This article is part of the Energy.gov series highlighting the “Top Things You Didn’t Know About…” Be sure to check back for more entries soon.
Encompassing three research sites and two offices in five separate states -- Alaska, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia -- the Energy Department’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) has a 104‑year history of conducting and sponsoring research to benefit the American people. Today, NETL’s programs and people proudly work to advance energy options that fuel the nation’s economy, strengthen national security and improve the environment.
10. NETL could be called both the oldest and newest of the Energy Department’s National Labs. The history of NETL’s Pittsburgh site stretches back to 1910, when the newly created Bureau of Mines in the U.S. Department of the Interior opened the Pittsburgh Experiment Station in Bruceton, Pennsylvania, 12 miles south of Pittsburgh. The station’s original purpose was to investigate mining methods that would lower the number of fatal explosions and fires in U.S. underground coal mines. It wasn’t until 1999 that the Secretary of Energy elevated what was then the Federal Energy Technology Center to National Laboratory status, and NETL was born.
9. The first woman to head one of the Energy Department’s National Labs was NETL’s Rita Bajura, who was at the helm of the Federal Energy Technology Center in 1999 when it became NETL. Bajura guided the laboratory until her retirement in 2005.
8. The first trip under the North Pole was made possible by materials research at what is now NETL’s Oregon site. In the 1940s, researchers at the site developed a method called the Kroll process to produce high-quality zirconium affordably and in quantity. This caught the attention of the U.S. Navy, which selected zirconium to clad the fuel rods in its planned nuclear navy. When the U.S.S. Nautilus, the world’s first atomic-powered submarine, reached the geographic North Pole on August 3, 1958, Kroll-process zirconium was in the reactor’s core. Today, nearly all of the zirconium produced for reactor use is still made using the Kroll process.
7. The United States is experiencing a natural gas revolution, thanks in no small part to NETL. In the 1970s, with domestic oil and gas production declining, NETL launched research and development programs to tap the hydrocarbons in unconventional resources, such as low-permeability rocks and shale. Fast forward to today: natural gas production from unconventional resources is booming, U.S. natural gas production is higher than at any other time in history, and the United States is projected to become a net exporter of natural gas by 2018 -- the first time since 1957.
6. Like trees? In the 1980s, with acid rain threatening hardwood forests in the northeastern United States, NETL conducted and sponsored research that slashed emissions of two of the main culprits: sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) from coal-fired power plants. Advanced pollutant-control devices developed with support from NETL -- technologies such as flue gas desulfurization units, low-NOx burners, and selective catalytic reduction systems -- are now installed on 75 percent of America’s coal plants, and emissions of SO2 and NOx from these plants are less than a third of what they were in 1990.
5. Like fish? In the 1990s, NETL initiated a comprehensive research and development program to develop cost-effective technologies to remove mercury from power plant flue gases. The premier technology to come out of this program: activated carbon injection, which can remove 85-95 percent of the mercury in flue gas at a fraction of the cost before the program. The EPA estimates that half of the nation’s current coal-based power plant capacity will install this technology over the next five to 10 years, helping to prevent heavy metal from entering the nation’s waterways, bioaccumulating in fish and entering the food chain.
4. Researchers at one of NETL’s predecessor laboratories once blew up a coal mine, just to make a point. The date was October 30, 1911. The mine was at the Pittsburgh Experiment Station. The point was that coal dust alone could explode given the right flame or spark; no methane gas needed. The flames shot 500 feet out of the mine’s three entrances during the planned explosion, proving the researchers right. The dramatic demonstration likely saved hundreds, if not thousands, of miners’ lives.
3. Researchers at what is now NETL’s Pittsburgh site helped design the trigger for the first atomic bomb. In 1943, with two competing designs under consideration -- the gun model and the implosion model -- the head of the Ordnance Engineering Group for the Manhattan Project traveled to Pittsburgh to enlist the help of the Explosives Research Laboratory in testing the implosion model. Following this initial testing, several Pittsburgh researchers joined staff from Los Alamos National Lab to perfect the process. The hard work and collaboration paid off when the first successful test explosion of an atomic bomb, using the implosion model, took place in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945.
2. NETL’s focus on applied research leading to technology deployment to the marketplace has paid off in both patents and awards. The U.S. patent office has issued the Lab more than 650 fossil-energy patents since 1976, and the Lab has earned 21 R&D 100 Awards in the past 10 years.
1. Materials research at NETL has crossed over into the medical field -- and saved lives. In 2000, a subsidiary of Boston Scientific contacted NETL researchers to tap into the laboratory’s metallurgical expertise. Working together, Boston Scientific and NETL developed a unique platinum-chromium alloy that offers several advantages over traditional coronary stents: increased strength and flexibility, higher corrosion resistance, greater long-term stability and less likelihood of constriction after deployment. Since their commercial introduction in 2010, stents made from this alloy have captured 25 percent of the U.S. coronary stent market and generated more than $6 billion in sales.