Michael Zarnstorff PPPL's Michael Zarnstorff: The Man Who Loves Science

Michael Zarnstorff couldn’t decide whether to major in physics, math or computer science. So he majored in all three at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and co-owned a computer company on the side. “My normal rule of thumb is that I’m interested in almost everything,” said Zarnstorff, an award-winning physicist who joined DOE's’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) in 1984, and has been deputy director for research since 2009.

Zarnstorff’s broad curiosity dovetails with the task of supervising research that ranges from testing ideas for harnessing fusion to developing rockets for space flight.  His job encompasses keeping projects aligned with DOE goals and envisioning new research opportunities for PPPL, which is managed by Princeton University. “I always try to look at how we can do more,” he said.

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Systems controlling utilities and factories can be engineered to resist interruption from natural or man-made disasters.Engineering grid resilience

Hurricane Sandy illustrated the need to build resilience into complex systems that provide energy, water and emergency response at levels considered luxurious just a generation ago. DOE's Idaho National Laboratory has pioneered thinking about "resilient" systems that are more resistant to interruption from natural or man-made disasters.

The modern industrial plant control system is made up of numerous networked computer components, switches and valves that perform certain "smart" functions to control systems and operate processes. The interconnected parts, nodes and links collectively exhibit emergent properties or behaviors beyond those of individual components.

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See also…

DOE Pulse
  • Number 383  |
  • March 4, 2013
  • First electricity-making catalyst to use iron to split hydrogen gas

    Burning hydrogen in a fuel cell generates an electrical current. A new iron-based catalyst might help make those fuel cells less expensive. A fast and efficient iron-based catalyst that splits hydrogen gas to make electricity, necessary to make fuel cells more economical, was reported by researchers at DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. It is the first iron-based catalyst that converts hydrogen directly to electricity. The result moves chemists and engineers one step closer to widely affordable fuel cells.

    "A drawback with today's fuel cells is that the platinum they use is more than a thousand times more expensive than iron," said chemist R. Morris Bullock, who leads the research at the PNNL.

    His team at the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis has been developing catalysts that use cheaper metals such as nickel and iron. The one they report here can split hydrogen as fast as two molecules per second with an efficiency approaching those of commercial catalysts. The center is one of 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers established by the DOE Office of Science across the nation in 2009 to accelerate basic research in energy.

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  • NETL studies effect of CO2 on the integrity of well cement

    Three layers of steel (casing and tubing) and two layers of durable, long-lasting cement separate the contents from the surrounding groundwater. Geologic carbon storage is the separation and capture of carbon dioxide (CO2) from large stationary sources, such as power plants, followed by injection into deep geologic formations.  Long-term storage of CO2 pre-supposes very low or no leakage from the formation.  The majority of locations that are being considered for CO2 injection are in areas that have a history of oil, natural gas, and/or coalbed methane production, and are typically penetrated by a significant number of wells from exploration and production.  The ability to effectively store large quantities of CO2 may be compromised by the presence of these active or abandoned wells, which represent potential leakage paths.

    Once an oil or gas well is drilled, it is typically lined with a steel casing cemented into place.   The cement is placed in the annular column (the annulus) between the casing and the surrounding rock formation to support the steel casing and to prevent the flow of fluids and gases along its outside diameter.  When a well is ultimately abandoned, the casing is typically plugged with cement to block vertical migration of fluids.  Cement is not stable in a CO2 environment and can be vulnerable when a wellbore is exposed to CO2 injected into the surrounding formation for permanent storage.  The integrity of cement has important implications for the long-term fate of CO2.  As a result, DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory research has focused on the integrity of wellbore cement when contacted with injected CO2 under storage conditions. This entails simulating deep underground injection and wellbore conditions such as high temperatures and pressures using common wellbore cements. Results show that temperature, pressure, cement type, cement additives, and fluid properties play a significant role in the rate of reaction and alteration. 

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  • Extracting rare earth materials from consumer products

    Material separations scientists at INL's centrifugal contactor lab.

    In a new twist on the state's mining history, a group of Idaho scientists will soon be crushing consumer electronics rather than rocks in a quest to recover precious materials. DOE's Ames Laboratory will lead the new Critical Materials Innovation Hub, and Idaho National Laboratory scientists will contribute to that effort. They'll apply expertise gleaned from recycling fissionable material from nuclear fuel to separate rare earth metals and other critical materials from crushed consumer products.

    So-called rare earth elements — many of which can be found floating at the bottom of a standard periodic table — likely aren't far from where you're sitting. The bright red in that smartphone text or image: Europium. Powerful magnets driving electric motors in everything from wind turbines to vehicles to hand tools: Dysprosium, Neodymium. Phosphors coating the innards of energy-efficient light bulbs: Terbium, Yttrium, Europium.

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  • NREL’s RSF influences new high performance buildings

    Energy-efficient features found in NREL's Research Support Facility, including daylighting, are being replicated in other buildings across the country. Credit: Dennis Schroeder

    The Research Support Facility (RSF) at DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory has hosted thousands of visitors since it opened as one of the world's largest high performance office buildings. Generating buzz about the energy savings possible in commercial buildings is exactly what DOE and NREL have been aiming for.

    "There are days when I think I should quit my job and just be a tour guide," jokes NREL Senior Research Engineer Shanti Pless. "But I'm willing to do it because I see the impact taking people through this building has on our future energy savings."

    Energy savings is precisely what the RSF demonstrates every day as 1,800 NREL staff start their workdays in a 360,000 square-foot Class A office building that generates as much electricity as it uses, thanks to rooftop photovoltaics. Even after potential visitors hear that the RSF was built at the same price as a non-efficient building, they can be skeptical — until they see it with their own eyes.

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