Alaska's remote location and vast wilderness contribute both to its beauty and its challenges.
I was fortunate to visit Fairbanks recently to participate in Alaska National Lab Day. This event brought together leaders from the Department of Energy's national laboratories and key Alaskan stakeholders from academia, the private sector and government to address energy, environmental and security challenges. Senator Lisa Murkowski and senior DOE leadership also were present.
PNNL is helping shape a clean and sustainable energy future — not just in Alaska, but across our entire region and great nation.
Participants shared insights about the impact of climate change in the Arctic and how clean energy solutions might mitigate these impacts — with the goals of increasing sustainability and resiliency, spurring innovation and creating jobs.
With these goals in mind, PNNL and the University of Alaska Fairbanks announced an overarching agreement to collaborate on research related to energy, the environment and security.
For example, PNNL and UAF plan to explore new approaches to generating renewable energy from rivers and ocean waves, enhancing the reliability and resiliency of energy systems, monitoring aquatic environments and developing innovative underwater technologies. These collaborations also will provide opportunities for UAF faculty and graduate students to work with PNNL scientists.
While this agreement is new, PNNL's work in Alaska began nearly 30 years ago, following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. PNNL researchers helped assess the ecological impacts of the spill and, over time, helped determine the success of cleanup efforts.
Our scientists and engineers also have worked on novel energy and environmental research projects, the names of which give a sense of the ingenuity at work and align with Alaska's state motto, "North to the future." These projects, described in more detail below, include powering communities via "microgrids," unlocking the power of "fire ice," analyzing underwater video with "EyeSea" and taking the "ArcticShark" for a test flight.
Alaska has about 200 microgrid power systems operating in isolation — often in remote areas — that are not connected to larger energy systems and depend mostly on imported diesel fuel. Not only can these microgrids be unreliable, they are expensive to build, maintain and operate. In one project within DOE's Alaska Microgrid Partnership, PNNL and collaborators are advancing next-generation, hybrid power systems in an effort to replace half of the diesel fuel used for heating and generating electricity in three rural communities.
Other research seeks to develop an environmentally sustainable and cost-effective process to unlock methane hydrates—or fire ice—a vast energy source locked away in ice cages on the ocean floor and under Arctic permafrost. The key is to exchange the methane molecules with either carbon dioxide or nitrogen to maintain the hydrate's structure while releasing the methane. Our scientists are using a subsurface modeling tool developed at PNNL to explore this process and make it possible to produce natural gas hydrates in Alaska and beyond.
On the environmental front, PNNL's software engineers developed a tool that helps determine how tapping marine energy resources — including waves, tides and currents — may impact wildlife. This software, called EyeSea, automates the analysis of underwater video footage and detects when fish and mammals are near marine or river turbines. It can help energy operators and developers streamline site selection and municipal permitting processes, as well as meet monitoring requirements at future hydrokinetic energy sites.
Lastly, PNNL pilots are taking the ArcticShark — a one-of-a-kind, unmanned aerial vehicle — for test flights in Pendleton, Ore. Part of DOE's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility, the ArcticShark is being equipped with cutting-edge scientific instruments that will gather polar atmospheric data over the tundra and sea ice on Alaska's North Slope. This data will help improve earth system computer models.
With efforts like these and others, PNNL is helping shape a clean and sustainable energy future — not just in Alaska, but across our entire region and great nation.
Steven Ashby, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly. His other columns and opinion pieces are available here.