In this week's feature, "Sun Burn," we go inside the National Renewable Energy Lab -- the federal facility in Golden that has for 35 years been dedicated to innovations in energy efficiency. In print, we take an in-depth look at NREL's important role in solar energy and other industries over the past three decades. Here, we count down the top fifteen inventions and innovations NREL leaders tout as the lab's key accomplishments.
As the lab, owned by the Department of Energy, undergoes a massive expansion -- even seizing small plots of private property for its growth -- some neighbors have a simple question: What has this federally-funded lab actually produced?
Below are fifteen specific answers to that question.
15: Solar cells on Mars
Artist's simulation of a Mars Exploration Rover at work on Mars.
The National Renewable Energy Lab was founded with support from President Jimmy Carter as the Solar Energy Research Institute -- the first national lab dedicated specifically to research and development focused on harnessing the sun's energy. Now, the lab -- with an expanded research focus across different kinds of renewable technologies -- has its highly efficient solar cells flying aboard satellites orbiting Earth and in association with NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission. Solar cells from NREL work well for powering spacecrafts and on-board instruments because they are lightweight and flexible and don't require bulky mechanical controls. 14: Robots that build and test solar cells
Who needs humans when you have robots that can do the work faster? NREL has ideveloped stainless steel robots that fabricate, analyze and improve solar cells faster and with more precision as part of the campus's Process Development and Integration Laboratory. In this lab, industry engineers fix glitches and get maximum efficiency from the cells. This, NREL says, translates to lower costs for homeowners and utilities. NREL says a robot working with silicon can build a semi-conductor on a six-inch-square plate in about 35 minutes. As a press releases notes: "It pivots and dishes like a point guard, sifts like a master chef, analyzes like a forensics expert and does it all while maintaining a vacuum seal on the entire process." 13: Air-conditioning-testing manikin
You read that right. This is a manikin that NREL researchers designed specifically to test out air-conditioning in a car. The life-sized manikin, called the Advanced Automotive Manikin and conveniently abbreviated ADAM, is able to sweat and shiver and react to sweltering or freezing temperatures in a car as if it were a human. NREL says auto manufacturers have turned to ADAM as a resource when trying to lower air-conditioning fuel use. Innovations in this area can make a big difference, because fuel used for air-conditioning in cars accounts for about seven billion gallons in the United States every year. 12: Army green
This is a different kind of green for members of the military. As part of NREL's Net Zero Installation Energy scorecard program, the lab has worked to push military bases to achieve net zero status. NREL reports that 53 army installations now have targets for net zero energy, net zero water or net zero waste. These kinds of achievements can happen in a variety of ways, including installing solar panels or wind turbines and also converting trash and waste into energy. 11: Weathering systems
NREL has developed what officials call an Ultra-Accelerated Weathering System, which is able to gauge how well an outdoor product will hold up to decades of sunlight. And it can do this testing in just a few weeks. It's a one-of-a-kind device that works by using mirrors with 96 layers of alternating high and low refractive material that essentially allows it to shine the equivalent of fifty suns of ultraviolet light onto a product. Continue to keep counting down our top fifteen NREL inventions and innovations. 10: Glassless mirrors
With a partner called SkyFuel, NREL invented a "glassless mirror," which is made up of super-thin layers of silver and other kinds of reflective materials. The resulting product is lightweight, weatherproof and ultimately cheaper to produce than other mirrors that have been used to concentrate the sun's power for electricity production at utility-level scales. 9: Smart windows
NREL likes to refer to this technology as "metaphorical sunglasses." What this window technology does is essentially allow for high insulation of "dynamic windows" that change color to modulate temperatures and lighting inside the facilities. NREL says that if these kinds of windows are installed broadly, they could save about 5 percent of the nation's total energy budget. 8: Engineered enzymes
Working with two industry partners, NREL has been able to engineer three cellulase enzymes that can efficiently attack non-food biomass and turn it into sugars that are ready to be processed into ethanol. This is an important breakthrough, NREL says, because it helps lower enzyme costs from $4 a gallon to about twelve cents a gallon. This is a major step forward in making the costs of biomass-based fuel competitive with the costs of gasoline. 7: Hybrid passenger car
NREL modified a hybrid passenger car so that it is able to get 100 miles per gallon. This is a photo of an experimental plug-in version of a 2006 Toyota Prius sedan. It runs the first sixty miles mostly on battery, with the remainder achieved through engine power. 6: Cheaper air-conditioning
Cars waste a lot of fuel on air-conditioning, and so do our homes. That's why NREL promotes its Desiccant Enhanced Evaporative air conditioner, or DEVap, which uses up to 80 percent less total energy than traditional air conditioners. This innovation uses advanced evaporative technologies that are much less wasteful than standard systems, in part because they actually remove moisture from the air. Continue to keep counting down our top fifteen NREL inventions and innovations. 5: Efficient light-emitting diodes
In a process that's basically the reverse of making advanced solar cells, NREL researchers have created an advanced green light-emitting diode, or LED. NREL says that generating a "true green" with an LED is a component that has been missing from LED production. This technology allows them to shine a brilliant white light that lasts for many years and uses a fraction of the energy that standard light bulbs today require. 4: High-performance batteries
Researchers at NREL built batteries in "reverse order" with lithium metal anodes buried inside the battery to help prevent rapid failures that can occur from cracks at the top, where they're usually located. This kind of technology, NREL reports, triples the performance of today's lithium-ion batteries at half the cost, and in turn should lower the overall price of plug-in vehicles. 3: Wind power in cold, remote areas
The lab's North Wind 100/20 Wind Turbine, which is ideal for extreme cold conditions and remote locations that may be off-grid or on a local grid, brings energy to fifty homes. The name comes from the turbine's capacity with 100 kilowatts (enough energy for dozens of homes) and twenty-meter-diameter blades. The technology brings energy to towns and villages in areas that must otherwise import diesel fuel. NREL says this turbine is cheaper and has a longer life than diesel generators and also doesn't require a gearbox or heated oil, which is why it works well in cold and remote locations. 2. Energy-efficient office building
As we mentioned briefly in our feature, the Research Support Facility, or RSF, is one of the campus' newest sustainable buildings. At 360,000 square feet with a Platinum designation Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, NREL's leaders say it has become a model for smart design. Some of its innovative technologies include daylighting, rooftop photovoltaics and a "mega-efficient" data center, all of which contribute to the RSF using 50 percent less energy than required by current commercial code. It also consumes only the amount of energy generated by renewable power on or near the building. 1: Concentrating sunlight
NREL has developed equipment that can concentrate sunlight up to 500 times its usual intensity by matching highly efficient "multi-junction solar cells" with inexpensive lenses in what is called the Amonix 7700 Concentrated Photovoltaic Solar Power Generator. Like many of the lab's more influential innovations, this technology functions at a utility scale, meaning it can have a significant impact well beyond a single home. NREL notes that this innovation reduces cost as well as actual land use, which are important steps in making solar electricity costs competitive with fossil fuels.
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Unless otherwise noted, all photos and information are from NREL's "35 Years of Innovation" pamphlet.
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