Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers will lead three projects after winning a Department of Energy grant competition to find projects to dramatically improve how the U.S. produces and uses energy.
The grants total $3.8 million and were awarded by DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy.
One of the PNNL projects will explore improvements to storing heat from sources such as concentrated solar or nuclear power, which can then be released to generate electricity or be used to warm buildings.
Another will investigate a novel technology that's capable of providing heating and air conditioning for electric vehicles using no moving parts. The third seeks to find a cheaper alternative to expensive and often imported rare-earth elements in magnets used in wind turbines and electric vehicles.
"History shows America is at its best when we innovate," said Arun Majumdar, director of the DOE program. "It is now more important than ever to invest in game-changing ideas that will build the technological infrastructure for a new, clean energy economy."
The largest grant, $2.3 million, would be used by PNNL materials scientist Jun Cui and others to develop a replacement for rare earth magnets based on an innovative nano-composite using manganese-based alloys. Raw materials would be abundant and inexpensive.
Manganese composites could potentially be twice as strong as current state-of-the-art magnets at higher temperatures, possibly eliminating the need for a cooling system.
The team will develop stronger magnets by combining high-performance supercomputer modeling with experiments of various metal composite formulations that do not contain rare-earth materials.
If developed successfully, these composite magnets will reduce dependence on expensive rare-earth material imports, and reduce the cost and improve efficiency of green technologies. Now magnets may be made of neodymium, iron and cobalt.
About $700,000 would be used to demonstrate a proof of concept for an improved method of storing heat.
Solar power technologies provide a source of clean electricity generation without emissions, but the heat from the sun needs to be stored as efficiently as possible to be used upon demand. To enhance efficiencies and expand applications, there is a need for new materials that can function at higher temperatures, according to PNNL.
PNNL scientists Ewa Ronnebro and Kevin Simmons -- along with metallurgical materials scientist Zak Fang at the University of Utah -- will investigate a metal hydride material that can store 10 times the amount of heat per mass as conventional molten salt.
The team will first develop a metal hydride with a long lifetime. If successful, they then will create a small prototype system.
PNNL and University of South Florida scientists will receive about $800,000 to work on a material that could improve the efficiency of heating and air conditioning electric vehicles.
Internal combustion engines in today's cars generate a lot of heat, which is great for heating the passenger cabin in winter. But electric vehicles produce very little waste heat, so providing electricity for the same amount of heat would reduce their driving range by as much as 40 percent.
PNNL scientists Pete McGrail and Praveen Thallapally are helping develop a material called an electrical metal-organic framework (EMOF) for vehicle heating and cooling systems. The EMOF would work as a molecular heat pump, which efficiently circulates heat or cold as needed.
By directly controlling the EMOF's properties with electricity, their design is expected to use much less energy than traditional heating and cooling systems. For example, a 5-pound EMOF-based heat pump the size of a 2-liter bottle could theoretically handle the heating and cooling needs of an electric vehicle with far less impact on driving distance.