Lab garners five technology commercialization grants

electrobioreactor (Download Image)

Simon Pang (left) and Buddhinie Jayathilake assemble and prepare a prototype bubble column electrobioreactor to test additively manufactured three-dimensional electrodes. Under their project, excess renewable electricity from wind and solar sources would be stored in chemical bonds as renewable natural gas. Photo by Nathan Ellebracht.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) scientists and engineers have posted another banner year securing major grants through the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Technology Commercialization Fund (TCF).

“I think the Laboratory did very well again, reflecting a variety of types and approaches to our research and development projects,” said Rich Rankin, the director of the Lab’s Innovation and Partnerships Office (IPO). “Our larger grants significantly increase our odds of getting these technologies into the commercial stream. And our smaller projects give us the chance to mature the technologies and better explore their value."

This year’s projects reflect a broad diversity of technology areas, including energy storage, energy recovery, diagnostics for metal additive manufacturing, high-efficiency carbon dioxide absorption and a light field directing array, which provides the ability to steer light with unprecedented speed and precision.

Under this year’s TCF program, LLNL researchers will receive about $8.28 million, with $3.13 million from DOE and $5.15 million in matching funds from the Lab’s IPO and industrial partners.

Under the TCF program, DOE national lab scientists and engineers can apply for two types of grants. The first (topic 1) is focused on early-stage technologies and, in fiscal year 2021, provided between $100,000 and $250,000 for work to be carried out over 6-18 months.

The second (topic 2) grant award provides funds from $250,000 to $1.5 million for 12-36 months of work. Although both award types encourage collaborative work with industry partners, support from an industry partner is necessary for topic 2 grants. Both award types are required to provide a 50 percent cost share, either cash or in-kind from non-federal sources.

In the grant award announced by DOE earlier this summer, LLNL secured three topic 1 awards and two topic 2 awards that include collaborations with three different industry partners. The money is provided through the DOE Office of Technology Transitions.

“The TCF effort is an excellent DOE program and our technology transfer efforts have really benefited from it. The commercial availability of these technologies also benefits our LLNL programs,” Rankin said.

Steering light faster than ever before

 Researchers (back to front) Mike Ashe, Princess Corral and Robert Panas are examining a prototype Lightfield Directing Array.

A new Lightfield Directing Array (LDA) technology, under development by a team of seven LLNL mechanical and electronics engineers, can steer light more than 100 times faster than present systems without losing any precision.

Though originally conceived as a way to improve the beam quality for the National Ignition Facility’s adaptive optics, the LDA technology is now being considered for as many as a dozen different applications in a variety of fields.

Among the possible applications being evaluated for the LDA device are optical communications between satellites in space, laser surgery, additive manufacturing that could improve and speed part production and as light detection and ranging (lidar) for autonomous vehicles to improve safety.

The TCF grant will support the technology’s commercialization by allowing prototype devices to be produced for key customers for independent performance validation and product development.

Headed by Robert Panas, a mechanical engineer in the Lab’s Center for Micro and Nano Technology, the team has been awarded a two-and-a-half-year, $1.5 million topic 2 grant. Its partner, San Francisco-based Bright Silicon Technologies, will provide $3.5 million in matching funds.

Storing electricity from solar and wind power

Five LLNL researchers will collaborate with Los Angeles-based SoCalGas and Munich, Germany-based Electrochaea to develop an electrobioreactor to allow excess renewable electricity from wind and solar sources to be stored in chemical bonds as renewable natural gas. See lead image at top.

When renewable electricity supply exceeds demand, electric utility operators intentionally curtail production of renewable electricity to avoid overloading the grid. In 2020, in California, more than 1.5 million megawatt hours of renewable electricity were curtailed, enough to power more than 100,000 households for a full year. This practice also occurs in other countries.

The team’s electrobioreactor uses the renewable electricity to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen. The microbes then use the hydrogen to convert carbon dioxide into methane, which is a major component of natural gas. Methane can then be moved around in natural gas pipelines and can be stored indefinitely, allowing the renewable energy to be recovered when it is most needed.

Headed by Simon Pang, a materials scientist in the Lab’s Materials Science Division, the team will work under a two-year, $1 million topic 2 award. Its partners will provide $1 million in in-kind contributions or research funds.

Checking complex metal components for defects

Lab researchers Phil DePond (left) and Aiden Martin are looking into a custom-built laser powder bed fusion system called FLAME, which was originally developed by Lawrence Fellow Bey Vranken. The team is making modifications to the machine to extend its thermionic sensing system to the commercial scale.

Livermore researchers have teamed with others to develop a diagnostic machine capable of probing inside metal parts as they’re being printed during the laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) process, a common metal three-dimensional (3D) printing approach.

The LPBF process and other laser-based additive manufacturing approaches have the potential to revolutionize manufacturing for complex metal components in the aerospace, medical and automotive industries. However, producing defect-free components is a major hurdle for widespread commercial adoption.

The team is seeking to upgrade its electron-based in situ sensor that is integrated into the LPBF additive manufacturing systems. The sensor operates by measuring the flow of electrical current in the metal component generated by ejection of electrons from the laser heated metal surface.

Led by Aiden Martin, a materials scientist in the Materials Science Division of the Physical and Life Sciences (PLS) Directorate, the team of four researchers will conduct its work under a one-year, $130,000 topic 1 award.

Improving carbon dioxide’s energy efficiency

Shown is a photo of a prototype three-dimensional gyroid membrane contactor that improves the energy efficiency of carbon dioxide capture by mimicking the functional architecture of human lungs. It is being developed by a team led by Juergen Biener.

Although carbon dioxide is a leading source for global warming, at the same time, it is becoming a valuable resource for electrochemical synthesis of commodity chemicals using renewable electrical energy.

However, while carbon dioxide separation at industrial scale has been demonstrated, the current wet scrubbing technology reduces the energy efficiency of power plants by about 30 percent, hindering widespread use of the technology.

Four LLNL researchers are proposing to use the Lab’s nanoporous photoresist and metallic-ink technologies to fabricate a three-dimensional gyroid membrane contactor (3D-GMC) that improves the energy efficiency of carbon dioxide capture by mimicking the functional architecture of human lungs.

The team’s novel design is expected to result in a minimum of 95 percent carbon dioxide purity and a projected capture cost lower than $30 per ton of carbon dioxide compared to the current scrubbing technology cost of $40 to $100 per ton.

Headed by Juergen Biener, a materials scientist in LLNL's Materials Science Division, the Livermore group will be working under an 18-month, $250,000 topic 1 grant with the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Recovering energy from small wastewater treatment plants

Lab researchers Samantha Ruelas (left) and Fang Qian were infiltrating a biocatalyst-integrated unit with hydrogel loaded with methanotrophs. In partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Qian’s team has developed Biocatalyst-Integrated Units for efficient conversion of methane into fuel and chemical intermediates.

Due to current technology constraints, a large amount of biogas from small-sized wastewater treatment plants is flared and the methane is squandered.

However, there is growing recognition that biogas conversion to fuel and chemical intermediates presents much greater value. In fact, methane-derived products are emerging as a new trend in the market to displace petroleum-based products.

LLNL researchers, in partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), have developed Biocatalyst-Integrated Units for efficient conversion of methane into fuel and chemical intermediates, which are commonly used as raw materials to produce high-value bio-derived products.

Led by Fang Qian, a materials scientist in the Lab’s Materials Science Division, the Lab team will conduct its research under an 18-month, $250,000 topic 1 grant working with NREL and the Livermore and Delta Diablo water recovery facilities.