talent is unlimited.

Five years ago, I was the New Kid on the Block. From where I sit today, NREL has the traction to help alter the energy landscape in a way that is hard to imagine in this moment. I can hardly wait to see things five years from now — and I look forward to finding more collaborators who want to take part in this momentous journey with us.

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