Batteries, Catalysts, Climate, Clean Energy: Secretary Granholm Treated to ‘Whirlwind’ PNNL Visit

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm virtually visited Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) Monday, May 24, where she met with leading scientists, toured lab facilities, and learned about research efforts.

Video: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Granholm, the former Michigan governor who is the second woman to lead the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), is conducting similar visits to other national labs after being sworn into office Feb. 25.

“You’re the reason why I and others have often said that the Department of Energy is America’s solutions department,” Granholm said during a town hall with staff at PNNL, “because you’re the ones who are breaking through these boundaries of what’s possible and unlocking answers to our biggest questions or clearing the way for America to win the 21st century. And from my perspective, you’re offering a renewable source of hope.”

PNNL Director Steven Ashby, who served as Granholm’s guide on the virtual lab tour, noted the importance of Granholm’s role in his introductory remarks.

“She’s helping to lead America in meeting President Biden’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 by advancing cutting-edge clean energy solutions, creating millions of good-paying, union, clean energy jobs, and building an equitable clean energy future for all of us,” Ashby said.

Granholm’s nearly hour-and-a-half video tour featured presentations by scientists and stops at five PNNL facilities, a tour that underscored the lab’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions and study climate change.

“We’re going to highlight just a little bit of the great work we’re doing here,” Ashby told Granholm, previewing the tour.

First stop-Atmospheric Measurement Laboratory

“PNNL is an international leader in climate and atmospheric sciences,” Charlette Geffen, director of program development at the Earth and Biological Sciences Directorate, told Granholm. “We’ve been gathering measurements and translating those into improved climate models for the last 30 years.”

Geffen, standing in an Atmospheric Measurement Laboratory, noted that PNNL scientists in Richland as well as research partners at the Joint Global Change Research Institute in College Park, Maryland, are members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geffen later said that PNNL has been part of the multi-lab Atmospheric Radiation Measurement User Facility since its inception.

“They’re being consulted by this administration to help understand and evaluate pathways for addressing climate change,” Geffen said of PNNL atmospheric scientists, “including the role of advanced energy technologies.”

In the same lab, John Shilling, senior chemist in the directorate’s Atmospheric Sciences and Global Change Division, showed Granholm the facility’s atmospheric chamber, a high-tech room that can mimic atmospheric conditions. Shilling explained how the controlled, recreated atmosphere provided climate data used to create models.

Ruby Leung, a Battelle fellow at PNNL and chief scientist of the DOE-supported Energy Exascale Earth System Model (E3SM), described that model for Granholm, highlighting the essential role it plays in understanding climate change. Leung noted that current E3SM studies are exploring the mid-Atlantic region and another in the Great Lakes region.

“As a former governor of Michigan, I’m really interested in the Great Lakes modeling,” Granholm said to Leung. “What’s the information that you’re gleaning that’s helpful to the folks who are on Lake Michigan and feel like they have lost their beaches because of the growing size of the Great Lakes?”

Leung replied that E3SM was capable of zooming into specific geographic regions, such as the Great Lakes, exploring a variety of environmental impacts.

Second stop-Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory

Wendy Shaw, physical sciences director in the Physical and Computational Sciences Directorate, and computational scientist Samantha Johnson told Granholm about PNNL’s clean energy research.

“We’re exploring the fundamental science of energy storage materials,” Shaw, strolling through the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, told Granholm. “Things like catalysts and batteries, things that can enable a net-zero carbon emission future. With batteries, we’re trying to understand the fundamental science that would allow them to have a higher energy density while maintaining their safe operation so that things like your Chevy Volt can run even further in between charges.”

Granholm, seated in her Washington, D.C., office, chuckled at the reference to her personal vehicle, telling Shaw, “You’ve done your homework!”

Shaw delivered a quick overview of PNNL’s catalysis research, noting that PNNL developed the technology for the catalytic converters used in Dodge Cummins diesel pickups, and displaying an instrument that will accelerate catalysis research.

“What’s it called?” Granholm said, referring to the device.

Shaw replied, “It’s called a Dynamic Nuclear Polarization Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer. We call it ‘DNPNMR.’ Yeah, it’s a mouthful.”

Standing in front of a large poster depicting the Energy Sciences Center, Shaw told the secretary that the Center’s “focus is on the energy storage materials that we’ve talked about here today with catalysts and batteries being their focus. In addition to the science, this facility from its inception has been about collaboration, bringing collaborators from around the world to help escalate and advance innovation that can come to help solve these challenging problems. These include academic partners and industrial partners.”

Johnson, speaking from the same lab as Shaw, described the role supercomputers play in research to supplement laboratory experiments. “My work is primarily on energy storage, carbon neutral fuels, and also the molecules called catalysts that make these transformations possible. So, catalysts and batteries are a big part of our energy landscape.”

Shaw and Johnson described PNNL’s efforts to reach students interested in science. Shaw said she started work at a national laboratory as an undergraduate; Johnson told the secretary about her volunteer work as a science, technology, engineering and mathematics ambassador.

“You guys are awesome,” Granholm said. “I look forward to meeting you, hopefully face-to-face.”

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PNNL scientist Jie Xiao talks about battery research with U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm during a virtual tour of PNNL. (Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Third stop-Life Sciences Laboratory 2

“PNNL is at the forefront in the search for better batteries,” said Cindy Powell, the energy processes and materials division director in the Energy and Environment Directorate, “with research that spans from fundamental science-and you saw some of those really cool tools that we have access to in your last tour stop-all the way through materials, discovery, and development and then out to partnership with folks and users around the country to really understand how batteries work in real service conditions.”

Powell spoke to Granholm while standing next to Albert, the nickname applied to a robotic chemical testing machine. Powell said Albert takes chemistries that show promise for energy storage, “then he makes them in small quantities and you can form an initial suite of tests to validate whether these materials have what it takes to be a better battery.” Powell then displayed a tiny vial holding fluorenone to the secretary, saying PNNL researchers had found the inexpensive chemical effective in grid-scale energy storage, a finding published May 21 in the journal Science.

Materials scientist Jie Xiao, a lab fellow and group leader of the Battery Materials and System group, gave Granholm an overview of the Battery 500 Consortium. “The goal of our Battery 500 Consortium is to double the cell-level energy of traditional lithium ion batteries, achieving 500 watt hours per kilogram,” said Xiao, the consortium’s deputy director, an organization that includes four national labs and five universities.

“Our consortium has assembled a team of world-class scientists to work together to advance this future battery technology,” Xiao said, adding that two members are Nobel Prize winners.

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