R&D 100 Awards Demonstrate Clean Energy Legacy
NREL has won 57 R&D 100 Awards since 1982, many of which led directly to industry successes today.
R&D 100 Awards are often considered the "Oscars of Innovation." Awarded annually by R&D Magazine, the awards recognize the 100 most technologically significant new products of the year. Competition for the awards is global and fierce, but despite the challenges, NREL has won 57 awards since 1982. From 1989 to the present, there was only one year in which NREL did not win at least one R&D 100 Award.
NREL views the awards as yet another opportunity to get the word out about their technologies, possibly gaining new partnerships along the way. And the lab's track record for making an impact with its awards is impressive.
Many of the awards in NREL's history led directly to industry successes today. Here are a few key examples:
In 1991, NREL won an award for its family of airfoils designed for wind turbine blades. As discussed in the wind energy article, these airfoils quickly became the industry standard.
That same year, NREL won an award for the first practical tandem solar cell, in which two thin, lightweight layers of semiconductors worked together to capture more of the sun's energy. The invention launched a thriving industry for space-based solar cells and yielded significant benefits for the space industry, where reducing bulk and weight is a key concern. It also formed the foundation for today's Earth-based concentrator photovoltaic systems, which focus sunlight onto a small solar cell. NREL has since won four R&D 100 Awards for these multi-layer or "multijunction" solar cells, two in partnership with Boeing Spectrolab of Sylmar, California, and one with Emcore Corp. of Albuquerque, New Mexico, both of which are major suppliers for the space solar power industry.
A 1993 winner, "Ethanol from Corn Fiber," spells out how enzymes can be used to help free carbohydrates from corn fibers, allowing them to be fermented into ethanol. NREL followed that up in 1995, earning an award for developing Zymomonas mobilis, a bacterium that can convert biomass-derived sugars into ethanol with few byproducts. In 2004, NREL's work to improve the enzymatic process with enzyme companies Novozymes Biotech, Inc. and Genencor International (now part of DuPont) won another R&D 100 Award. Today, a nascent cellulosic ethanol industry is being built, with several companies using the enzymatic approach.
In 1994, the lab won for its work with Conserval Engineering, Inc. to develop the transpired solar collector, a device mounted on the south wall of commercial buildings to pre-heat ventilation air before it is drawn into a building. Conserval continues to sell the product under the brand name "SolarWall," and NREL uses the collectors on two of its buildings, including its highly efficient office building, the Research Support Facility.
In 2000, NREL, Northern Power Systems (NPS), NASA's Ames Research Center, and the National Science Foundation won an award for the North Wind 100/20 Wind Turbine, a 100-kilowatt wind turbine that is ideal for extreme cold conditions. The direct-drive, low-maintenance turbine has been extensively deployed in Alaska, and NPS continues to sell the product.
These are just a few examples of the impacts of NREL's R&D 100 Award-winning technologies. The full list of award winners runs the gamut of energy technologies, including analytical devices; insulation; air conditioners; batteries; biomass gasifiers; wind turbines; solar cells; and etching, deposition, thermal treatment, defect mapping, quality control, and coating technologies for solar cells.
NREL continued its winning streak in 2014, earning two R&D 100 Awards, both of which were submitted with industrial partners. Crystal Solar worked with NREL to demonstrate a new process to manufacture thin-film silicon solar cells. The process uses epitaxy, which involves growing crystals of silicon on a crystalline substrate that has a similar structure.
Although epitaxy is usually a slow process, the new process is 100 times the speed of conventional epitaxy reactors and produces solar cells at half the cost. NREL performed characterization and reliability measurements on cells fabricated by Crystal Solar and collaborated with the company's technical team to develop and implement modifications to the measured cells, contributing to improved cell performance and reliability.
NREL also won an award in collaboration with HP for the HP Apollo 8000 System, a supercomputer that is cooled with warm water. The efficient design eliminates the need for expensive and energy-wasting chillers in the data center, while also allowing the waste energy from the computer to heat its host building, the Energy Systems Integration Facility, during the winter.
As a prime example of energy integration itself, the supercomputer provides an important pathway forward for high-performance computing, which is facing physical limitations. Although the industry is aiming to boost performance by another factor of 1,000, achieving those levels with today's technologies would require an entire power plant to service one supercomputer. The HP solution reduces the power needs of the supercomputer while also meeting other energy needs, lowering the total energy impact of installing a supercomputer.