Wednesday, October 1, 2008

INL touts alternative energy research

Nuclear projects still top list in importance

Express Staff Writer

Idaho National Laboratory engineer Kevin Young works with fifth-grade students at Bellevue Elementary School on Thursday as part of a public relations tour by the lab. "We want the communities to understand that we’re here," said INL Deputy Laboratory Director David Hill. "We work on more than nuclear issues." Photo by

Since 1949 the Idaho National Laboratory has had a scientific research and nuclear storage and engineering presence in Idaho, but since Feb. 1, 2005, that presence has been getting a little bit greener.

Three years ago, Battelle Energy Alliance assumed a $686 million annual government contract to work on a myriad of energy-related issues including nuclear, wind, solar and hybrid-electric automobiles. That budget grew to $795 million last year.

"Prior to three years ago it was all clean-up. Now the contract is split," said Deputy Laboratory Director David Hill. "We're the research part of that."

Hill and other lab representatives traveled through the Wood River Valley on Thursday, Sept. 25, as part of a public relations tour. They met with students at area schools and made stops at newspaper offices and at an evening meeting in Ketchum.

"We're a resource for the state, and we work on national issues," Hill said. "We want the communities to understand that we're here. We work on more than nuclear issues."

The 900-square-mile federal complex on the Snake River Plain east of Arco has long been the largest repository of waste from the nuclear Navy, and clean-up efforts are ongoing. But Hill and others in his traveling group stressed Thursday that the lab is working on important energy-related research as well.

Nuclear is still the lion's share of the work, and resources are pouring into research on a so-called next-generation nuclear plant, which would do more than provide electricity as traditional reactors have and would operate at higher temperatures.

According to INL's Web site, the heat generated by the high-temperature reactor can be used to run more efficient turbines, to produce electricity for homes, and to use the residual steam from that process to manufacture plastic components from raw materials or generate ammonia for fertilizer.

"It may transpire that nuclear plus bio doesn't make sense, but we're in the business of providing the data," Hill said.

Of the $800 million spent last year, Hill said Battelle spent $500 million on nuclear, $230 million on homeland security, including testing of armors, and $60 million on "systems," which includes biological renewable energy, vehicles, industrial and battery testing.

Battelle employs about 4,000 of the 7,000 people working at the site.

"The nation is coming back around to nuclear, and for good reason," Hill said. "Now I need to be clear. Nuclear alone can't (accommodate power needs). The energy problem in the future is so severe. In my opinion it's all of the above."

Energy Security Initiative Director Steve Aumeier agreed.

"We're looking for ways to do energy smarter," he said. "Nuclear's the lead, but we've got to go beyond nuclear."

Aumeier said it's primarily about taking a "systems" approach to piecing together the energy puzzle.

"What we really do is put together energy systems," he said. "Because of our nuclear capacity we've really built up the capacity to study energy systems, so you see these offshoots."

The lab's wind program, for example, is not focused on building a better turbine—it's focused on putting together a better wind system that can work in conjunction with other methods of power generation.

"It's kind of a unique niche, and it's going to become more important," he said.

Hill called it the "lowest hanging fruit to reducing the carbon footprint."

Jim Francfort does the lab's advanced vehicle testing. What that means is he works with hydrogen, hybrid, electric and hybrid-electric cars.

"The biggest question when it comes to electric vehicle testing is batteries, batteries, batteries," Francfort said.

He has more than 100 test vehicles deployed in 17 states and three Canadian provinces. Among the studies being conducted is one examining the impact of automobile charging on the power grid at different times of the day.

Aumeier said the data collected on vehicle testing will ultimately be very important. Some of the plug-in hybrid cars the lab is testing get 100-plus miles per gallon if not driven too aggressively.

But Battelle's contract is for homeland security purposes as well.

The 900 square miles is an important asset, Hill said. The company can carry out "fairly large explosions" and test armors. Also, he said the site's cellular telephone network is the only place in the country where foreign frequencies can be run.

"It's got all the infrastructure of a city," Aumeier said.

Though INL is working on an array of energy sources, its thrust is still nuclear.

There are 17 national laboratories scattered around the country. Of those, 10 are multi-program and three are energy specific. Though under Battelle, INL is pursuing alternative energies research, it does not intend to compete with other labs like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

"We don't seek to be a bigger renewable energy lab than the NREL," Hill said.

Idaho House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, spent the majority of the day Thursday touring the Wood River Valley with lab personnel. She said that if Idahoans want to see more money spent on renewable energy programs, they should talk with their congressional representatives.

Though only $60 million of last year's $800 million budget was spent on renewable energies, Jaquet was optimistic about that presence in Idaho.

"I don't care how small it is, really," she said. "People need to think of them as a resource. And I'm grateful that we have that kind of revenue coming to the state. I'd rather that it be looking at more renewable-type initiatives, but we can help push for more non-nuclear funding, too."

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