NREL Will Lead Two $19M Research Centers To Spur Decarbonization Efforts as Part of DOE’s Energy Earthshots Initiative


NREL Has Been Selected To Lead Two Energy Earthshot Research Centers and Partner on Three University-Led Science Foundations for Energy EarthshotsBy Susannah Shoemaker | Contact media relations

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science has announced $264 million in funding for 29 projects to develop clean energy solutions that will pave the way to achieving a net-zero-carbon economy by 2050. This funding is part of DOE’s Energy Earthshots Initiative, an effort designed to accelerate breakthroughs of more abundant, affordable, and reliable clean energy solutions within the decade.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will play a pivotal role in five of these 29 projects. DOE awarded NREL funding to lead two Energy Earthshot Research Centers (EERCs), each of which received a total of $19 million—initiatives that will support multi-institutional, multidisciplinary teams in addressing applied research challenges using fundamental science—out of the 11 total awarded by DOE. NREL’s two EERCs focus on floating offshore wind modeling and degradation in electrothermal long-duration energy storage. NREL is also a subaward winner on three university-led Science Foundations for Energy Earthshots.

“We are delighted to be an important part of the new Energy Earthshots program in the Office of Science,” said Bill Tumas, NREL associate laboratory director for Materials, Chemical, and Computational Science and NREL’s Basic Energy Sciences point of contact. “Our significant engagement reflects our commitment and contributions to use-inspired basic research by addressing key science questions and technological challenges through fundamental science in areas where we also have substantial strength in applied research.”

“The Energy Earthshot awards are incredibly exciting for the laboratory,” said Johney Green, associate laboratory director for the Mechanical and Thermal Engineering Sciences Directorate at NREL, which will be leading the two NREL Energy Earthshot Research Centers. “These initiatives were chosen because they are tackling some of the most challenging barriers of deploying clean energy technologies at scale. Our success and participation reflects our researchers’ innovation, teamwork, and diverse perspectives, and I am excited to see where these projects lead.”

Optimizing Floating Offshore Wind Through Modeling and Simulation

One of NREL’s two EERCs, Floating Offshore Wind Modeling and Simulation (FLOWMAS), focuses on addressing DOE’s Floating Offshore Wind Shot—which seeks to reduce the levelized cost of energy of floating offshore wind by 70% by 2035—by overcoming the fundamental mathematical and high-performance-computing challenges to predicting and understanding offshore wind energy systems. NREL is partnering with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, as well was the University of California at Merced, Howard University, and the University of Minnesota, on this EERC. The center also involves a collaboration between NREL’s National Wind Technology Center and its Computational Science Center.

“To reduce the levelized cost of energy, we need to have a very good understanding of the loads and dynamics of floating offshore wind turbines in an ocean environment—both at a very small scale and at a climate scale. For example, if you’re planning to build a wind turbine in the ocean at some point, you want to know that that wind resource is going to exist, at least at some level, 20 years from now,” said Michael Sprague, chief wind computational scientist at NREL and director of the FLOWMAS EERC. “Right now, the models we have are sorely lacking, and our understanding of the ocean environment is lacking. In this EERC, we’re planning to create new models and use high-performance computing to better understand and predict the response of floating offshore wind turbines. A key challenge will be creating new algorithms that span many scales and physics and run efficiently on modern high-performance computers.”

This task is complex. Offshore wind turbines are the largest rotating machines in the world, with heights of 260 meters and rotors 220 meters in diameter. These turbines must have manageable loads when they are operating—but they also need to be able to withstand extreme events, like hurricanes. Researchers also need to be able to give better predictions about how climate change will affect wind resources in different parts of the ocean environment.

“The marine atmospheric environment is quite different than on land, and we don’t have great models to predict its behavior. So that’s a key area we hope to focus on in FLOWMAS,” Sprague said.

Another challenge is the researchers’ goal of minimizing model approximations —an approach that necessitates the use of high-performance computing.

“We’re doing what we call high-fidelity modeling, so we’re trying to adhere to first principles as much as we can,” Sprague explained. “The idea is that the advances we achieve with these high-fidelity models can be used to train lower-fidelity models, which scientists, researchers, and engineers can then use to create new turbine designs. This approach is going to require world-class supercomputers.”

Sprague emphasized that the potential impact of this project is significant.

“DOE has put a massive challenge in front of us, and the importance of this challenge in light of climate change is difficult to overstate,” Sprague said. “The opportunity for impact here is very exciting.”

Addressing the Challenges of Electrothermal Energy Storage

NREL’s other EERC, Degradation Reactions in Electrothermal Energy Storage (DEGREES), focuses on a different challenge: advancing our fundamental understanding of the degradation mechanisms of materials for electrothermal long-duration energy storage (LDES). LDES is a critical piece of a resilient, flexible, and decarbonized electric grid, as it allows for the efficient storage of excess clean energy from renewables like wind and solar.

However, the thermal energy storage materials available today cannot meet the needs of grid-scale LDES, in large part due to degradation.

To address this challenge, NREL, along with Brookhaven National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Texas at Dallas, Georgia Institute of Technology, Auburn University, University of Arizona, University of Chicago, and University of New Mexico, will work together to understand degradation, learn to control it, and rapidly translate this knowledge to improve LDES. The team plans to examine the instabilities of high-energy-density thermal energy storage materials by leveraging crosscutting theory, modeling, and experiments, with a strong focus on communication and collaboration.

“NREL is the lab for integration. We work well together, and we aren’t siloed—there is so much support here. That’s one of the things that made this EERC proposal successful,” said Judith Vidal, manager of the Building Thermal Energy Science group at NREL and director of the DEGREES EERC along with associate director Katie Jungjohann. “External partnerships have also been key. I’ve had a long relationship with several of our partners on this proposal, and when it came time to put the proposal together, they were eager to collaborate. That trust is key.”

One of those partners is Akanksha Menon, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech who also has a joint appointment at NREL. Menon received a separate award for lower-temperature industrial and building thermal energy storage applications.

“We really have a dream team,” Vidal said.

A major aim of the project is developing the necessary understanding, characterization tools, and modeling capabilities to enable designers and engineers to create feasible thermal energy storage components that are cost-effective, durable, reliable, and dispatchable.

“We started this proposal from applied research, and that research helped us understand which fundamental questions are important to answer,” Vidal explained. “That was another thing that made our proposal successful. We have the expertise to do research at low technology readiness levels but also to translate that knowledge quickly and in a reliable, low-cost way.”

This EERC addresses DOE’s Energy Storage Grand Challenge, which aims to achieve a low-cost, decarbonized grid by 2035 by integrating electrothermal LDES with electrical power generation.

Leveraging Mathematical Methods To Reduce Data Storage Needs

In addition to leading two EERCs, NREL is also involved in three university-led Science Foundations for Energy Earthshots projects. The first of these awards, led by New York University (NYU), is focused on leveraging mathematical methods to reduce data storage needs—enabling, fast, on-the-fly modeling for key clean energy applications. This project addresses two of DOE’s Energy Earthshots: the Floating Offshore Wind Shot and the Carbon Negative Shot.

“Our goal is to develop mathematical methods that will allow us to learn reduced-order models on the fly, so that we don’t have to store or move too much data,” said Julie Bessac, a computational science researcher and NREL lead on the project, along with co-Principal Investigator (PI) Ashesh Sharma. “The idea is that when scientists at NREL—or at other institutions—generate data, we can learn mathematical models on that data right away, avoiding too much data storage and movement.”

One of the main applications of this work is the simulation of wind farms.

“Some of the wind turbine simulations that NREL’s wind researchers are doing are very costly—very expensive computationally. We’re aiming to make those simulations a bit lighter,” Bessac said. “That’s where the methodology of building a light mathematical model comes in. This approach will allow our wind researchers to build models that will learn on the spot, so that they won’t need to move data or store data. So collaborating with the Wind Center at NREL will be another key element of this project.”

Another key application of this work is extreme event modeling.

“When you want to study extreme events, you have to simulate more data,” Bessac explained. “So if you have lighter simulations and lighter tools, that’s also going to help you generate more data, which will help you better study extremes in the long term.”

The project will be led by NYU, but involves NREL and other institutions, including Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“The collaborative aspect of this project is very exciting,” Bessac said. “We’re working with researchers at NREL’s Wind Center, as well as with NYU and Los Alamos, and it’s great to have all of those different perspectives.”

Decarbonizing Steel

NREL is also partnering on a project led by Arizona State University (ASU) focused on decarbonizing steelmaking, in collaboration with the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) and Navajo Technical University (Navajo Tech) in New Mexico. Steelmaking accounts for a whopping ~7% of global CO2 emissions, and those emissions are largely driven by two processes: carbon used to reduce iron ore to iron, and blast furnace heating. This project will be led by Professor Sridhar Seetharaman of ASU, who also has a joint appointment with NREL, and addresses DOE’s Industrial Heat Shot.

“Currently, steelmaking is one of the most carbon-intense processes out there,” said Hari Sitaraman, a researcher in the Computational Science Center and NREL lead on the project. “So, the potential impact of this effort is huge.”

To decarbonize steelmaking, the project will forego the use of fossil fuels in favor of leveraging electricity in the form of an intense thermal plasma. The plasma—which is made of hydrogen—will reduce the iron ore to iron as well as provide the product in a molten form that can be directly used for making steel.

“The central question we’re trying to answer is: What happens when a hydrogen plasma interacts with iron ore? There are so many things happening together—heat transfer, the formation of ions and chemically reactive species, surface chemistry, phase change, and so on,” Sitaraman said. “So, there are many fundamental questions that need to be answered before this technology can be used at the industrial scale.”

One of the central challenges in this effort will be validating this technology experimentally due to the extreme temperatures. This is where NREL staff scientist Noemi Leick will play a central role, with her current work at NREL on plasma diagnostics.

“It’s very hard to study an industrial-scale reactor in the lab, so theory and computation will be critical,” Sitaraman said. “We’re planning to leverage high-fidelity computational modeling that couples NREL/UT Austin plasma models with ASU’s surface chemistry/phase-change models to understand processes from the molecular scale all the way to the industrial scale. We already have a head start thanks to the tools developed through the combustion exascale project led by our senior scientist, Marc Day.”

Sitaraman’s Ph.D. was on high-density plasmas for space propulsion. After moving to NREL, he started working on other reacting flow problems in combustion/bioenergy but is excited to be back doing plasma science. “One of the most interesting things to me is that I used to work on plasma thrusters, and it took me a while to realize that there are decarbonization problems on Earth that can benefit from this technology,” Sitaraman said.

The project also emphasizes collaboration, mentorship, and a focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA). Maria Curry-Nkansah from NREL will lead this important effort. NREL and ASU plan to host student interns from Navajo Tech—the largest tribal college in the United States—at their respective institutions. These collaborative elements, Sitaraman said, are central to this project.

“It was a team effort to get this proposal in,” Sitaraman said. “Everyone had a role to play and were tirelessly working until the last moment. That’s why it was successful.”

Developing Cleaner, Greener Fertilizers

NREL’s final Energy Earthshots Science Foundation partnership is with Washington University in St. Louis, and it focuses on producing green nitrogen, addressing DOE’s Carbon Negative Shot and Industrial Heat Shot. The current industry methods for producing nitrogen are very energy intensive and high emission. This project aims to change that by leveraging biological nitrogen fixation.

“Certain microbes, mostly bacteria, are able to fix atmospheric nitrogen gas into nitrogen compounds such as ammonia,” explained Jianping Yu, a molecular biology researcher in NREL’s Biosciences Center and NREL lead on the project, along with co-PI Wei Xiong. “That’s been happening for millions of years. But it hasn’t really been taken advantage of to be developed and deployed in industry.”

In this project, researchers plan to leverage biological nitrogen fixation to produce nitrogen with lower energy and less emissions. However, there is one key roadblock that they will need to overcome: the biological regulation of nitrogen fixation.

“In biological nitrogen fixation, there is a regulation process that controls how much nitrogen is fixed. In practice, this means that cells won’t fix any more nitrogen than they need, because nitrogen fixation is energetically expensive,” Yu said. “So if we apply naturally occurring nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria and microbes to the field as biofertilizers, this biological regulation is going to limit how much nitrogen is actually useful or added to the field. To engineer cells that produce more nitrogen than their own growth needs, we need to break that biological regulation process.”

This project, led by Professor Himadri Pakrasi from Washington University in St. Louis, aims to develop a more robust cyanobacterium that not only breaks the biological regulation process but also functions well under real-world conditions.

“I’m very excited about the applications of this work,” Yu said. “Producing fertilizer for agriculture is a big deal. Another application of this work is producing ammonia for shipping fuel—which is separately a huge deal. This technology could also be used to turn the ocean into a carbon sink to take away CO2 from the atmosphere. So the potential impact here is very exciting.”

DEIA is a central pillar of this project. Yu recently began collaborating with an old friend who is also a professor at Alabama State University, and that collaboration ended up being central to the development of the proposal. The close ties with Alabama State—a historically Black university—will allow the project to actively incorporate DEIA into its work.

“Here’s how I’d sum up this project: good science and good friends,” Yu said.


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