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January/February 2010

Energy Challenges

ORNL Research, ASTM International Standards

As countries around the world grapple with climate change and related challenges of sustainability, alternative energy sources and reducing carbon emissions, the U.S. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is working to respond to these issues with research to lead to new energy technologies and a new energy economy. The ORNL Review recently featured “America’s 10 Energy Challenges” and ORNL work on several energy fronts. The excerpted, edited text here comes from that issue (Vol. 42, No. 2, 2009), accompanied by information about related ASTM International standards activities (See also related article, "Energy Frontier Research Centers: Research to Promote Scientific Advances," by clicking here.)

Both Directions at Once

ISSUE #1: Can America simultaneously achieve energy independence and address climate change?

The challenge of controlling climate change is a goal that may appear to be at odds with the equally important goal of energy security. However, the idea that the two goals are somehow mutually exclusive is not one accepted by ORNL energy researcher David Greene. “We want — and we believe it possible — to achieve environmental goals and energy security goals at the same time,” he says.

To help determine which technologies have the greatest potential for reaching these goals, Greene and a multidisciplinary group of researchers conducted a study to determine 1) which energy goals are feasible, 2) the technologies needed to realize these goals, and 3) where best to deploy research and development efforts.

The study results indicate that several combinations of technologies are capable of reaching the goal of oil independence in 2030. Some of these combinations could also achieve up to a 70 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2050.

“The only technology that was absolutely essential to meeting the greenhouse gas goal was carbon capture and sequestration,” Greene says. “Similarly, advanced fossil technologies, like oil shale, coal to liquids and environmentally safe oil drilling, were shown to be absolutely essential to meeting our oil dependence goal.”

ASTM: Standards for Energy and the Environment

In the United States, national laboratories are concentrating on energy-related challenges of providing sustainable energy while reducing current levels of carbon emissions. When research takes the step from laboratory to product or service, ASTM International standards related to fossil fuels and biofuels, solar power and sustainability, environmental assessment and resource quality are — or will be — there to respond to the needs of government and industry.

A number of ASTM International standards related to greenhouse gases have become part of the documents cited in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s final rule on Mandatory Reporting of Greenhouse Gases. In the rule, EPA stipulates that manufacturers of vehicles and engines and other entities that emit 25,000 metric tons or more per year of greenhouse gases are required to submit annual reports to EPA. Produced in response to the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008 (H.R. 2764; Public Law 110-161), the rule references 42 standards from 11 ASTM technical committees. The documents cover various topics such as sampling petroleum and coal, determining carbon in metals, and the chemical analysis of lime and cement.

Becoming Part of the Process

ISSUE #2: Can we reduce power consumption without compromising our quality of life?

ORNL scientist Jeff Christian declared in 2004 that houses could be designed to produce enough energy to pay for the power they consume; they are known as zero-energy houses.

New technologies, habits and policies will be required to make Christian’s vision a reality. Consumers will need to be convinced to pay greater attention to their electricity consumption. Likewise, a commitment by utilities will be necessary to make smart grid capabilities available to consumers.

Zero-energy houses are not solely dependent upon solar panels, high tech gadgets and cutting-edge building techniques; a significant energy boost can come from the use of relatively simple home automation systems. On the most basic level, home automation systems can save energy by using sensors to determine when people are present and then turning lights and televisions off when no one is in the room.

These systems provide a communication link between the household electrical system and the utility grid. Through this link, consumers have access to a detailed and real-time breakdown of how much electricity they are using for specific appliances at specific times. Equipped with this information, consumers can then begin to tailor their daily habits, and their energy consumption, to both their needs and their budgets.

ASTM: Standards Related to Solar Power and Sustainability

The quest for renewable energy sources as alternatives to fossil fuels — to help procure energy independence and reduce environmental impact — and the increasing interest in sustainability across many industry sectors, necessitates the use of standards by business and government.

Renewable energy is not a new topic in ASTM International; Committee E44 on Solar, Geothermal and Other Alternative Energy Sources has been developing standards in these areas since its formation in 1978. With jurisdiction over approximately 50 standards, E44 contributes to the use and advancement of solar heating and cooling systems and materials, photovoltaic electronic power conversion, and geothermal utilization and materials. Currently, the photovoltaics group has a number of proposed standards under way, and the newest addition to the committee, E44.20 on Glass for Solar Applications, will work on standards for characteristics that affect performance, durability and reliability.

Committee E60 on Sustainability, which held organizational meetings in conjunction with Earth Day 2009, is responsible for standards that address the environmental, social and economic aspects of buildings. Central to the committee’s construction-related endeavors is E2432, Guide for General Principles of Sustainability Relative to Buildings. Other standards address building product sustainability assessment, green roof systems, water conservation and life cycle assessment, and with buildings and green meetings the topic of several proposed standards.

It’s Electric

ISSUE #3: Can new batteries relieve anxiety over electric vehicles?

The 2008 U.S. gasoline price spike above $4 a gallon motivated many consumers to consider alternatives to gasoline-powered vehicles. As demand for gas-electric hybrids exceeded supply, both domestic and foreign auto manufacturers accelerated plans for the first generation of all-electric vehicles. Two fundamental technology challenges — the cost of electric vehicles and their relatively limited range — stand in the way of significant market penetration.

With electric vehicles, people worry about being stranded with a “dead” battery, and developing technological solutions to this anxiety has become a key challenge for materials science researchers like ORNL’s Energy Materials Program manager, Craig Blue. “Traditionally, ORNL’s largest impacts have been in basic research,” Blue says. “Now we’re translating that capability into more applied areas. These areas include lightweight materials, like low cost carbon fiber and improvements in battery technology that will reduce cost and simultaneously improve range and reliability.”

In addition to increasing vehicle efficiency with lighter weight composites, ORNL is pursuing new battery technologies through such techniques as acoustic emission spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction to gain an understanding of battery material failure. That way, new materials for improved batteries can be created and anxiety alleviated.

ISSUE #4: Can a modern electrical grid change American habits of energy consumption?

America’s electric power grid is based on technologies that have been virtually unchanged for decades. In parallel with an increasing public awareness of global warming and the need for sustainable supplies of energy, the potential benefits of a robust, intelligent, interactive grid have become a centerpiece of policy discussions and emerging research.

Grid modernization advocates point to the need to accommodate diverse power generation sources, ensure more efficient and more reliable service, and provide consumers with the information necessary to manage household energy consumption.
Through America’s work to reduce levels of imported oil, increased use of hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles could have a significant impact on the grid. In addition, the effect of inverters, which convert electricity from solar panels, for example, into power that can be transmitted across the grid, must be considered.

New grid technologies could lead to a smart grid combining communications with a power delivery system to handle new generation technologies, such as renewables, monitoring devices or fault current limiters. The smart grid would also enable customers to be more responsive in energy management.

Unknown is whether the scientific community can develop revolutionary technologies, like an interactive electrical grid, that will be accepted by a public accustomed to an unlimited supply of affordable energy.

ISSUE #5: What happens to renewable power when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine?

A critical scientific challenge confronting American energy security is the ability to integrate plentiful, yet intermittent, power sources, such as wind and solar, into the electrical grid.

The electrical grid differs in one significant way from other energy distribution systems, such as oil and natural gas, in that electricity currently cannot be stored cost effectively. Storage batteries would enable the grid to adapt to changing demands by stockpiling power for later use. This buffer would also enable the power generation system, often fueled by coal or natural gas, to increase and decrease output less frequently. An added benefit would be lower emissions.

The primary obstacle to widespread implementation of battery technology on the grid is cost. The few current large-scale battery systems generally use nickel-cadmium or sodium-sulfur batteries, which perform well, but their cost is still above the threshold to make the batteries attractive for use with wind or solar farms.

Research is under way to develop batteries that last longer and cost less through low cost manufacturing processes and better battery component quality control practices. To do that, researchers are investigating how batteries charge and discharge, degrade and break down.

Researchers are also looking at ways to increase the ability to store more energy in a smaller battery.

ASTM: Standards for Composites and Testing

ASTM International Committee D30 on Composite Materials has decades of experience in developing standards for various types of composites, low cost types of which are currently being investigated by ORNL researchers. D30 includes subcommittees on research and mechanics, constituent/precursor properties, lamina and laminate test methods, structural test methods, interlaminar properties and sandwich properties, which together maintain more than 70 standards. Close to 250 members representing more than 20 countries currently respond to industry needs with such activities as testing tensile properties and fatigue response. Key existing documents include D3039/D3039M, Test Method for Tensile Properties of Polymer Matrix Composite Materials, and C273/C273M, Test Method for Shear Properties of Sandwich Core Materials.

As ORNL researchers use sophisticated methods to investigate batteries and their components, ASTM groups are ready to standardize various testing techniques. ASTM Committee E07 on Nondestructive Testing develops standards for such techniques as acoustic emission, X and gamma radiology, ultrasonic and electromagnetic examination, and more; the group has jurisdiction over 175 standards. Committee E13 on Molecular Spectroscopy and Separation Science develops analysis standards for disciplines involving absorption, luminescence, scattering and polarization of radiant energy; nuclear magnetic resonance; chromatography and mass spectrometry. E13 has responsibility for 65 standards. Mechanical testing, whether indentation hardness, uniaxial, impact or other method, can be found in the 55 standards under the jurisdiction of Committee E28 on Mechanical Testing.

Food or Fuel?

ISSUE #6: Can ethanol reduce oil imports without compromising food supplies?

At the ORNL Bioenergy Science Center, researchers are making progress toward the goal of reducing oil imports without compromising the world’s supply of food.

Plant-based biofuels like ethanol have the potential to significantly reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil. However, when dramatic gasoline price spikes temporarily increased the demand for ethanol, many viewed ethanol, and the use of valuable farmland for crops to make ethanol, as the cause of sharp worldwide increases in the cost of food. That perception remained despite several studies suggesting that overall energy and petroleum costs, and not simply ethanol production, were the major causes of inflationary pressures on food prices.

Faced with the need to protect world food supplies, BESC is focusing on new ways of developing ethanol from biofeedstock crops such as switchgrass and poplar trees. In poplar and switchgrass, most of the sugar is contained in the cellulose that makes up stalks, stems and leaves. Understanding the complex process of breaking cellulose into its component sugars is the fundamental challenge of the BESC research.

Both switchgrass and poplar are well-suited to a range of climate conditions and soil types. Neither requires a great deal of water, and both can be grown on “marginal” land that normally would not be used to grow food crops.

ASTM: Committee D02 and Ethanol Standards

When cellulosic ethanol work progresses to the point that specific standards are needed, Subcommittee D02.A0.01 on Gasoline and Gasoline-Oxygenate Blends, a part of Committee D02 on Petroleum Products and Lubricants, is positioned to develop any additional standards that may be needed to join existing documents on the topic.

D02.A0.01 maintains standards that specify fuel ethanol, including primary documents that cover performance requirements for this alternative fuel. For example, D5798, Specification for Fuel Ethanol (Ed75-Ed85) for Automotive Spark-Ignition Engines, is key to producing E85 (85 percent ethanol) motor fuel; D4806, Specification for Denatured Fuel Ethanol for Blending with Gasolines for Use as Automotive Spark-Ignition Engine Fuel, details properties of ethanol intended to be blended with gasoline in E10, which is 10 percent ethanol.

Committee D02 also considers other alternative fuels in its standards, as with several proposed specifications that will help pave the way for aviation synthetic fuels. Already available are standards for biodiesel such as D6751, Specification for Biodiesel Fuel Blend Stock (B100) for Middle Distillate Fuels, and D975, Specification for Diesel Fuel Oils, which allows up to 5 percent biodiesel.

In addition, Subcommittee E48.05 on Biomass Conversion, part of Committee E48 on Biotechnology, focuses on test methods that support the research, testing and production of biofuels, particularly from wood.

Too Much Carbon Gas

ISSUE #7: Can carbon sequestration reduce global levels of carbon dioxide?

Long before global warming was a serious part of the political debate, ORNL researchers were logging greenhouse gases, tracing the carbon cycle and tracking climate change effects. Today, scientists are able to predict, with increasing accuracy, trends in climate change and to gauge the potential effectiveness of remediation efforts.

Among these remediation strategies is carbon sequestration, a method of capturing and storing CO2, the most common greenhouse gas. ORNL’s carbon sequestration research is concentrated in three main areas: ocean sequestration, carbon capture and storage, and biosequestration.

One ocean sequestration approach is to fertilize the ocean’s natural carbon cycle by seeding the water with iron to stimulate plankton growth, thereby pulling more CO2 out of the atmosphere. The other ocean-based approach involves injecting captured CO2 deep into the sea where, because of the extreme pressure and cold temperatures, the gas would settle into dense pools and remain indefinitely.

Carbon capture and storage targets the source of the problem by concentrating the CO2 emitted from coal- or gas-fired power plants and creating a supercritical fluid that can be stored below ground in geological formations.

Options exist to achieve higher rates of biosequestration through land management. One is promoting low-till or no-till agriculture, because deeply tilling the soil releases the CO2 that has been absorbed from the air by the plants and deposited in the soil by their roots.

ASTM: Committee E50 and Climate Change

As climate change continues to claim news headlines, and science and industry become more involved in related topics, a task group in Subcommittee E50.05 on Environmental Risk Management, a part of ASTM Committee E50 on Environmental Assessment, Risk Management and Corrective Action, is working to provide guidance on the topic. Under way are proposed standards to guide disclosures that accompany financial statements and to describe a uniform set of options for communicating and planning greenhouse gas management and strategies for addressing greenhouse gases associated with a firm’s business operations, among others.

Nuclear Options

ISSUE #8: Can new technologies deliver a nuclear future that is safe and affordable?

Polls have revealed a gradual increase in support for nuclear power in the United States. Sherrell Greene, director of ORNL’s Nuclear Technology Programs, sees nuclear power as one of the few near-term options for generating the required volume of low carbon power.

Reliability is one of nuclear power’s major selling points, and Greene notes that the availability of nuclear plants in recent years has been more than 90 percent. That performance compares favorably with other carbon-free energy options such as solar panels and wind turbines that generate far less power and often do not exceed 30 percent availability.

“We will need a broad variety of energy options to reduce consumption and increase our production of clean energy,” Greene says. “When I look at the scenarios for economic growth in the United States, I conclude that every viable solution includes a substantial contribution of nuclear power.”

Greene sees four major challenges to an expanded nuclear power infrastructure: 1) Maintaining the integrity and extending the life of existing commercial reactors, 2) developing a range of nuclear power plants in terms of size, 3) developing non-electrical applications, and 4) designing advanced reactors and closing the fuel cycle.

ISSUE #9: Can science produce an energy source that is both inexhaustible and sustainable?

Nuclear fusion has long been touted as a genuine solution to a large portion of the world’s increasing demand for energy. From that perspective, fusion energy is both safe and environmentally benign. Equally important, the fuel source used by fusion is virtually inexhaustible.

Supported by an international research effort, the first fusion reactor designed to produce more energy than it consumes is being constructed in Cadarache, France, by a coalition of nations that includes the European Union, Japan, China, India, South Korea, Russia and the United States. The experimental reactor, called ITER (see the sidebar “ITER and the Future of Fusion”), is scheduled to go online in 2018. When completed, ITER is expected to produce 10 times more energy than it will use to maintain the thermonuclear reaction.

Maintaining control of the plasma is one of the two big challenges confronting ITER. The other involves materials technology: developing components that can tolerate both the proximity to the intense heat of the fusion plasma and the huge temperature swings that occur as ITER cycles on and off.

Compared with other large-scale power generation methods, fusion power has essentially no negative impact on the environment. Unlike coal and nuclear energy, fusion power emits no greenhouse gas and leaves no long-term waste products. ITER also holds out the hope of abundant clean energy from a basically inexhaustible source — water.

ISSUE #10: Can new technologies stem the proliferation of nuclear materials?

ORNL has long been a leader in nuclear research and innovation, and today that legacy includes work on the international challenge of keeping nuclear materials secure and limiting their use for peaceful purposes.

Addressing this challenge is ORNL’s Global Security and Nonproliferation Programs group, headed by Larry Satkowiak. When it comes to nonproliferation, Satkowiak says the main concerns are always, “Materials, materials, materials — eliminating access to materials, moving materials from locations that are at risk, detecting the illegal movement of materials and down-blending materials so they are no longer capable of being used as a weapon of mass destruction.”

The ORNL group’s activities run from basic research and development to the field implementation of security systems. One key to controlling nuclear materials is the ability to detect their movements — in and out of buildings, through ports and across national boundaries. ORNL is working on the detection issue on several technology fronts.

Satkowiak’s group has also responded to concerns over the need for more effective controls on nuclear component shipments by conducting export license review training in 40 countries.

Another aspect of nonproliferation is securing highly enriched uranium from dismantled weapons, research reactors and other sources. Once secured, chemical processes are used to convert the materials to commercial nuclear reactor fuel.

ASTM: Responding to the Challenges of Nuclear Energy

For more than 50 years, ASTM International has responded to the need for standards related to nuclear energy.

That work continues in Committee E10 on Nuclear Technology and Applications, which concentrates on standards that advance the science, technology and safe application of this energy source, and Committee C26 on Nuclear Fuel Cycle, which focuses on standards that promote the commercialization of materials, products and processes for the nuclear fuel cycle.

Among other E10 efforts, Subcommittee E10.03 on Radiological Protection for Decontamination and Decommissioning of Nuclear Facilities and Components has recently been concentrating on updating E1892, Guide for Preparing Characterization Plans for Decommissioning Nuclear Facilities. In C26, Subcommittee C26.10 on Non Destructive Assay is developing a new standard, WK24598, Test Method for Hybrid K-Edge Densitometry for Uranium and Plutonium in Solutions.

The protective coatings used at nuclear power generation facilities, and their evaluation, selection, application and maintenance, are the topic of standards developed in Committee D33 on Protective Coating and Lining Work for Power Generation Facilities. Of note among the group’s 30 standards is D5144, Guide for Use of Protective Coating Standards in Nuclear Power Plants, which provides a basis to qualify and select protective coatings using evaluation tests.