The NREL, one of ten laboratories operating under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and the only one fully vested in renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development, is the lifetime winner of 50 R&D 100 awards for such commercial products as its smart, high performance protective coating system for steel surfaces that repairs itself.
For example, consider the use of ink-jet printing and energy-conductive inks to deliver thin-film solar applications, like the CIGS (copper indium gallium selenide) base model which has proven so successful largely because of its higher solar efficiency rating and its ability to be incorporated into cladding materials for building integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) applications.
Why does NREL do this? There’s a reason they call the laboratory an “incubator”, which suggests protecting fragile shells until the chicks are hatched. The NREL’s primary function is to ensure that technologies survive their development, which often doesn’t happen in the private sector simply because the profit potential isn’t immediately apparent, or is so far down the road, developmentally speaking, that for-profit companies aren’t willing to take a chance.
Instead, the NREL focuses on those ideas or inventions which promise clean energy – even if not always highly profitable – and the better use of existing energy supplies. How does it do this? By literally “selling” largely developed technologies – the ones where the “bugs” have been worked out – to startup development companies.
Even then, NREL and other DOE laboratories don’t make the kinds of tech transfer profits found in the private sector. In fact, in April, the DOE launched the “America’s Next Top Energy Innovator” challenge, which reduces upfront license fees to $1,000 and simplifies the licensing requirements from any of its 17 national laboratories.
NREL (and other DOE labs) also provides future funding for R&D from the laboratory to the fab plant, or help move products to the marketplace through technology partnerships. In fact, NREL will perform highly technical laboratory analyses for a product developer or company, and even allow companies to use its laboratories for a fee, of course.
The NREL currently leads all 17 labs in technology transfer R&D and – operating through CRADAs (Cooperative Research and Development Agreements) – is currently working with companies on several cutting-edge products:
- OPXBIO: making diesel from hydrogen and carbon dioxide, with $6 million from ARPA-E (the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy)/
- Prime Star Solar: moving cadmium telluride (CdTe) out of the NREL lab and into commercial module production, with $870,000 in CRADA funds.
- Verdant Power: design and test a new composite rotor for marine-kinetic hydropower turbines, used to collect the energy of ocean waves, ocean currents, or even rivers. The new design will enable these turbines to maximize power collection whatever the source.