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NREL’s Dr. Martin Keller Visits Kansas City Headquarters To Share Vision for Sustainable Energy

In early May, our Kansas City team was privileged to host Dr. Martin Keller, Laboratory Director and Alliance President for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado. In addition to operating our own laboratories and facilities across the nation, MRIGlobal is one of two partners in the Alliance for Sustainable Energy LLC, which manages the NREL laboratory for the US Department of Energy. MRIGlobal has managed and operated NREL since 1977 when the laboratory came into existence as the Solar Energy Research Institute. NREL is the nation’s only laboratory dedicated to renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. From breakthroughs in fundamental science to new clean technologies to integrated energy systems that power our lives, NREL researchers are transforming the way the nation and the world use energy.

Dr. Keller’s visit to our Kansas City headquarters culminated with a presentation to our entire staff, titled “NREL: The Path to Zero Net Carbon by 2050,” with this blog summarizing some of the presentation’s highlights. To achieve this zero net carbon goal, NREL’s workforce of more than 3,000 is committed to transforming today’s energy challenges into tomorrow’s solutions, focusing its research in four main energy sectors that boost economic growth and drive U.S. innovation:

  1. Renewable Power includes solar, wind, water, and geothermal energy technologies.
  2. Sustainable Transportation includes bioenergy, vehicle, and hydrogen technologies.
  3. Energy Efficiency includes building technologies, advanced manufacturing research, and energy management programs.
  4. Energy Systems Integration applies high-performance computing and data/visualization capabilities to grid modernization.


NREL is focused on three critical research areas that respond to existing energy challenges.

1) Integrated Energy Pathways

This is dedicated to developing the foundational knowledge and technologies to optimize the integration of renewables, buildings, energy storage, and transportation, all with the goal of modernizing our energy systems and ensuring a secure and resilient grid. 

Current power systems deliver electricity in one direction from large central plants to customer loads. Today, there is an increasing amount of distributed and variable generation, energy storage, and new loads being added to the grid. This causes bi-directional power flows and voltage fluctuations that impact control and optimization. NREL is working to develop Autonomous Energy Grids that are optimized for secure, resilient, and economic operations through advanced science in controls, optimization, complex systems, and big data analytics. 

The future energy system will integrate all types of energy and be more complex, distributed, and interdependent with other infrastructures like natural gas, transportation, water, and telecommunications. It will also prove to be more efficient, resilient, and affordable. Three fundamental challenges of integrated energy systems at scale must first be addressed: 1) Variability in the physical size of new energy technologies 2) Securely controlling millions to tens of millions of interconnected devices 3) Integrating multiple diverse technologies that have not previously worked together.  

 There is currently no research platform anywhere in the world that incorporates analysis, modeling, and hardware that can support research at the scale and versatility necessary. This lack of scale in experimentation severely limits the ability to integrate new technologies into either distribution or bulk power systems. Through their Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) work, NREL’s research matches the complexity of the modern energy system and conducts integrated research to support the development of groundbreaking new energy technologies. 

ARIES focuses on advancing modern grid infrastructure, making investments in energy efficiency building technology research, innovating battery storage and much more, all of which can be used to accelerate the integration of new technologies into a modern grid. 

The ARIES research mission is multi-technology, multi-disciplinary, highly complex, and has extremely high requirements for equipment interconnectivity/flexibility and data handling. By advancing modern grid infrastructure, making investments in energy efficiency building technology research, innovating battery storage and much more, new technologies will be quickly integrated into a modern grid. This will help speed up the process for bringing technology to scale by collaborating early to de-risk technologies and bringing them to market; developing fast, flexible agreements; and, working toward commercialization.  

2) Electrons to Molecules

NREL is focused on the conversion of electricity and small waste gases (e.g. CO2, H2O, N2) to generate higher-value, higher-energy chemicals, materials, and fuels as end-use products or as a means toward energy storage. This combination of producing goods and materials more sustainably with end-of-useful-life circularity in mind will drive a more sustainable future economy capable of meeting the world’s needs in a manner that leaves the environment and the planet healthy for generations to come. 

Researchers are developing efficient, electricity-driven processes that transform these readily available and low-cost materials into reactive intermediates. They are then coupling them with biological or catalytic processes to generate compounds to make plastics, fibers, and fuels. 

NREL will also investigate the use of electricity-driven processes to convert other materials such as nitrogen to green ammonia, transform fossil fuels and biomass into chemicals, deconstruct plastics for recycling and reuse, and refine ores to generate metals. 

Key research areas include, renewable hydrogen, reactive capture and conversion of CO2, generation of net-zero carbon fuels, and decarbonizing industry process and production of goods and materials. 

The potential impacts are profound, as the research will evaluate whole-systems, long-term, and all-hazards cyber solutions for the safety of advanced energy technologies; provide utilities and energy-sector companies who specialize in wind, solar, smart buildings, electric vehicles, and other distributed energy resources with objective insights on system- and device-level cybersecurity; and will also reduce the risk for new energy technologies by elevating the visibility of potential threats before a technology is deployed. 

3) Circular Economy for Energy Materials

This establishes the foundational knowledge/technology for design, recycle, reuse, remanufacture, and reliability for energy-relevant materials and processes. 

Decarbonization of the U.S. economy will require rapid deployment of clean energy technologies. This will demand large amounts of materials – including scarce, critical materials. Ensuring these materials are available in the necessary quantities and at their highest value and function will necessitate a robust circular economy for energy materials. 

Unfortunately, supply chain limitations across energy technologies can reduce accessibility. To address this, NREL is:  

  • Developing novel, low-emissions materials 
  • Creating design architectures to increase recyclability 
  • Designing manufacturing processes that reduce material use 
  • Increasing technology lifetimes 
  • Conducting social, economic, and regulatory analyses that support a circular economy for energy materials. 

By then developing end-of-life material recovery strategies to ensure these materials are not disposed of in landfills, as is the common practice today, these materials will continue to provide societal value. NREL is also exploring pathways to reduce waste and increase product innovation while supporting human health, livelihood, and job creation. A just and circular transition should reduce inequalities and benefit all communities. 

With an additional focus on polymer upcycling, NREL is working to deliver technologies that will incentivize reclamation of waste plastics to enable a circular plastics economy that develops robust processes to upcycle existing waste plastics, while developing new plastics that are recyclable-by-design. This includes chemistry, biology, material science, characterization, modeling, and analysis. It also enables multi-scale, hybrid processing from g to kg scale.  

NREL envisions a future in which energy materials are manufactured more efficiently, built to last longer, and designed for reuse and recycling on retirement to ensure that resources and supply chains for the clean energy transition are secure and sustainable. This includes batteries, building materials, modeling and analysis, photovoltaics, polymers and composites, supply chain manufacturing, and wind energy technologies.  

The future will be defined not only by a need for more resilient and accessible energy, but also by greater and more varied types of demand. As our population, urbanization, and global affluence all increase, so will our demand on the world’s energy resources. NREL is working to make it more integrated, more sustainable, and more accessible for all. As a member of the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, the Management and Operations contractor for NREL, MRIGlobal will work to ensure the execution of these important initiatives. 

Getting started with MRIGlobal

Contact MRIGlobal to further understand our work managing and operating laboratories across the country, including NREL. As a contract manager, we apply vast expertise in governance and contract assurance through strategy, leadership, stewardship, and engagement. As a not-for-profit contract research organization, we have proven ourselves as an objective partner driven to make our clients’ products more successful. We specialize in defense, human health, pharmaceutical sciences, in-vitro diagnostics, energy and environment, agriculture, and global health.

To learn more about the work we’ve done or how we can help you, contact us today. If you are part of an agency, business, or academic institution seeking assistance with a project, use our Project Quote Tool   to get started. 

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