From Idea to Marketplace: NETL Brings Innovation to Life

By Joe Golden, DOE National Energy Technology Laboratory

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) and its predecessor organizations have focused on advancing coal-related technologies for more than a century. Today, the Lab generates impactful early-stage research and development that provides technological solutions for scale-up and commercialization by industry. At the same time, NETL amplifies commercialization potential by engaging in collaborative partnerships with public and private entities, universities and other national laboratories.

Technology Transfer at NETL

NETL is one of 17 DOE national labs, and one of three applied laboratories. The Lab is charged with discovering, integrating and maturing technology solutions to enhance the nation’s energy foundation and protect the environment for future generations. NETL researchers solve complex problems and develop technologies to enrich and secure our energy future. But it is only when these technologies transfer to industries that widespread benefits for the public are realized. Through regional and national partnerships across government, industrial and academic sectors, NETL plays a pivotal role in energy innovation, ensuring a clear pathway from idea to market.

The future of the coal sector depends on the advancement of cutting-edge, clean, coal-related research, and NETL is contributing significantly. The Lab is leading development in coal beneficiation, including coal to high-value materials, rare earth elements from coal and coal byproducts, advanced turbine research, materials for extreme environments, technologies for improving the existing fleet and technologies for the coal plants of the future.

To date, the Lab and its partners have achieved tech transfer successes related to coal, that include:

  • Arc position sensing technology that is designed for specialty metals applications and used to identify arc distribution conditions during arc melting. The patented, award-winning measurement technology allows operators to optimize processing to improve material yield, decrease energy use and improve safety systems – potentially reducing energy and material costs. The resulting highly refined materials are needed for advanced energy applications where defect-free specialty metals are crucial for high-efficiency energy systems. The technology was licensed by Ampere Scientific, and the NETL technology is now commercially available.
  • Low-cost, coal-derived cement additive that could lead to the construction of stronger and more durable roads and buildings by synthesizing graphene, a unique form of carbon only one atom thick, using abundant coal feedstocks. When added to cement, graphene imparts significant molecular-level improvements to the material’s mechanical strength, electrical conductivity and overall durability. This coal-derived graphene is 50–100 times less expensive than the usual method of using graphite. This research has attracted industry interest, and among other partnerships, the Lab launched a cooperative research and development agreement with Ramaco Carbon, a vertically integrated coal technology company based in Wyoming that combines coal resources with advanced research and modern manufacturing techniques to develop new products from coal.
  • Novel ionic liquids and polymers that provide a more efficient and economical process for carbon capture. The suite of technologies covering the synthesis and use of ionic liquids has been exclusively licensed to Liquid Ion Solutions, a Pittsburgh-based chemical manufacturing start-up. These materials and methods can improve the efficiency and economics of carbon capture processes in gasification-based or flue gas systems. Large-scale implementation of the technology could lead to significant progress in meeting national climate and energy goals.

An important doorway for technology transfer at the Lab is the use of DOE’s Lab Partnering Service (LPS). Launched in July 2018, the LPS helps potential investors/partners navigate the vast economic opportunities within the DOE complex by providing a single online access point for information from all national labs and facilities. The LPS website enables users to connect with technology experts at relevant DOE national labs, including NETL, learn about partnership possibilities and search technologies and patents available for licensing. Inquiries are routed to each lab’s Technology Transfer Office, which assists in answering questions and/or directing them to the appropriate individual within the DOE laboratory system.

Once connected with NETL, the Lab’s Technology Transfer team can offer a wide array of pathways for bringing technologies to market, including patent licensing opportunities, cooperative research and development agreements, memorandums of understanding and more.

Patent licensing opportunities are key components of NETL’s technology transfer approach. As a federal agency, NETL grants licenses that permit private companies to create, develop, use or sell a patented technology or process. NETL looks for licensing partners with a plan for technology development and marketing – a high probability for commercial success – and expects those partners to make the benefits of the technology reasonably accessible to the public.

The Power of Partnerships

NETL research directly supports early-stage technology development up to pilot-scale technology readiness levels (TRLs). However, the Lab also engages in collaborative partnerships with public and private entities, universities and other national laboratories that have strong potential to reach further TRLs, including up to commercialization by providing financial assistance. Coal-related projects include:

  • Coal-based nanomaterials used in computer memory devices that are facilitating commercialization opportunities for coal in high-tech industries. The nanomaterials were developed through a partnership with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Additionally, these coal-based nanomaterials improve energy consumption, processing speeds and durability of computer memory devices while reducing manufacturing costs.
  • Improved economics for rare earth products from coal that are reducing cost for pilot-scale extraction of rare earth elements (REEs) by roasting coal-based feedstocks upstream of an acid leaching process. Working with the University of Kentucky, the innovative process and facility consistently produce more than 80 percent concentration of mixed rare earths on an elemental basis (98 percent on an oxide basis) – among the highest quality REE product generated to date by external participants. Recent advancements in REE technologies accelerate the growth of our nation’s economy and strengthen national security by reducing dependence on foreign supplies of REE and providing additional economic opportunities to coal mining communities.
  • Harsh-environment temperature sensor for coal-fired boilers that will reduce operating costs and improve safety through greater operational control in power plant boilers. Virginia Tech partnered with the Lab on this project to develop an advanced harsh-environment sensor technology from concept to full industrial validation. The sensor system enables real-time, accurate and reliable temperature monitoring at distributed locations within a power plant’s boiler system – a breakthrough in ultra-high temperature sensing.

Achieving Commercial Success with the Technology Commercialization Fund

Despite the Lab’s many successes, NETL still faces tech transfer challenges because DOE funding may only support research and development efforts up to an early technology readiness level. The funding can expire before the technology is matured to a point where a business will enter into a cooperative R&D agreement or license the technology.

To overcome this challenge, DOE created the Technology Commercialization Fund (TCF), and each year, projects awarded to NETL under the TCF help bridge the gap in funding required to support the technology’s journey toward commercialization. As it is currently implemented, TCF is a nearly $20 million funding opportunity that can help mature promising energy technologies. The funds are matched with contributions from private partners with the goal of technology commercialization.

The TCF is designed to increase the number of energy technologies developed at DOE’s national labs that graduate to commercial development and achieve commercial success. The fund also enhances DOE’s technology transitions system with an enterprising and competitive approach to lab-industry partnerships. Through the TCF, the applied program offices and national laboratories can pursue a strategic, forward-looking, competitive approach to commercializing technologies from lab-industry collaborations.

Other Avenues for Commercialization

The path to commercialization isn’t always direct, and sometimes, just making the right connections can make a big impact. For example, DOE created its InnovationXLab summits to expand the commercial impact of the substantial investment in the national lab innovation portfolio.

InnovationXLab summits facilitate a two-way exchange of information and ideas among industry, universities, manufacturers, investors and end-use customers with innovators and experts from across the national labs and the broader DOE R&D complex. The events also catalyze public-private partnerships and commercial hand-offs using DOE’s extensive assets: technology, intellectual property, facilities, and world-leading scientists and researchers.

NETL is planning a DOE InnovationXLab event – CarbonX – focusing on carbon utilization, which NETL is uniquely qualified to address as the only national laboratory dedicated to fossil energy research. Researchers from NETL will join those from the other 16 national labs in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to discuss a wide range of topics, including carbon and the manufacturing supply chain, carbon processing and carbon engineering. The event will attract attendees from across the country to enable connections and commercialization opportunities at the decision-maker level.

Another alternative commercialization effort at NETL is the management of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. SBIR and STTR are programs established by Congress for federal agencies with large research and development budgets. These agencies set aside a fraction of their funding to support scientific excellence and technological innovation with investment of these federal research funds in critical American priorities to build a strong national economy. Clean coal and carbon management is one of the two topics for these programs, and each year NETL supports many innovative small businesses, including those that are women- and minority-owned.

Technology Solutions for Today and Options for Tomorrow

For decades, NETL and its predecessor organizations have worked to bolster coal-related technologies that have provided affordable and reliable power for generations. To that end, NETL plays a crucial role of convening technology in the fossil energy space. The Lab generates new technology and new knowledge, but it also stewards that technology development and helps to bring it to the marketplace.

Joe Golden is a technical writer at the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory.