In nature, seedlings and saplings are young trees, new and full of potential. At the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO), seedlings and saplings refer to a type of national laboratory research project—supported with small “seed” funds—focused on exploring new ideas and innovative concepts.

“The goal of the Seedling and Sapling Program is to fund a large number of small high-risk, high-reward projects where national lab researchers can investigate new research pathways,” said Rukmani Vijayaraghavan, Innovation and Market Transformation Advisor in WPTO. “We want early-career researchers to have the opportunity to lead projects and bring in new ideas and fresh perspectives. We also want to allow researchers to ‘fail’ safely because learning what doesn’t work is just as valuable in research as inventing the next pathbreaking technology.”

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In 2019, WPTO established the Seedling Program (now the Seedling and Sapling Program) to provide smaller funding awards for national laboratory researchers to explore niche projects and creative ideas in hydropower and marine energy.

U.S. Department of Energy

So far, in the four years since it was established, the Seedling and Sapling Program has invested in nearly 100 projects across six national laboratories, including 28 projects announced last fall. As Seedlings, projects can receive $50,000 to $100,000. Promising Seedling projects are eligible to apply for follow-on “Sapling” funding and receive up to $500,000 to continue their research. Sapling projects build on the exploratory research carried out in the Seedling stage and further research and development or commercialization-focused activities.

Here are just a few examples of the creative and innovative work underway as part of the Seedling and Sapling Program.

Seedlings Explore Opportunities for Hydropower and Impacts of Climate Change

Climate change can create challenges for the management of water resources and hydropower infrastructure. Data collection and modeling advancements are crucial to make better informed planning decisions, especially at the scale of individual water basins, to enhance water and energy resources’ resilience related to hydropower. To help address these challenges, several Seedlings are developing new approaches or enhancing existing ones to model and collect data. For example, one project, led by Debjani Singh at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, will focus on modeling the impact of climate change on water quality and assessing potential risks to hydropower reservoir operations.

Meanwhile, several Seedling projects are exploring the challenges of adding power-generating infrastructure to non-powered dams. Of the more than 90,000 dams in the United States, less than 3% generate hydropower. One project, led by Jakob Meng and Shiloh Elliot at Idaho National Laboratory, is even evaluating the potential to retrofit non-powered dams to serve as “black start” resources, which help the electricity grid restart and recover after a blackout.

Another project, led by Nicole Mendoza and David Greene at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), focuses on water equity and justice related to hydropower projects. Researchers will develop a roadmap to help identify opportunities where hydropower development could benefit disadvantaged communities and improve the accessibility, affordability, and availability of clean water.

Marine Energy Saplings Investigate Innovative Materials and Devices

Marine energy technologies face several challenges and barriers toward deployment in the water. One key barrier is survival in the ocean, and researchers are investigating materials that can last in salty, corrosive environments. For example, one project, led by Aashish Rohatgi at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), involves the evaluation of laser surface processing on steels to protect against corrosion. In previous Seedling and Sapling work, this process has been shown to improve the ability of aluminum alloys to resist corrosion.

Researchers are also exploring innovative marine energy devices. One project, led by Ravi Kishore at NREL, is aimed at developing and demonstrating a working prototype of a thermomagnetic generator for ocean thermal energy conversion. This form of marine energy creates power from temperature differences in the ocean. These devices can operate at temperature differences as small as 2 degrees Celsius and could eventually be used to power devices like sensors on ocean-observing systems.

Another project, led by Molly Grear and Ruth Branch at PNNL, will develop a plan for a possible demonstration project with tidal energy systems for kelp or oyster farms, which need power for things like lights and environmental monitoring, processing, and other operational equipment. These farms are typically located where tidal currents are too slow for existing technologies to create energy. Researchers will test a tidal energy device prototype specifically suited to the conditions expected at farm sites.

Seedling and Sapling projects have shown how small, risky projects have the potential to lead to significant technological developments, eventually becoming full-grown trees. These advancements have the potential to help modernize and expand the country’s hydropower fleet and accelerate marine energy technology development.


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