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Being grateful and going green at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Published in the Tri-City Herald November 22, 2016, authored by Lab Director Steven Ashby

Being grateful and going green at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

November 22, 2016
Source: Tri-City Herald, reposted with permission from Tri-City Herald

  • Jason Zhang

    PNNL researcher Jason Zhang and his colleagues are striving to improve the electrodes and electrolytes in batteries that power today's electric vehicles. PNNL leads Battery500, a multi-institutional partnership that is exploring options for creating powerful, next-generation lithium batteries for electric cars. Courtesy PNNL

  • Blue-green algae-Synechococcus 7002

    Algae: PNNL researchers are studying this form of blue-green algae—Synechococcus 7002 to be precise—because it flourishes when exposed to light while its counterparts typically slow their growth in the same conditions. This organism and its quick growth make it an attractive target for better, less-expensive biofuels. Courtesy PNNL

  • Hans Bernstein

    PNNL's Hans Bernstein and his colleagues study bacteria, including blue-green algae, to learn how they convert light energy into other forms of energy. Their research can help increase production and reduce costs biofuels in the future. Courtesy PNNL


    PNNL developed VOLTTRON, a platform that enables appliances and devices to communicate among each other to prioritize power needs and deliver electricity accordingly. The free, open-source technology allows equipment to make decisions and automatically adjust energy loads based on pre-determined criteria such as energy prices, essential services or comfort levels. In one study involving grocery store refrigeration cases, it saved energy by allowing the switch from regularly scheduled defrost cycles to defrosting only when sensors indicated it was necessary. Courtesy PNNL


Thanksgiving is a time for us to reflect on our many blessings, and being a part of the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is one for which I am especially grateful.

I am fortunate to work with 4,400 talented and dedicated colleagues who advance scientific frontiers and deliver amazing technological innovations. I sincerely appreciate their commitment to PNNL's success; and I thank their families and our neighbors for their strong support of the Laboratory as well.

Many of us will fly and drive to visit family and friends this holiday season, and for the most part, this travel combusts fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

Thanksgiving also is the beginning of the hectic holiday travel season and the harbinger of shorter, colder days. We are reminded daily of the important role that energy plays in getting us from point A to point B, illuminating the spaces around us and keeping our appliances humming. At PNNL, we are conducting research and development aimed at improving the sustainability of travel and reducing our energy usage.

Many of us will fly and drive to visit family and friends this holiday season, and for the most part, this travel combusts fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Researchers at PNNL, with our academic and industry partners, are exploring ways to replace fossil fuels with renewable, bio-based alternatives.

For example, we are teaming with LanzaTech to develop a bio-based jet fuel. The process involves converting alcohols derived from captured carbon monoxide — a byproduct of steel production — into synthetic paraffinic kerosene. LanzaTech and Virgin Atlantic will work with Boeing and others to test this sustainable jet fuel in a proving flight next year.

PNNL researchers also are investigating the fundamental chemistry of biofuels so that we might improve production and reduce costs. In one study, we are examining why a particular strain of blue-green algae grows better in bright light when other strains have the opposite reaction. Understanding how this organism builds the molecular machinery to convert light and carbon dioxide into new growth could lead to processes that produce greater quantities of bio-fuels faster and cheaper.

PNNL is also committed to making automobile travel more sustainable. Today, electric vehicles represent less than one percent of the automobiles on the road. Developing smaller, lighter, cheaper and safer batteries is key to increasing these numbers. PNNL material scientists and their collaborators are tackling this challenge in our Advanced Battery Facility, where they test various materials in a quest to find better-performing alternatives to today's ubiquitous lithium-ion battery.

Shorter days mean the lights come on earlier and stay on longer, and PNNL researchers are working to improve lighting efficiency to reduce energy use. We directly support DOE's Municipal Solid-State Street Lighting Consortium and its more than 400 members. In addition to developing specifications and evaluating new products, PNNL provides technical support for the consortium's demonstrations. For example, we helped Seattle City Light convert 41,000 streetlights to LEDs, resulting in $2.5M in annual savings.

You may even find PNNL technology in your supermarket's refrigeration case when you purchase Thanksgiving turkey. Our breakthrough VOLTTRON™ technology, which controls power consumption within and across buildings, was tested by colleagues at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to run the case's defrost cycle only when sensors deem it necessary rather than on a fixed schedule. Their results suggest that energy usage by defrost cycles can be reduced 75 percent. If all U.S. supermarkets implemented this technology, the energy saved could power more than 200,000 homes.

These are just a few of the ways that PNNL is making our daily lives better for the environment and easier on our wallets. I am grateful to work with the outstanding people who are developing these solutions for the future. And all of us at PNNL are thankful for the support of our friends and neighbors in the Tri-Cities and beyond. Thank you!

Steven Ashby, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly. His other columns and opinion pieces are available here.

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