From Lab to Market: Examples of Clean Energy R&D

Department of Energy

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Research and development (R&D) is the unsung hero of American innovation. Government-funded R&D spurs new industries, creates jobs and helps us tackle our greatest challenges. Decades ago, that challenge was the space race; today, it is climate change.

Clean energy has never been cheaper. That’s a direct result of technological innovations made possible by investments in R&D 10, 20, even 30 years ago. This is significant progress, but it is not enough to meet our long-term climate goals. Put simply, we can’t beat climate change with only the technology we have today.

Clean energy innovation is the solution to climate change. … We don’t have the luxury of waiting for new technologies to emerge. We need to rapidly accelerate the pace of innovation to meet the climate challenge. -Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz

We are committed to driving that change. In fact, we’ve done it before. The Department of Energy is the single largest supporter of basic science R&D in the country, and our system of 17 National Laboratories is a scientific powerhouse -- home to the world’s brightest lasers, fastest supercomputers and most powerful particle accelerators. Our R&D has laid the groundwork for technologies that lower energy bills, decrease carbon emissions and improve our lives. 

Take a look at some of our favorite examples of clean energy R&D. To meet the challenge of our generation, we need more R&D wins like these.

SOLAR PANELS

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Solar is booming, and it’s no accident. After developing the first solar cell to exceed 30% conversion efficiency in 1994, researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have continued to pioneer solar technologies and break records. (NREL currently holds the record at 40.8% conversion efficiency, set in 2008). These breakthroughs have lowered costs and driven deployment, opening doors for today’s solar industry and spurring private investment in the clean energy economy.

LITHIUM ION BATTERIES

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The National Labs developed the lithium ion batteries that power our electronics and electric cars. In fact, the Chevy Volt runs on a battery that includes a groundbreaking cathode technology developed at Argonne National Lab from 2002 to 2010. Today, a team of labs called the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research is working to kickstart the next battery revolution in the hopes of transforming the grid and transportation.

LED LIGHTING

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Starting in 2000, the Energy Department has partnered with industry to help LEDs grow from a fledgling technology to an attractive alternative to incandescent light bulbs. In 2011, Philips Lighting North America won the first Energy Department L Prize, a competition designed to spur the development of ultra-efficient solid-state lighting products to replace common lighting technologies. The ability to hit the tough L Prize performance targets showed it could be done and drove others in the market to strive higher. Today, LEDs are more than 6 times more efficient than incandescent bulbs, and costs have fallen more than 85 percent.

WIND TURBINES

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R&D at the the National Renewable Energy Laboratory helped make wind power mainstream. Researchers designed high-efficiency airfoils that have reduced the cost of wind power by more than 80 percent over the past 30 years. Now deployed in wind farms nationwide, these turbines owe their existence to National Lab research. Today, companies from around the world use the National Wind Technology Center to develop experiment with newer designs incorporating new technologies from our National Labs. For example, advanced composites enable larger turbines than ever before and 3D printing the molds for turbine blade molds can dramatically reduce manufacturing costs.  

SUPERTRUCK

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In 2010 the Energy Department challenged long-haul truck manufacturers to increase the efficiency of tractor trailers by 50 percent. These big rigs haul 80 percent of the nation’s goods and account for 20 percent of all fuel consumed for transportation, so even modest increases can have a big impact. By the first milestone in the competition, one company more than doubled their truck’s efficiency. The Freightliner truck from Daimler Trucks North America achieved 115% freight efficiency improvement. The contest just entered a new round of research funding and teams are on track to meet or exceed the Department’s efficiency goals yet again. 

SMART GRID TECHNOLOGIES

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The Department of Energy is helping bring the nation’s electric grid into the 21st century. For example, the Energy Department used Recovery Act funds to install millions of smart meters across the country, devices that enable two-way communication between consumers and their utilities. And syncrophasers developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) give power grid operators a near-real-time picture of what is happening on the system. These technologies are lowering energy bills, allowing for more energy choices and resulting in fewer and shorter power outages. Now, researchers from 14 of the National Labs are working to ensure the grid can handle ever increasing sources of renewable energy and remains safe from cyber attacks. 

REFRIGERATORS

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Even though fridges have gotten bigger and have more features, they use about 25 percent less energy than they used to. It all started with an advanced compressor developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Columbus Products Company between 1978 and 1980. The new efficient compressor helped save consumers $6 billion in energy costs through the 1990s, and it spurred a wave of improvements in efficiency. Today, more than 100 million refrigerators in homes across the country use an advanced compressor that can trace its roots to the Department’s pioneering R&D in the late 1970s.

CARBON CAPTURE

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After years of research and development, carbon capture and storage technologies are emerging as an important tool for fighting climate change. In 2015 a group of Energy Department supported carbon capture projects safely and permanently stored 10 million metric tons of CO2. Having demonstrated the effectiveness of existing capture and storage technologies, the National Labs are working to develop new and better methods. For example, in the past year alone the National Energy Technology Laboratory developed an electrochemical process that recycles CO2 into fuel, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory invented microcapsules that absorb CO2 using a simple and inexpensive baking soda solution. 

NUCLEAR ENERGY

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The Energy Department was formed out of the Atomic Energy Commission, which was created after World War II to encourage development of nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes. From the first nuclear reactors to the third generation reactors operating today, the Energy Department has been on the forefront of nuclear energy R&D for more than 65 years. Nuclear power provides nearly 20% of the electricity in the United States (including 60 percent of our nation’s carbon-free electricity).  And now, scientists at Oak Ridge, Idaho, and Argonne National Laboratories are developing a new generation of technologies including advanced reactors and small modular reactors.