This is a guest post from 2011 NRDC MAP Fellow Lauren Kubiak

With policy makers tied up in largely irrelevant arguments about clean energy, I turned my attention to a different area of energy: research and development.  Showcasing the most recent—and best—inventions, the R&D 100 awards in Orlando, Florida, honored health, information technology, and, of course, alternative energy innovations.  An annual occurrence sponsored by R&D Magazine, the awards featured the inventors and developers in the U.S., and their remarkable energy system-advancing capabilities.  It also provided a demonstration of the importance of government support for energy innovation.

From a fuel-cell innovation, to a silicon ink for high efficiency solar cells, a renewable methane combustion system for anaerobic digesters, and a new technique to measure the power capability of energy storage devices—50 times faster than current methods—the honored energy innovators are developing a new energy system that promises to generate electricity more efficiently, cleanly, and more sustainably.

Amongst the honorees was Robert Gaylord, R&D manager of NextAire, honored for their efficient gas-powered heat pump.  The pump, co-developed by IntelliChoice Energy and Southwest Gas with funding from the Department of Energy’s Oakridge National Lab, the Department of Defense, and Southwest Gas Corporation, generates electricity on site to reduce peak demand and the ramp-up of extra power plants.  Beyond its remote powering abilities, the technology is 50 percent more efficient than other gas-powered pumps, due in part to its ability to recover waste heat.  This is on top of the already more efficient resource transport of natural gas, which, at 90 percent, is more than three-fold electricity transmission’s 27 percent efficiency.  The pump also uses 83 percent less water to generate electricity which, in the desert southwest, is a highly valued commodity and one of the reasons it is already being used on six military bases. 

Another notable invention presented at the expo was the silicon ink solar cell, developed by the National Renewable Energy Lab and Innovalight Inc.  By adding a low-cost silicon ink on top of the solar cells, the panels are able to achieve a 1 percent gain in sunlight-to-electricity conversion efficiency.  While it might not sound like much by itself, this 1 percent gain translates to a 6 percent improvement overall, which reduces cost, increases the amount of electricity generation, and has a multitude of implications beyond. 

As global energy demand grows, clean energy technologies will continue to become increasingly important.  Speaking with the scientists and engineers from Oakridge National Lab, National Renewable Energy Lab, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Sandia National Lab, (and more!) whose inventions are minimizing pollution and maximizing efficiency, I couldn’t help but notice how critical government support is for research.  Take a look at the list of winners again and count the number of teams from national labs.  It’s a national priority to maximize efficiency in the evolving clean energy system, and I have no skepticism in the honorees’ abilities to continue to invent the critical alternative energy technologies to get it done.