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Two men stand between two cars looking at an electronic tablet. One of the cars is being filled with fuel.

NREL engineers Mike Simpson and Tony Markel plug in a Toyota plug-in hybrid electric vehicle as they run a test at the Energy Systems Integration Facility.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Connecting Tech to Market in New Ways

NREL has found the means to reach its goal of growing long-lasting relationships that bring scientific innovation to market.

Partnerships established by NREL take many forms. Each is unique. Yet, whether working with a photovoltaic startup or a major automaker, NREL has found the means to reach its goal of growing multiple, long-lasting relationships that bring scientific innovation to market.

The lab and its researchers have forged strong bonds with the likes of the California Energy Commission, General Motors, Toyota, Verizon, and federal agencies. There are currently approximately 650 active partnership agreements with entities other than the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). And while circumstances differ according to partners' business needs, some points show up consistently.

"There's a foundational element to the relationship that needs to be established right up front, often through multiple visits and meetings," said Ron Schoon of NREL's Commercial Partnerships office, which seeks to put a more strategic focus on significant partnerships with industry. Additionally, when the lab has an aligned vision with a partner, they find ways to mutually support one another for the common good. Underlying everything is an open-for-business approach, which may be the laboratory's secret advantage. Because NREL is an applied research lab, it is deeply rooted in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, and connecting to that market space is part of the lab's DNA.

"What separates us [from other DOE labs] is we do what we call 'mission-oriented tech transfer.' Little research is done that is not oriented toward market solutions and creating new energy-related technologies," said Bill Farris, NREL's associate laboratory director for Innovation, Partnering, and Outreach. "Our job's only done when an innovation is in wide use in the market, and positively impacting society."

In a sense, the lab not only "grows" innovations, it readies them for harvest in the market. And it does so cooperatively. The lab has more cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs) than any other DOE lab—even ones five times its size.

CRADAs allow the lab and partners to perform collaborative research while protecting a company's and NREL's existing intellectual property. This establishes a foundation for commercializing the results of the interaction, fostering a collaborative process.

But CRADAs don't just spring up. Seeds have to be planted, at times across an entire industry, as occurred in 1993 when the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles—which included NREL—was launched to speed hybrid-electric car development. That helped jumpstart decades of NREL research into alternative fuel vehicles as well as powertrains, batteries, and other components.

The Path to Partnerships is Fertile Ground

NREL and Toyota offer a good example of two partners working together to cultivate a robust relationship across a broad area. The kernels of the current engagements were sown years ago, and nurtured through meetings and industrywide discussions as they aligned their visions on clean transportation to benefit society.

In 2010 Tony Markel, a principal investigator in NREL's Transportation & Hydrogen Systems Center, was seeking partners to participate in vehicle-to-grid (V2G) research, a concept where plug-in electric vehicles communicate with the power grid. Markel found a collaborator at the Toyota Research Institute-North America in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and they established common ground while working together on a project in Boulder, Colorado—led by University of Colorado and Xcel Energy—evaluating the performance of prototype plug-in hybrid vehicles. In 2011, NREL and Toyota fashioned a technical services agreement (TSA) and worked together for a year on initial V2G research for Toyota.

As Markel and others tended it, the Toyota-NREL partnership started to sprout. Schoon joined in the meetings, listening to Toyota's needs and learning of significant interest in other transportation research at the lab beyond the V2G technologies. In 2011, Toyota's chairman of North American operations and other top executives stopped by NREL on a visit to Denver, helping lay a foundation that now includes regular executive visits to the lab from different parts of the Toyota organization.

Today, NREL's V2G work with Toyota has blossomed into a CRADA that includes a couple dozen vehicles being tested in the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) and several modifications to increase and extend the scope of the research. Currently, the breadth of the NREL-Toyota collaboration spans the sustainable transportation portfolio, involving numerous NREL research centers and groups within Toyota, both in North America and Japan. Multiple agreements exist between the lab and Toyota resulting in, among other things, advanced hydrogen fuel cell cars loaned to the lab for testing, biofuels research in the Integrated Biorefinery Research Facility, and a grid storage study.

As the bond deepened, reciprocity emerged. In 2012, when Toyota hosted its annual Future Mobility Seminar in Denver, the educational gathering was supported by the lab and included special NREL tours. Likewise, when NREL dedicated the ESIF in 2013, a Toyota vice-president was on hand to speak. These types of examples have grown out of this foundation and alignment.

"We see our partnership with NREL as an excellent example of public-private partnerships, where everyone benefits. We are proud of this partnership," said John Hanson, a Toyota spokesman.

And such collaboration helps nourish the industry, not just a single company. In June 2014, General Motors (GM) and NREL announced a CRADA to reduce automotive fuel cell stack costs using ESIF, building on a relationship dating back to 1993. GM is also collaborating with Honda on next-generation fuel cell and hydrogen storage systems.

Partnerships Spurred Beyond Industry

Naturally, not all relationships involve one other single organization. In those cases, a different approach is needed. For example, NREL was the lead for the National Advanced Biofuels Consortium (NABC), established in 2010 to develop biomass-based alternative fuels that can be "drop-in" replacements for gasoline and diesel fuel. Funded by DOE, the NABC was comprised of 17 partners from national labs, universities, and industry, including small companies. The goal: get one or more advanced biofuel to a pilot-ready state.

Four people in a laboratory setting look at scientific instruments.

NREL scientist Huyen Dinh and General Motors partners Paul Yu, Eric Bonn, and Balsu Lakshmanan look at the instruments in the Fuel Cell Development and Test Lab at the ESIF. GM and NREL are working together in a CRADA.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

"It was hugely successful. We were able to identify common areas of interests of organizations," said Tom Foust, director of the National Bioenergy Center. By the time they finished in December, 2013, "we exceeded the goal and were able to take two technologies to a pilot-ready state." Those two startups, Amyris and Virent, Inc., emerged to compete in the marketplace.

"We did achieve our goals of moving the technology forward," Foust said, but in addition, NREL continues to work with the companies as they improve their concepts. "We also formed ongoing partnerships."

Likewise, NREL has worked with the California Energy Commission (CEC) the state's primary energy policy and planning agency, as well as the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), the smog control agency for all or portions of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties, for more than a decade, but the relationships flourished in 2011. That's when NREL led a project with CEC, SCAQMD, and DOE to invest up to $11.4 million to support the development of natural gas engines and vehicles. Companies selected for awards invested nearly $3.7 million in additional funds to support $15 million in total projects.

"A core responsibility of the CEC is to research and deploy vehicle technologies and low-carbon alternative fuels that can help meet the state's climate change policies and provide air quality and cost benefits," said Robert Weisenmiller, chair of the CEC. "Our partnership with NREL furthers that vision of a clean-energy future."

The strong partnership between NREL, the CEC, and SCAQMD was instrumental in the final development and demonstration of the Cummins Westport, Inc., ISX 12 G, an advanced 12-liter natural gas engine capable of achieving ultra-low emissions. The ISX 12 G went into commercial production in 2013 with strong demand in the Class 8 heavy-duty truck market.

"NREL was able to find common partners, see what the needs were, and figure out where our goals overlapped," said NREL Project Manager Margo Melendez. "This partnership was bigger than the sum of its parts."

During the four-year project, NREL has overseen the natural gas engine and vehicle research, development, and demonstration projects to develop highly efficient natural gas engines that meet or exceed 2010 emission standards; integrate natural gas engines into different chassis and vehicle platforms; and verify fuel efficiency, petroleum reduction, and emissions benefits in real-world operation. A couple of years into the project, CEC tapped NREL for additional support, including an update to its Natural Gas Vehicle Research Roadmap.

The strong connection shows, in Melendez's words, that the CEC and SCAQMD "trust us and look to us for advice—partly because we are an unbiased third party—but also because we have a broad reach with stakeholders and have expertise ranging from engineering and environmental research to analysis. This really positions us all as partners."

Ready to Partner with Small or Large Businesses

A smiling man poses next to a solar panel.

NREL Principal Engineer Andy Walker works closely with many partners, including Verizon, to deploy commercially available energy efficiency and renewable technologies.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Sometimes the path to partnership gets a push from chance that adds momentum to hard work. Once in a while, as NREL scientist David Young learned, unforeseen connections happen more than once on the same project.

Young, along with researcher Brian Egaas, had been working since 2003 on a concept of using LEDs to assess the quality of solar cells. "One day, colleague Pauls Stradins happened through the lab and made a brilliant suggestion" which changed the course of the project, Young said.

The trio patented their idea and Young built a prototype of the Real-time QE, complete with taped-together pieces. The device was able to take measurements which had required 20 minutes and do them in only one second. "It opened up new possibilities for this technique."

Then came a second break. "I was walking down the hallway, and a colleague stopped me and said there were three visitors here looking for new ideas to commercialize," Young said. He walked in, gave his 10-minute spiel, and the group from Tau Science Corp. immediately wanted to license the technology. The technology, which also garnered a 2011 R&D 100 Award for being among the year's most significant inventions, is now sold as the FlashQE. The lesson for Young is that "being connected to a lot of people so they can see what you're working on, and building friendships, is important."

In the professional sense, that tenet holds true in NREL's partnership with Verizon. The phone carrier was looking for better ways to power its off-grid sites and save on fuel and delivery costs while also improving reliability. "We looked at a number of technical assistance options, but none offered the third-party, nonbiased analysis that NREL has perfected," said Roger Maiorano, principal engineer at Verizon. "NREL's expertise, labs, facilities, research, and software tools made the partnership a great fit."

NREL's Andy Walker and Maiorano worked hand-in-hand under a TSA beginning in 2012 and continuing to date, to determine the viability of a number of renewable energy projects. The lab's analysis has shown Verizon could reduce the cost of powering its remote sites by 45% or more by using solar photovoltaics, wind turbines, and additional batteries. "There's a definite trust in NREL's expertise," Maiorano said. The partners are also expected to finalize two more TSAs in 2014.

Clearly, across multiple industries, NREL has found the way to seed partnerships with companies and organizations, resulting in sustainable harvests for the marketplace.

For additional information, see the NREL Working with Us Web page.

Partnering: An Engine for Innovation

FALL 2014 / Issue 7

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Editorial Team

  • Kim Adams | Managing Editor
  • Bill Gillies | Creative Director
  • Dennis Schroeder | Photographer
  • Jennifer Josey | Editor
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  • Amy Glickson | Web Development
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