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Research Tools For The Nation

ORNL, industry, and university researchers collaborating at DOE national user facilities in Oak Ridge have helped improve nationwide energy efficiency.


State-of-the-art research equipment and tools that no industrial company or university can afford are available to researchers nationwide at the Department of Energy's national user facilities at ORNL. These facilities serve as catalysts for the development of partnerships and collaborations between ORNL and industrial or university researchers. Six of these facilities at the Laboratory receive funding from DOE's Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). They are truly national resources for energy researchers.

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The Bioprocessing R&D Center houses equipment for the investigation of advanced bioprocessing concepts, including stirred-tank and columnar bioreactors and fermentation plant for large-scale batch and columnar experiments. The range of equipment sizes accommodates both bench-scale experiments and large-scale demonstrations or process scale-up studies. Researchers produced small, uniform, immobilized biocatalysts in the demonstration of a scaled-up fluidized bed for production of ethanol from corn. Ethanol is used as automotive fuel, helping reduce the nation's dependence on imported oil for gasoline. The center has also collaborated with others to develop a bioreactor-based method of converting corn into succinic acid, demonstrating that renewable farm crops can be a cost-effective, environmentally friendly substitute for imported petroleum in the manufacture of chemicals.

The Buildings Technology Center is the premiere U.S. research facility devoted to the development of technologies that improve the energy efficiency and environmental compatibility of residential and commercial buildings. The BTC provides access to a unique collection of testing and analysis capabilities using state-of-the-art experimental equipment.


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Its mission is to help DOE, industry, and other customers identify issues and solve problems of major significance to building systems with solutions that are energy efficient, environmentally sound, and cost effective. The facility is composed of three centers: building envelope research, heating and cooling technology, and existing buildings research.

The centerpiece facility for building envelope research is the large-scale climate simulator, which sandwiches large roof sections between two environmental chambers. The upper climate chamber can simulate almost any outdoor weather condition, and the lower chamber typically models interior conditions. The rotatable guarded hot box is used to test full-size wall, window, roof, and floor systems; data from these tests have been entered into a whole-wall rating database. The roof thermal research apparatus has tested 24 different reflective roof coatings for low-slope roofs, to provide durability data for establishing the long-term thermal performance of the coatings. The envelope systems research apparatus is used to study energy and moisture flow through building envelopes. The complete apparatus tested simultaneously and defined the thermal performance of 40 different roof systems, accounting for changes in rooftop surface reflectivity over time. An indoor-outdoor environmental chamber simulates temperatures and humidity conditions for the development of cutting-edge air-conditioning, refrigeration, and heat pump technologies. A heat exchanger test facility helps researchers design, develop, and test the performance of novel air-to-refrigerant heat exchangers without lubricant additives.

The Distributed Generation and Cooling, Heating, and Power (CHP) Integration Laboratory encourages the use of energy-efficient distributed energy generation systems, where users generate electricity on site using microturbines, turbines or reciprocating engines.


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Waste heat from these engines can be captured and used productively to increase system efficiencies to beyond 70% (approximately double that of conventional power plants).

This lab was one of the first facilities to test an integrated energy system (IES) for distributed generation (DG). Manufacturers could bring their equipment and evaluate its performance when coupled with any of the engines, heat exchangers, absorption chillers, or desiccant systems in the Lab. The manufacturers could also utilize ORNL-developed software to optimize the design and performance of advanced IES. New capabilities are being added to the laboratory to address the need for more efficient heat exchangers and chillers, and the challenge of generating and controlling reactive power from DG. Reactive power is increasing in importance and can be used to boost system efficiency, regulate voltage, and improve the power quality of the IES.

The High Temperature Materials Laboratory is a specialized facility that houses a staff of materials experts and unique materials characterization equipment, including scanning transmission electron microscopes that can be operated remotely.


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HTML staff work with industrial researchers to solve materials problems that limit the efficiency and reliability of advanced energy conversion systems, such as gas-fired microturbines and reciprocating engines.

HTML's six user centers are devoted to materials analysis, mechanical characterization and analysis, diffraction, thermophysical properties, residual stress, and machining, inspection, and tribology. HTML staff have access to a new aberration-corrected electron microscope in ORNL's new advanced microscopy lab, enabling characterization of materials at the subatomic level.

Researchers at HTML are designing components for thermal management systems that will enable the efficient operation of fuel-cell-powered cars and many other devices where heat transfer is critical. These components are built by weaving graphite fibers with high thermal conductivity. The resulting structures possess thermal properties comparable to those of ORNL's revolutionary graphite foam, but they possess much higher damage tolerance and mechanical strength.

The Metals Processing Laboratory Users Facility is designed to assist researchers in key U.S. industries, universities, and federal laboratories in improving energy efficiency and enhancing the competitiveness of the U.S. metals and materials industry in the global market. MPLUS provides access to the specialized technical expertise and equipment needed to solve metals processing issues that limit the development and implementation of emerging metals processing technologies. Here's an example:

When managers at the Logan Aluminum plant, which re-melts ingots of recycled aluminum-magnesium (Al-Mg) alloy to make Al-Mg alloy for can lids, learned about a problem, they came to MPLUS for help.


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The company found that a significant fraction of the alloy is very high in dross content, an aluminum oxide solid waste that is either sent to landfills or further processed to make Al-Mg alloy. Aluminum is produced from aluminum oxide using electricity, so dross formation represents a waste of energy for the aluminum industry. Logan Aluminum wanted to know why dross in ingots—originally formed when recycling companies melt aluminum alloy scrap and cast it into solid forms for transport to customers—is so high and how the dross is formed.

ORNL's Qingyou Han and his colleagues analyzed samples from the center of the ingots. When they heated the material to temperatures 200°C higher than the alloy's melting temperature, they found it did not melt but instead formed dross. Using a scanning electron microscope, they observed that a thin oxide layer surrounded aluminum grains, like an eggshell enveloping an egg.

"When the molten material is slowly cooled to form an ingot, air is pulled into the ingot's semi-solid center, leading to the formation of aluminum oxide on the surfaces of aluminum grains," Han says. "During re-melting of the ingot, the oxide layer does not melt. Instead, high-quality molten aluminum grains are entrapped in the oxide shell and turned into dross." Pete Angelini, MPLUS director, suggested a different way of cooling to minimize dross formation. The method has already been put to use by Logan Aluminum, reducing its energy use by an estimated 0.34 trillion Btu/yr.



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The National Transportation Research Center seeks to assist industry in using unique, state-of-the-art hardware and computing technologies to address problems of national and international significance, such as inefficient use of energy, dependence on foreign oil supplies, poor air quality, traffic congestion, and highway safety. The center has an array of unique testing equipment, including dynamometers to test diesel and other engines, as well as the Test Machine for Automotive Crashworthiness (TMAC), which measures the energy absorption properties of composites and metals when crushed in simulations of collisions between vehicles. NTRC houses centers and laboratories for the study of composite materials; fuels, engines, and emissions; photonics and remote sensing; and power electronics and electric machinery.

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