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Renewable energy lab working to bridge gap from idea to market

By Jean Lotus
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Renewable energy lab working to bridge gap from idea to market
David Moore, NREL staff scientist, calls himself a "perovskite evangelist." Photo by Dennis Schroeder/NREL

GOLDEN, Colo., April 22 (UPI) -- Innovations emerging from Colorado's National Renewable Energy Labs last year captured the world's imagination:  Paint-on solar panels, plastic-eating bacteria, windows that double as solar collectors. But taking those proven "clean tech" ideas out of the lab and into consumer products has proved to be a complicated, years-long process.

NREL is trying to streamline the research-to-product pipeline this year by opening up opportunities for industry and the private sector to move faster into renewable products.

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Next month, NREL's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center will bring researchers, companies and investors together in the lab's Industry Growth Forum, May 9-10 in Denver. The agency has also developed new contests for solar energy innovation and lithium battery recycling.

For more than 40 years, NREL has been working on big-picture projects under the U.S. Department of Energy's goals to reduce the cost to "3 cents or less per kilowatt hour" for utility-scale renewable energy by 2030.

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The challenge has been getting the products to market.

Solar panels, windows

One technology that is stuck in the lab is "paintable" perovskite photovoltaic solar cells. Perovskite was named after 19th-Century Russian mineral expert Lev Perovski. It's not a mineral itself, but a mix of minerals whose molecules line up in a cube-and-diamond structure. The structure is similar to silicon, but doesn't require melting the material at thousands of degrees Celcius, said David Moore, staff scientist and self-styled "perovskite evangelist."

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Because silicon requires so much heat to melt, it takes about four years of electricity generated by a silicon solar panel to replace the amount of power used to build it.

Brittle silicon crystals must be housed in rigid solar panels. But perovskite cells can layered so thinly they can be applied as a paint, or even printed on rollers as strips. Perovskite can also be colored and used for LEDs and lasers. Moore believes the material is "probably the future of most optical electronics."

"Imagine PV everywhere -- PV cars, PV backpacks," Moore told UPI. His vision is "ubiquitous electricity that's almost free."

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Consumers are hungry for renewable energy products in their homes. When NREL scientist Lance Wheeler discovered technology for a perovskite glass switchable solar window that  absorbs heat in the winter and turns clear in warm weather, NREL's phones lit up with people asking how to order them, Moore said.

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But the industry just isn't there yet.

"There's a big gap between 2 square inches of material to something that can be installed on a house," Moore said.

Costly development

Part of the problem for clean-tech companies is a perilous funding journey across the financial commercialization "valley of death," Moore said. Funds are plentiful in the research and development stage (often subsidized by universities or the government) and then again at the other end of the timeline, when consumers buy the products. But money dips dangerously low when companies are developing the products.

That's the stage where most clean-tech companies go broke.

To help bridge the valley, NREL's Process Development and Integration Lab, actively seeks to help industry partners. Like a "maker space" for solar researchers, the lab is filled with giant multimillion-dollar atomic cluster tools and other pricey equipment. About eight companies are partnering in the lab now.

One partner company, Rochester, N.Y.-based Energy Materials Corp., is repurposing equipment in the old Eastman Kodak processing plant to print perovskite solar film on high-speed roll-to-roll printing machines.

New science contests are another way NREL is encouraging local renewable energy scientists, tinkerers and underfunded startups. The American Made Solar Prize offers two rounds of $3 million in prizes, starting with anyone who can submit "industry-relevant problems and possible solutions."  NREL also sponsors a Department of Energy Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Prize.

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NREL is one of 17 national laboratories run by the U.S. Department of Energy. In the 1970s, it was called the Solar Energy Research Institute, until it was named a national lab in 1991. NREL generated $1.1 billion for the U.S. economy in 2017, according to a study by the University of Colorado. The lab employs about 1,800 scientists on its  327-acre campus in Golden. The agency researches non-petroleum-based sources of energy: solar, wind and biofuels.

President Donald Trump's initial 2020 budget proposed slashing nearly 70 percent of funds for solar energy research, but Congress restored those funds and even increased NREL's budget by 15 percent.

Plastic-eating bacteria

Interest poured in from around the world after NREL's announcement that biologists had stumbled on an enzyme that dissolves plastic, said Gregg Beckham, senior research fellow in the agency's biology department. The research has been proposed as a way to eventually solve the crisis of plastic waste pollution.

A million polyethylene terephthalate plastic bottles are sold every day and only about 14 percent are recycled. About 160 million pounds of plastic waste floats in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch alone.

With scientists at the University of Portsmouth in England, Beckham's team isolated an enzyme present in a bacterium found dissolving plastic in a Japanese dump in 2016. The bug appeared to have an extra-strong enzyme found in nature that breaks down cutin, a protective coating found in plants. Zapping the enzymes with lasers to degrade them, the team accidentally made the enzyme more powerful by about 20 percent, and there was more room to improve, Beckham said.

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That meant that theoretically, plastic waste could be broken down by enzyme-loaded bacteria into reusable materials "in a few months" as opposed to a few centuries, NREL Senior Scientist Bryon Donohoe said in a press release.

To break down PET on an industrial scale, "the enzyme still needs to be faster," Beckham said. The lab is publishing a paper this year looking at how PET might be dissolved industrially in a cost-effective way.

Composite plastics

Meanwhile, using the bacteria-dissolved components of PET, plastics scientist Nicholas Rorrer is "upcycling" them to form fiberglass-reinforced plastics used in composite manufacturing.

"Snowboards are my favorite example of composite plastics," Rorrer said.  

The research is creating a financial incentive to recycle trash PET. Reclaimed PET sells for about 30 cents per pound, but composite plastics can sell for $2.60 per pound.

The team is also exploring whether PET trash plastics could be broken down and then re- combined with bioplastics made of plant matter, or whether new plastics could include a "Trojan horse" mechanism that would dissolve the plastic after a certain time.

These ideas are still at the laboratory stage and will take years to be turned into industrial-scale businesses.

But Beckham is optimistic that plastic-eating enzymes will play a role in the future of dealing with the world's plastic pollution.

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Soon after the news of their research broke, the team started to get calls and email from students asking for the mutant enzyme for "high school science fair-type projects," he said. There were so many requests that NREL placed the copies of the enzyme at a nonprofit biological repository.

That gives Beckham hope for the future.

An economy in the United States based on the use of renewable energy and energy-efficient tech will "save money, create jobs and make the world a better place for us and our descendants," Beckham said. "If you can't get behind that, I don't know what you can get behind."

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