Had a fabulous day today at the National Renewable Energy Lab. It had been one of my top must-sees, but we were having real trouble getting the entree. But it happened in the end and the persistence was justified, as it was really interesting. I started by meeting Carol from the Public Affairs side, who gave me some background about the lab and showed me round some of the buildings. They are all very energy efficient, holding the platinum status under the US accreditation system for buildings. [Spooky aside: I was supposed to have been met by Sarah Barba, but she was ill today with an allergic flare-up. And I dreamt last night that I had to cancel today’s meeting because I had a horrible rash!]
I started the day with a discussion on education. The lab do quite a bit of outreach, encouraging elementary school kids (4th graders) to develop their reading skills through science, which is a nice double whammy. They also do quite a few initiatives to encourage girls to get interested in science, with a meeting for middle school girls where they can attend lectures by women scientists on things like ‘why Barbie is anatomically impossible’!! And while they’re doing that, their parents are talking to professionals about how to get and keep their daughters interested in science. All very interesting. Then I met someone working on the international side. NREL do a lot of work with USAID and the UN Environment Programme to help developing countries plan their energy development, making the most of their renewable potential. Then I had a discussion with their press guy, before he showed me round their photovoltaics lab. Not surprisingly they have had an explosion of interest from the media recently. We discussed some of the problems that are common to press work, like measuring impact and monitoring audiovisual. After a nice lunch, I met someone from public affairs, who took me round their bio-energy lab, where they are working on producing bio-fuels from agricultural waste, switchgrass or woody materials – what are known in Europe as second-generation biofuels, and where we really need the developments if the biofuels thing is going to work.
Then the final treat of the day was the visit to the wind site, about 20 minutes drive from the main lab. There I was given a very interesting presentation on the challenges and potential of wind power and the state of its use in the US (did you know they have NO off-shore wind-power at the moment!). Then we went to see some of what they are doing. We started in the area for testing the turbines. The machine they have there produces 1 million pound feet of torque! Eat that, Clarkson!!! We then went to the facility for testing wind turbine blades. Basically they put pressure on them, bounce them up and down and give them a hard time to see when they break. When they built the facility they could fit the blades in it and move them up and down (flap) and side to side (edge). Now the blades are so large they stick out the end of the facility and they can only test them in one direction. Just shows how things are progressing.
Finally we went out to the wind to hydrogen research. Funnily enough, in all the science I had chucked at me today, the only time I got really lost was when they started talking about the engine! Shows I’m not a car owner!
So, all in all a fantastic day. Thanks to NREL for letting me visit! There’s nothing like seeing things first-hand.