Energy solutions to pick up the pace

  • 05-Feb-2010 04:03 EST

Modeling and simulation can play a significant role in driving materials development, according to Battelle’s Jeff Wadsworth, which in turn can spur the advancement of energy technologies. This example depicts Lanthanum (La) atoms at the surface of silicon nitride grain, which improves the ceramic’s toughness. (Image courtesy of MMTA journal: 10.1007/s11661-010-01884)

Energy technologies do change—just not very quickly. They change in response to policy, to technology development, and to economics, said Steven Koonin, Undersecretary for Science, U.S. Department of Energy, at the 2009 Materials Science and Technology (MS&T) Conference, held in Pittsburgh.

But that change still takes decades, he added, because of long-lived infrastructure and incumbency.

“We have pretty good ways now of providing heat, light, and mobility; any new technology has to be competitive on a cost basis,” Koonin said. For this reason, he believes that new models for energy innovation are needed “to bring the basic research closer to the demonstration and deployment.”

One example is Energy Frontier Research Centers that focus on the underlying science to overcome roadblocks to clean energy—“looking, for example, at artificial photosynthesis of the fundamental materials important for photovoltaics,” Koonin said.

He also referred to HUBS—large-scale, long-term research enterprises fusing academia, the national labs, and industry in partnerships focused on specific goals—as an example of how to possibly affect change more expeditiously.

Koonin was hopeful that three HUBS—involving the simulation of nuclear energy systems, building efficiency, and the conversion of sunlight into fuels—would be approved by Congress and get under way this year.

Another way to look at the issue is, if advanced materials that enable energy technologies are developed faster, then the technologies themselves can be implemented faster.

Jeff Wadsworth, President and CEO of Battelle Memorial Institute, believes that the materials science industry is on the threshold of being able to use modeling and simulation to drive materials development—and ultimately “more exciting vehicles and aerospace devices,” he said.

“I’m not a computer person, but I’ve become convinced over time that massive computing, large-scale computing is a part of the solution,” Wadsworth said.

“Alloy 718 took about 40 years to achieve a 55°C improvement in upper operating temperature,” he noted. “That’s a long time.” The superalloy is typically used in high-temperature applications such as jet engines, gas turbines, and racecar exhaust systems.

Wadsworth offered a structural-ceramic engineering example to illustrate the point of “computing leading experiment.”

“If you add Lanthanum (La) in small numbers of atoms to silicon nitride (Si3N4) you improve the toughness, and it’s not understood why,” he explained. “In fact, it’s not possible to find the La atoms using microscopy; it’s too difficult because there’s only a few atoms. In this case, we predicted where they should be…and we found them where the prediction told us they should be. And then we’re able to think about constructing a toughness model.”

Silicon nitride, which already has very high fracture toughness for a ceramic, has been used in aerospace, automotive, electronics, and even wind-turbine applications including engine components, integrated circuits, and bearings.

Materials scientists also are quick to note that nanotechnology—a buzzword nowadays—has been around for decades. Despite any hype, nanotechnology is regarded by many experts to be a key enabler of new energy solutions, even as it becomes more widely recognized outside of the materials science realm.

A123Systems’ Nanophosphate lithium-ion battery technology, based on nanoscale materials initially developed at MIT, is one recent example of openly marketing the underlying technology.

Energy storage such as batteries is just one of many areas that can benefit from nanotechnology, according to Robert Romanosky, Technology Manager of Power Systems Advanced Research at the U.S. DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).

“We see the nanotechnology world as being the solution to a large myriad of our problems,” he said. In addition to work on catalysis, sensors, solid-oxide fuel cells, and other areas, a large development program at NETL involves structural materials and coatings.

“In the car industry—in all of the industries, really—the standard materials have reached the limit of where they can go temperature and pressure wise,” Romanosky said. “We’ve run the temperatures up on the ferritics, the austenitics, we’re into the nickel-based alloys now, and we’re running those up. But we see ways of getting around this by coating the material with nanocoatings or by changing the structural properties using these nano-derived materials.”

NETL is working on engineered coatings with nano architectures to improve engine efficiencies. Romanosky explained that the leading edge on airplane engines has a tendency to degrade due to the dust and debris that’s pulled in after a number of takeoffs.

“We’ve come up with some nanocoatings for that leading edge that right now are under testing,” he said. “So far the calculations [indicate] that it would save a typical airline $100 million per year in fuel costs.”

Such improvements in performance—and to the bottom line—are the reason materials science “is a field that is not going away in any sense,” according to Battelle’s Wadsworth.

“We may change the names a bit, we may talk about nano science, [but materials] are the basis to the solutions to most problems,” he said.

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