A Century of Physics—The Future of Renewable Energy

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Golden, Colo., Jan. 7, 1999 — The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will take an active role in events marking the 100th anniversary of the American Physical Society (APS) and the role of physics in the 20th century.

Advancements in physics and related fields of scientific research have led to many breakthroughs in renewable energy technologies that, in turn, have given us the products that are today beginning to make a difference in the lives of people all around the world. Several story ideas can be developed to explore the role of physics in energy development throughout history and into the new millennium. NREL scientists and engineers are available to explain any of these ideas and concepts from the most basic, educational level to the most advanced.

  1. The basics: What does a scientist do in the laboratory, from getting an idea to developing a new solar cell or design for a wind turbine blade? How do scientists use physics, including quantum and solid-state physics, materials science, biophysics, polymer science, aerodynamics, thermodynamics, superconductivity and optics?

  2. A brief history of the development of solar and wind energy. Although windmills have been around for centuries and the sun has warmed buildings in many parts of the world for generations, these technologies took a quantum leap beginning with scientific advances in the 1950s and 1960s. Photovoltaics - turning sunlight into electricity - got its first boost from early satellites and the space program. With the help of physics and advanced materials, the cost of solar electricity has been cut 100 fold in the past two decades. Solar panels will provide clean and reliable power in many parts of the world in the coming century, as will wind power.

    The understanding of aerodynamics, sped along by the aerospace industry, has given us air foil designs that make electricity from modern wind turbines almost cost competitive with power from fossil fuels.

  3. Making the far-out practical: Taking physics out of the laboratory and into your home. What are the renewable energy products that today are practical and in use by industry and consumers?

    PV-roofing shingles; solar cells and panels with record-setting efficiencies; solar walls (transpired solar collectors); stand-alone solar energy systems for the home and business; utility-scale PV applications that provide power to thousands of customers; small, single-building wind turbines and massive, utility-scale wind machines deployed in wind farms around the country.

    In addition, NREL has won 19 prestigious R&D 100 awards, given annually by R&D Magazine for significant technological innovations. NREL R&D 100 winners include thin-film solar cells, tandem solar cells, PV modules and advanced wind turbine air foil designs.

  4. The next century: What research in the lab today will give us the next generation of renewable energy products and systems? Hydrogen generation and storage; fuel cells; thermophotovoltaics—using heat instead of sunlight to generate electricity and advanced wind turbines.

  5. The bigger picture: What role can physics and other scientific disciplines play in the development of clean energy technologies that will help solve serious environmental problems, such as global climate change and air pollution?

The APS centennial meeting is March 20-26 at the society's headquarters in Atlanta. DOE, NREL and other national laboratories will host exhibits, presentations and other events throughout the centennial celebration.