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NETL: Energizing the Region

In 1910, with Americans growing increasingly alarmed about the frequency and deadliness of coal mine disasters, the federal government opened a working mine called the Pittsburgh Experiment Station at Bruceton near South Park to offer advanced training for miners and operators. A success as far as it went, the mine still exists. But as the nation's energy needs exploded, the government knew it would need more and better research on power generation from fossil fuels, and the modest station at Pittsburgh — in the heart of coal country — seemed an ideal place for it.

After a series of expansions and incarnations, the Bruceton site in 1999 was designated a key component of the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), one of the US Department of Energy's 21 national laboratories and technology centers. Thus, when heads of state arrived in Pittsburgh for the G-20 summit, they convened in a region providing much of the world's energy on energy. NETL strives to enhance America's energy security, mitigate the environmental impact of energy production and use, and increase the competitiveness and reliability of US energy systems. That's a big-time mission, and NETL addresses it with big-time dollars. It operates five sites — including a major installation at Morgantown, WV—with a $1.61 billion budget that helps fund a research load encompassing more than 1,300 projects. In addition, the lab manages $941 million for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and expects to implement programs valued at $15.5 billion under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

As NETL has grown, the lab has changed its focus to match changing priorities. In the World War II era, for example, the lab was tasked with the mission of researching and developing synthetic fuels to strengthen America's hand in the war — and the Cold War that followed. As those tensions gave way to concerns about the environment, NETL shifted its emphasis accordingly. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the lab concentrated on such challenges as improving industrial scrubbers and related technology.

It was a major success and one that resonates with Tom Sarkus, NETL's deputy director, Office of Major Demonstrations, Strategic Center for Coal. Sarkus was born a touch too late to experience directly the darkest, most polluted days in his native Donora, but the horror stories are part of his DNA. "We developed and demonstrated a number of technologies at large-utility scale that really helped to alleviate the problem of acid rain," Sarkus says. "That's not to say the problem doesn't persist in some areas. But nationwide, if you look at EPA maps in terms of acidity and emissions, you'll see that that problem has been addressed in large measure."

While NETL conducts its research exclusively in the US, it tests and demonstrates technologies developed anywhere and aims for worldwide implementation. "Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel resource in the United States and around the world," Sarkus says. "That's important because when you look at developing countries, they have coal reserves that they intend to use. That presents for us in America an opportunity and an obligation to develop and supply technologies that will enable them to use their coal resources in a clean and responsible way."

That is not a universally accepted notion. Indeed, when protesters take to our streets and parks during the G-20 summit, among their beefs will be what they perceive as the attempt by the most affluent nations to stifle the economies of developing countries, in part by imposition of technologies that the industrial giants never bothered to use themselves. However one might view that issue, the impact of NETL on energy development — and the economy of the tri-state area — is undeniable. NETL estimates that it contributes about $150 million annually to local economies through payroll, benefits and business expenditures. Of the 1,200 people who work at NETL sites, about half are site-support contractors providing everything from IT assistance to human resources and maintenance services. Moreover, nearly every NETL research undertaking is a joint effort with local partners — including energy companies and universities.

In 2009 alone, NETL expects to funnel nearly $290 million to such projects in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, a healthy infusion for the regional economy. "Ours are not always technologies looking for a market," Sarkus says. "We're quite proud of that. They're technologies designed to fill a market need. That means we have a close, cooperative and quite successful working relationship with industry. We don't go in and order or direct. We ask, 'How would you do this?'" Joe Culver, NETL spokesman, notes that this collaborative approach has another important benefit. "The federal government must hire something like 12,000 people to replace folks who are leaving," he says. "Through our projects with Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, Penn State and West Virginia University, we're helping develop the next generation of engineers and scientists."

Current and recently concluded NETL projects in Pennsylvania — all 99 of them — illustrate the lab's broad reach. Among those initiatives are: A $6.25 million project with a consortium spearheaded by Penn State to develop and promote carbon products produced from coal. This effort coupled with a number of carbon-capture initiatives could help "preserve the coal option," as Sarkus puts it, by reducing the volume of carbon-based gases vented into the air through coal burning. A $653,210 undertaking with Breen Energy Solutions of Pittsburgh to explore deployment of waste coal as a reburn fuel, an advance that could extend the life of coal reserves and make lower-grade coal more commercially viable.

A $100,000 project with Media and Process Technology Inc. of Pittsburgh to develop ways of upgrading lower-quality natural gas. A $50,000 effort with Pitt to explore the use of ice as a coolant in power generation, an improvement that could increase output while reducing the need for increasingly precious water. A $50,000 collaboration with Homestead's GAI Consultants to test recycled materials for use in walking and bike trail surfaces — a sliver of the pie, perhaps, but noteworthy nevertheless for its potential direct impact on end users.

A multiphase collaboration with China's state-run Shenhua Group to study the long-term ecological, environmental and economic impact of a coal liquefaction facility under construction in Inner Mongolia. Concurrent Technologies Corp. of Johnstown coordinated the study, a case where development needs and environmental sensitivity dovetailed, using personnel and expertise from WVU. China reports that the complex is more than 75 percent complete. Sarkus sees technologies related to climate change and carbon storage — sequestration, as it's known in the biz — as the emerging new focus for NETL. "They're on the policy screen in Washington and capitals around the world," he says. "By the same token, they're in the research labs as well. As researchers, we need technology ready to roll out when regulations take effect, so we have to be looking forward at least five years or more. We're working on a portfolio of technologies that will help address these issues."

Images courtesy NETL
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