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Brookhaven develops clean, sustainable energy alternatives

Tom Butcher stands behind the Brookhaven-developed fan-atomized oil burner, which offers improved fuel- and air-mixing for better performance and is now commercially available.
Click here for additional images.

The oil burner flares to life with a bright blue and orange flame, illuminating the walls of Brookhaven's oil-heat laboratory. This burner, however, is fueled much differently than those typically found in homes: It is being powered by a mix of fuel oil and a vegetable oil-derived alternative known as biodiesel, thus reflecting the forward thinking of researchers in Brookhaven's Energy Sciences & Technology Department (ES&T).

"It is important for the United States to have an alternative fuel option -- we need to have a Plan-B energy source that we can turn to in the future," says C.R. Krishna, Brookhaven's lead biodiesel researcher. "So, we see biodiesel as a potential home-grown fuel for home heating."

Initially designed as an alternative for diesel-powered vehicles, biodiesel is a "biofuel" that can also be used as an additive or replacement energy source for use in a standard, oil-fired furnace or boiler. Made from new or used vegetable oils or animal fats, biofuel is biodegradable, nontoxic, and, most important, renewable. While organic materials take millions of years to transform into fossil fuels, biofuel feedstocks can be grown in just a few months, and the plants themselves consume carbon dioxide, helping to counterbalance what is produced when the fuels are burned.

Brookhaven researchers, in collaboration with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, have been studying the practicality of biofuel use in a two-year, 100-home field test in upstate New York, one of several such studies going on across the country. The Laboratory is also working with the National Park Service (NPS), providing technical assistance and performing monitoring as part of a test of biodiesel planned for an NPS site on Long Island.

"One of the benefits is that these biofuels burn much more cleanly than fuel oil," explains Krishna. In addition to reducing boiler buildup and the subsequent need for servicing, the burning of biofuels in residential boilers results in the release into the air of less nitrogen oxide and particulate, and no sulfur dioxide, thus reducing air emissions.

In contrast to the reduced environmental cost, biofuels are still more expensive to produce than fuel oil, costing approximately 25 to 50 cents more per gallon. However, as biofuel use becomes more widespread and production rises, Brookhaven researchers expect the price to drop.

"If we can further develop biodiesel, then one economic benefit would likely be an increase in the agricultural production of biofuel feedstock in upstate New York and elsewhere in the country," comments Tom Butcher, who heads ES&T's energy resources division. "This could lead to the expanded use of other plant-based petroleum-replacement products, such as biolubricants and biohydraulic oil, which is already in use at Brookhaven."

Innovative solutions

Under DOE's energy-resource mission, the biofuel project is just one of several alternative-energy research initiatives under way within Brookhaven's ES&T Department. By focusing on basic and applied research and technology development of clean, sustainable energy products and processes, the goal is to transfer to industry technology that solves world-wide energy challenges in an innovative, economically feasible fashion.

Encompassing energy and economic modeling, energy-infrastructure reliability, proliferation-resistant reactor designs, and energy production, transmission, and storage, current projects include:

Wind-energy research: Interest in wind energy in the New York metropolitan area is escalating, and several proposals for large-scale land and offshore wind turbines are under review by local power companies. Designing sturdy foundation structures is one key to the success of these projects, so Brookhaven researchers are now evaluating the dynamic response of large wind turbine systems and assessing alternative foundation materials. A computational method now under development will be a significant technical advance and may lead to a commercial software package. Alternative foundation materials being studied include concrete with high fly ash content, as well as fiber-reinforced concrete.

Study of corrosion-resistant geothermal materials: Working with DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Brookhaven researchers are: performing corrosion testing of nickel-chromium-molybdenum alloys; evaluating coatings and mortars for resistance to sulfur-oxidizing bacteria; exploring non-destructive test methods; and field-testing various coatings and cements, with the goal of reducing geothermal energy costs. Brookhaven researchers received an R&D 100 Award and a Federal Laboratory Consortium Technology Transfer Award for developing a high-performance coating system that is highly effective in highly corrosive environments, such as geothermal power plants and chemical processing facilities.

  • Development of battery materials: For hybrid and electric vehicles, the focus is on advanced cathodes for high-rate lithium ion batteries. Using the material characterization abilities of the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven (see pages 18-21), researchers are also exploring novel methods of producing fuel-cell electrocatalysts that require substantially reduced amounts of platinum, the most expensive component of a fuel cell.

  • Cogeneration of heat and electric power: Seen as an important option for achieving large gains in energy efficiency, combined cooling, heating, and power technologies are a possible energy solution even for the individual home. Brookhaven is now serving as a host site for the demonstration and testing of integrated thermal technologies, such as gas- and oil-fired microturbine power generators, absorption chillers, and fuel cells.

  • Natural gas production and storage: Vast quantities of natural gas are trapped in ice structures known as methane hydrates, which are found in permafrost and beneath the ocean floor. Brookhaven researchers have expertise in performing structural studies of methane hydrates and so have teamed with other national laboratories to participate in a DOE effort to establish the fundamental properties of these hydrates. The goal is to permit the safe harvesting of trapped methane by 2015.

  • Clean hydrogen production: Brookhaven researchers are studying catalysts that can streamline the hydrogen-production process and speed the implementation of hydrogen-based fuel cells in a host of transportation and other applications. A novel, low-temperature process of producing "pure" hydrogen recently patented by a Brookhaven scientist, may help address one of the most significant difficulties in developing efficient and affordable fuel cells: how to extend the life of the catalysts that make them work.

Increased Reliability

In addition to these alternative energy projects, the Laboratory is also working to improve the reliability and diversity of existing energy sources.

For instance, Brookhaven researchers are developing an advanced oil-burner system that offers increased efficiency and reduced air emissions relative to conventional burners. This concept will be used in residential appliances and is also the centerpiece of a novel thermophotovoltaic system for electric power generation.

Scientists are also researching clean liquid fuels, such as heating oil, with ultra-low sulfur and nitrogen contents, using microorganisms to upgrade oil, coal, and other petroleum products, plus developing advanced, proliferation-proof nuclear reactor designs. Work focused on energy conservation includes the development of advanced heating equipment and improved heating-distribution systems in buildings.

Brookhaven's research to improve fuel-oil efficiency has saved approximately $6 billion in the past decade for the 10 million Americans who heat their homes and businesses with oil.

This research has also resulted in two technologies that have been patented: a fan-atomized oil burner, which is up to 10 percent more efficient than typical burners, and a flame-quality indicator, which monitors a burner's flame for maximum efficiency.


More Information

  • Funding: Offices of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy; Nuclear Energy, Science & Technology; and Fossil Energy; U.S. Department of Energy
  • Patent: "Method for low temperature catalytic production of hydrogen," United States patent no. 6,596,423, July 22, 2003
  • Contact: William Horak, horak@bnl.gov or (631) 344-2627
  • Web: www.bnl.gov/est


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