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At Brookhaven, scientists develop new energy technologies through a very distinct process – an “energy pipeline” of sorts. Marketable technologies come out of the far end of the pipeline, but they begin with an idea or discovery typically developed through basic research, the cornerstone of innovation and our best opportunity to develop breakthrough solutions for our ever-growing energy needs.
Once scientists identify a technology or idea through basic research or “use-inspired” research (basic research focused on a desired outcome), they refine it as it moves through the pipeline, exploring potential applications and further developing and eventually deploying the technology. Basic research is the foundation, but keeping all of these aspects engaged is crucial in order to keep the pipeline flowing.
Brookhaven has renewable energy projects moving through each step of the pipeline. All these projects focus on one or more of the key aspects of the energy cycle: production, transmission, storage, and use.
By far, our largest source of untapped power resides in the sun, which produces a steady-state output of more than 386 billion billion megawatts. Scientists estimate that 600 million megawatts of this power — equivalent to the output of more than half-a-million typical coal-burning power plants — could theoretically be captured and used on Earth. Our focus in this area is improving the efficiency and lowering the cost of photovoltaic cells and finding new ways to use the sun to directly produce fuels through artificial photosynthesis. We are also exploring advanced biofuels and fuel-cell catalysts.
Just as important as generating energy is effectively transmitting it to end users. Our aging electrical grid faces significant capacity, reliability, quality, and efficiency challenges that can be met by basic research. Brookhaven scientists are working with new classes of superconductors, materials that carry electrical current with no resistance, to help meet these challenges. One superconducting cable made out of these materials could take the place of 10 conventional copper transmission lines.
Challenges in this area are linked to the inherent limitations of today’s batteries, which, despite recent advances in the area of rechargeables, have been around in a basically unchanged form since Thomas Edison discovered the light bulb. Brookhaven researchers are studying new materials that can leapfrog over the limits of today’s batteries. Nanoscience plays a large role here, as batteries (chemical storage) and capacitors (physical storage) based on nanostructured materials may become the new paradigm.
Advances in materials, renewable fuels, storage, and energy delivery will transform everything from transportation to electronic devices to home heating and lighting. Some examples of “end-use” products that may emerge from this research include more powerful, efficient, cost effective and environmentally friendly fuel cells to power cars and homes, and high-efficiency, solid-state lighting to light our way and conserve power.
Brookhaven researcher Yimei Zhu with Brookhaven’s state-of-the-art
scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM).
STEM was partially funded by a $1.8 million grant from the NY State Office of Science, Technology & Academic Research (NYS TAR), part of the State’s effort to partner with Brookhaven, Stony Brook University, and other institutions in establishing the Empire State as a hub of nanotechnology development. STEM’s ability to image material behavior at the atomic scale will significantly advance the Lab’s energy related nanoscience research.
Identifying Basic Energy Research Needs
The Department of Energy’s Office of Science held a series of workshops involving top scientists from universities, industry, and national laboratories to identify the basic research needs for the nation’s energy security.
The “Basic Research Needs Workshop” series of reports identifies grand challenges and priority research directions that could provide breakthroughs in key scientific challenges to meet the energy needs of the 21st century.
The Lab has aligned its energy strategy to take on these challenges.
Click here to download the reports.
Last Modified: November 6, 2009