DOE Pulse
  • Number 455  |
  • December 28, 2015

NETL’s David Miller: The heart of CCSI

David Miller

David Miller

David Miller is an unassuming man. He maintains a hint of boyish charm—a self-effacing grin and glasses propped on the bridge of his nose. To look at him, one would never suspect that he stands at the nexus of an alliance that sprawls across the entire continental U.S.: the Carbon Capture Simulation Initiative (CCSI)—a vast web with personnel in eight states representing five Department of Energy laboratories, five esteemed universities, and an advisory board with over 20 industry partners who have hitched on for the ride. The coalition is unique, in both structure and mission, and David Miller, the technical director, is at its heart.

The initiative was launched in 2011 with a deceptively simple sounding objective: accelerate the development and deployment of carbon capture technologies by designing computational modeling tools that will speed development and scale-up. Carbon capture technologies are exactly what they sound like—technology that is designed to be incorporated into fossil-fueled power plants and isolate the CO2 before it can be released into the atmosphere. The current U.S. strategy for climate change mitigation relies on developing effective carbon capture methods as an integral component of the plan.

Yet, while scientists explore a wide breadth of techniques and processes for capture, from membranes to oxy-combustion, the common denominator between them is the time it takes for a technology to “scale-up,” or transition from the small-scale of the laboratory to the industrial-scale of a commercial power plant. Physical scale-up is an expensive, laborious, and intensely time-consuming process; most technology takes between 20 and 30 years to make the jump. But, with the disastrous consequences of global warming inching ever closer, 20 to 30 years may be a decade too late.

“I consider the work I do with CCSI as really, really important for mitigating climate change,” Miller affirmed. “The models we’ve been working on have the potential to reduce development time significantly – by 25 or 30 percent.”

Miller started working with the initiative shortly after he came to the National Energy Technology Laboratory in 2009. Previous to the move, he had been a professor of chemical engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, his undergraduate alma mater. But after taking a year sabbatical, during which he conducted research on modeling and optimization of advanced energy systems, he realized it was time for a change, “That year made me realize that I was more interested in the energy sector and conducting research. I felt like it was time to do something different, and there was this intriguing opportunity at NETL.”

The opportunity was the nascent form of what would eventually become CCSI, an unprecedented collaboration between academia, government, and industry with a singular goal. Miller recalls, “The original idea—the idea that became CCSI—was that we needed to scale-up capture technologies. We needed to scale them up faster than we’ve ever scaled up energy technologies before.” And how did they seek to accomplish their ambitious goal? Computer modeling.

Computational modeling, or the creation of multiscale simulations of a complex system, is a challenging endeavor, and the approach taken by CCSI is even more challenging than most. It relies on expertise from multiple scientific disciplines, from statisticians to chemical engineers. Through a blend of engineering, physics, math, chemistry, and computer science, the researchers of CCSI are able create a computer simulation to study, and predict, the behavior of potential carbon capture technologies.

Miller worked to create an environment and structure that would foster creativity, maximize the contributions of all individuals, promote unity of the overall technical team, and be flexible enough that we could take advantage of the synergies and ideas created by the team’s intersections. He cites two significant contributors to the success of CCSI: the early and ongoing involvement of industry partners, and the development of an innovative approach to managing intellectual property that enabled all the researchers to function as a single team. As testament to this unity, an industry representative remarked at an early program review meeting that until he was told that the team represented five national laboratories and five universities, he had thought that everyone was from a single institution.  

Miller, who has fostered the shape and culture of CCSI since its inception, is, unsurprisingly, no stranger to inter-disciplinary collaboration. His work, even in graduate school, was a testament to his belief in the interconnected nature of any problem—that solutions can’t be found in isolation. “Life cycle engineering, when I was in graduate school, was very much in its infancy. I found the concepts very interesting. You can’t just think about the design of whatever it is you’re making, you need to think of how it will be used, how it will be disposed of, the impact on the environment, on economics. You need to understand all of those different things and the trade-offs between them. That’s just always been something I’ve carried with me.”

He also brings that attitude home. With a nine-year-old daughter and a recently developed affinity for mountain biking, he still finds himself unable to compartmentalize his different worlds. “My work with CCSI isn’t eight to five, it’s a way of life. Your career—it’s your professional identity, but your professional identity is really a part of who you are. It’s not something distinct or separate.” And in the overlap, he sometimes finds his best inspirations, “I’ve been sitting in the symphony, listening to music, and get an inspiration for a model I’m working on. I’ve gone for rides in the woods and come up with a brilliant idea that I could take back with me and implement the next day.”

And his attitude has paid professional dividends. In October 2012, only 19 months after its 2011 launch, CCSI was already ready for an initial release of the CCSI Toolset, its suite of computational tools—a full year ahead of schedule. Since then, the initiative has released three new generations of the Toolset, each time offering new capabilities to the industry partners supporting the project. But the project is winding down. With its initial goals largely accomplished, CCSI is expected to transition in early 2016 to CCSI2—Carbon Capture Simulation for Industry Impact. “We’ve put together the toolset for industry, now we’re going to work with them to identify what data to collect to help them use the models to design and scale-up their technologies.”

But even with the end in sight, the pride that Miller takes in the CCSI Technical Team is obvious. Just as he has been at the heart of the project, it holds a special place in his: “CCSI has just kind of been a dream project. If I had access to whatever resources and personnel to put together the ideal project for what I’ve always wanted to do? Well, this is pretty close. This would be it.”

Submitted by DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory