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Energy and Environment,

Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Capabilities

Enabling the efficient use of energy resources, reducing petroleum consumption, and accelerating the use of renewable sources of electricity covers a broad spectrum—buildings, biomass, and vehicles—all of which have different challenges. We bring an equally diverse set of capabilities and expertise to these challenges.

Systems engineering and integration (Buildings science)

PNNL is recognized as a national leader in systems engineering and integration—solving complex problems holistically. We use this holistic approach in our work with commercial and residential buildings where every aspect of buildings—from initial design and construction to the operation of a building throughout its life cycle—is considered. Using this approach, our research and deployment programs have significantly impacted new building design and construction, retrofits of existing buildings, building operation, and the efficiency of major appliances and equipment installed in buildings across the country. Our strengths in regulatory analysis, policy assessment and economic evaluation have made us leaders in the Department of Energy's Building Energy Codes Program. Additionally, we use our expertise in technology assessment, integration and deployment to evaluate the efficiency of entire military installations.


Catalysts are materials that help chemical reactions take place rapidly and efficiently without actually being used up in the reaction. Catalysis is the chemical reaction brought on by the catalyst. PNNL's Institute for Integrated Catalysis plays a major role in enabling our catalysis expertise, facilitating collaborative research and development for energy applications. Catalysis is a cornerstone capability in PNNL's work with biomass and vehicle emissions.

  • Biomass—We are exploring approaches for converting biomass into hydrocarbon fuels that fit into the existing refinery infrastructure. This includes better ways to make bio-oils (complex oils created from treating wood or agricultural residues with heat and sometimes added catalysts) and more efficient and durable ways to convert bio-oils and other oxygen-containing carbon compounds into fuels like gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel under refinery type processing. Developing a biofuel that can be produced, distributed and stored in the same facilities as petroleum fuels will reduce the overall cost of biofuels, and allow them to be more readily accepted into the market as a direct replacement for petroleum.
  • Vehicle emissions—Working with industry, PNNL unraveled the mystery that was preventing the use of a catalyst for removing NOx emissions, from lean-burn engines, such as diesels. NOx pollutes the air and reacts with other chemicals to form smog and ozone. It can be a serious health risk. The resulting technology, Lean-NOx Trap technology was first used in the 2007 Dodge Ram pickup and in 2011 was being used on other fuel-efficient diesel vehicles in the U.S. market, including the Volkwagen Jetta TDI.

Applied materials and process engineering

PNNL is recognized internationally for its capability in applied materials science and engineering. Our strength is derived from interdisciplinary research that enables nanostructured and self-assembled materials technology, tailored thin films, ceramics, glasses, alloys, composites, and biomolecular materials. Our expertise ranges from materials theory, simulation, design, and synthesis to materials performance in hostile environments. Process engineering involves the entire development process from fundamental scientific discovery to materials development to economic assessment.

Our work with renewable materials for hydrogen storage exemplifies our applied materials and process engineering capability. A critical limitation in all electric and fuel cell vehicles has been safe electrical or hydrogen storage. We are developing high-capacity, regenerable and energy-efficient hydrogen storage systems for fuel-cell and electric vehicles, including materials that will act as sponges, soaking up hydrogen and releasing it when needed to power fuel cell vehicles. As part of our process engineering work, these materials will be developed to be lighter, longer lasting and less expensive to build so storage systems will be durable and affordable to replace when they reach the market.

Surface water hydrology

Integrated into each of our research areas is a commitment to sustainability—we use a systems approach that takes into account the impacts of human activities, including new sources of energy production, on the environment. For example, we have provided a thorough assessment of all aspects of biofuels production, including potential impacts to the environment (e.g., water consumption) of cultivating crops that will be harvested to produce liquid fuels in order to predict and avoid any unintended consequences of biomass use. We currently are using our surface water hydrology capability to develop a decision framework that will show where biomass production and conversion sites can be sustainably deployed. This work involves examining competing priorities for the water, the land and even the materials itself, particularly in the case of corn.

Ecological assessment

Producing energy from renewable sources promotes economic growth and supports national security. Identifying and managing the environmental impacts of renewable energy resources removes the primary roadblocks to harnessing them. To site and license energy sources, such as marine and hydrokinetic power, we must ensure the structures operate without harming fish and wildlife, interfering with commerce, or deteriorating water quality.

PNNL is developing the Marine and Hydrokinetic (MHK) Environmental Impacts Knowledge Management System (KMS) featured in this article. This is a shared knowledge base designed to facilitate the creation, annotation, and exchange of information for MHK project developers, regulators, and other stakeholders and can be accessed at the Tethys website.

We also are creating new technologies to track aquatic species, assess their condition, and enhance survival. Researchers at our Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Wash., have developed a high-resolution model of water flow and quality throughout the Puget Sound and Georgia Basin, which can be used to guide environmental restoration and characterize the potential for tidal power development.

Fungal technology

Fungi are nature’s degraders of plant materials, or biomass. The challenge is to get fungi to do what we want them to do and do it on a process time scale rather than on a geologic time scale. PNNL is working to develop fungi that can convert biomass to different chemicals and fuel precursors. These chemicals may be final products or feedstocks for other types of energy production. We also are exploring using fungi to make enzymes that could be used to further convert biomass in the process of making biofuels.

Energy and Environment

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Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy



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