A researcher at the Joint Bioenergy Institute at Berkeley National Lab chooses bacteria colonies in their efforts to create a game-changing biofuel from sustainable, energy-dense plants, such as switchgrass. The JBEI is one example of the ability for Energy Department labs to form scientific partnerships designed to hurdle an energy barrier with transformative technology. | Photo courtesy of Berkeley National Lab.

The products of scientific research are how we define our modern life. Medical procedures using advanced hardware help us live longer. Fuel-efficient vehicles and innovative emissions technology allow us to travel further for less money with a reduced impact on the environment. If history is any guide, investments in science and technology help strength the economy and increase job creation. 

A recent report by the National Academies puts a number on this return. It notes that the return on investment is $1.20 to $1.67 for every federal dollar spent on research and development (depending on the industry). The return occurs when publicly funded researchers develop technology that either creates industries, or changes an existing industry. The National Labs have a proud history of making available these technologies to entrepreneurs, and working with industry to transfer their innovations to market.

Recently, America's Next Top Energy Innovator Challenge offered startup companies access to the 15,000 patents (in the past, we’ve used the stat: 15,000 patent and patent applications) held by the National Labs, at a reduced cost. As a result, 36 companies signed 43 option agreements allowing them to license the cutting-edge technologies. It's not just energy technology that's coming from the labs either.

One of the little-known technologies born at the National Labs is digital-to-optical recording and playback -- probably better known for its application in burning and playing CDs and DVDs. James Russell, a senior scientist at Pacific Northwest Laboratory, patented the technology in 1970. A couple decades later, when the market was right, entrepreneurs brought the technology to consumers.  

Another big breakthrough happened in 1991 when the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center scientists, seeking to share particle physics information, were the first to install a web server in North America, kick-starting the development of the internet as we know it. There are dozens of examples of Lab technology in our daily lives and they aren't stopping. 

There other ‘game changers’ on the horizon, such as:

  • Gasoline and diesel-like biofuels generated from lumber waste, crop wastes, solid waste and non-food crops;
  • Automobile batteries with better energy density that can survive 15 years of deep discharges;
  • Photovoltaic solar power with a fully installed cost four times cheaper than today’s technology;
  • Computer design tools for commercial and residential buildings to enable reductions in energy consumption of up to 80 percent; and
  • Large-scale energy storage systems so that variable renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power can become base-load power generators.

According to economic experts, science-driven technology has been responsible for over 50 percent of the growth of the U.S. economy during the last half century, and the Energy Department has played an important role in that growth. The Department’s Office of Science runs the National Labs, which are in a unique position to form multi-disciplinary groups of scientists and engineers from national labs, academia and the private sector. 

The Department supports research critical to maintaining leadership in key scientific fields including biotechnology, materials science, nanotechnology and supercomputing, all of which are essential to the development of advanced energy technologies. In short, the Energy Department’s investment in research is essential to our nation’s future competitiveness and a critical component of the federal scientific and innovation enterprise. 

As evidenced above and throughout our history, the Energy Department strives to find solutions to the most complex and pressing challenges. The National Labs play a leadership role in transforming the energy economy through investments in research, developing new technologies and deploying innovative approaches. 

As John Hopkins University’s former president William R. Brody explains, "Knowledge drives innovation; innovation drives productivity; productivity drives our economic growth. That's all there is to it."


Kate Bannan
Kate Bannan is a Communications and Outreach Specialist for the Department of Energy’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI). Kate Bannan is a Communications and Outreach Specialist for the Department of Energy’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI).
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