Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers are taking innovative steps to meet energy challenges of national interest.
They are addressing the following questions.
How can the efficiency and resilience of the U.S. electric grid be improved? Can the grid be better protected from weather-related outages and cyberattacks?
Can American batteries be manufactured using materials from domestic rather than foreign sources? Can they be recharged faster? And, can spent batteries and their materials be reused, recycled and kept out of landfills to protect the environment?
Can high-power battery charging technology be embedded in parts of interstate highways so potential consumers of electric vehicles (EVs) will be less concerned about driving range and the availability of battery recharging stations?
In a recent talk to Friends of ORNL, Richard A. Raines, director of ORNL's Electrification and Energy Infrastructures Division, said, "We are making a difference. We are developing capabilities in the lab that are being field tested."
He added that ORNL is working with partners, sponsors and other national labs on improving an increasingly complex electrified infrastructure ecosystem.
Much of this work is being done at a new 52,000-square-foot facility outfitted safely during the 2020 pandemic with 11 laboratories. Called the Grid Research Integration and Deployment Center (GRID-C), it is located, along with the National Transportation Research Center and the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, at ORNL's Hardin Valley campus off Pellissippi Parkway in Knox County.
GRID-C was visited in November by U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan. She expressed support for ORNL's planned demonstration this spring of dynamic wireless charging of lithium-ion batteries in moving electric vehicles (EVs) at the American Center for Mobility in Michigan.
This innovative ORNL technology has been licensed to the HEVO company based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Granholm unveiled a Department of Energy Technology Commercialization Fund award in which HEVO and ORNL will co-develop and demonstrate a wireless charging system based on the innovative ORNL converter and associated power electronics.
Raines indicated that ORNL research is relevant to several recent news events. In February 2021, winter storms caused the Texas power grid to fail temporarily, leading to many deaths resulting from shortages of water, food and heat. Natural gas and other energy sources were not properly winterized, and the isolated grid was unable to import power from the other two U.S. grids.
In 2017, Raines testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on efforts to protect the electric grid and the nation's energy providers from cybersecurity threats. In his FORNL talk, he mentioned the need "to bake in cybersecurity protections so we can preclude, detect, or mitigate cyberattacks by nefarious actors who are looking to exploit our systems."
Most of his audience were aware of the May 2021 ransomware cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline that disrupted the flow of transportation fuel for Americans, as well as the December 2015 cyberattack on Ukraine's electric grid that caused a major outage.
News stories in 2021 reported that the largest sources of cobalt for cathodes in EV batteries are Democratic Republic of Congo mines that Chinese companies are taking over (including informal mining by child labor). For several years, ORNL researchers have been working on developing cobalt-free batteries so that Americans will be less vulnerable to battery price shocks and supply shortages.
Raines mentioned that American and foreign automobile companies are now committed to making electric vehicles to reduce the climate-warming emissions of the transportation sector. In 2021, it was announced that Ford Motor Co. aims to create 5,700 jobs in the $5.6 billion factories it will build 50 miles northeast of Memphis to produce a new generation of electric trucks and EV batteries. Ford is already advertising its F150 electric pickup truck, he noted.
Although the American electric grids have for the most part reliably supplied power to all customers, Raines stated that the aging electric infrastructure has vulnerabilities that offer opportunities for research.
"It can take 12 to 18 months to replace a large transformer that blows in a substation with one from a foreign source," he said.
Internet of Things, dark net, sunlight
The electrified infrastructure ecosystem, he added, is becoming more complex as a result of increased demands to power EVs, the installation of smart electronic devices to control power use in buildings and the integration into the grid of renewable energy sources, such as solar panels and wind turbines.
"A lot of the electric grid ecosystem, including the switches and relays used to control devices and systems, is tied into the Internet," he said. "There is a lot of work going on connecting the electrified infrastructure to electric vehicles, smart buildings and the Internet of Things."
The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the rapidly growing network of connected objects that are able to collect and exchange data in real time using embedded sensors. Thermostats, lights, refrigerators, other appliances and electric cars can all be connected to the IoT.
One of the national goals is to get the U.S. electricity grid off the Internet to make it more secure and less vulnerable to cyberattacks. Raines mentioned that ORNL researchers are working on developing a "dark net," an overlay network within the Internet that can be accessed only by specific software, but not by search engines. In his Senate testimony, Raines spoke about the promise of the dark net for providing grid cybersecurity.
Raines said his division, which has dozens of engineers, has been finding ways to improve battery and energy storage manufacturing and recycling and to develop dynamic wireless power transfer from electromagnetic coils that could be embedded in highways to recharge the batteries of moving EVs. It has also made innovative advances in smart microgrids and networked controls in a partnership with Chattanooga's Electric Power Board (EPB).
"We developed energy storage and battery materials technologies to reduce the dependency on cobalt and rare-earth metals for high-density, energy-efficient devices," he said. "We licensed a battery cycling technology to enable rapid production of lithium-ion batteries. We have partners such as Ford that we are working with who will take battery assembly to the technology readiness level.
"We reduced battery charging times to 15 minutes and developed new direct recycling methods for spent lithium-ion batteries. We look to understanding how to create long-term energy storage so we can minimize what happened in Texas,: he said.
In planned dynamic wireless charging, EV batteries will be energized when vehicles are driven over specially outfitted roadways. Power is transferred across an air gap between magnetic copper coils embedded in the ground and installed in the electric car or truck.
At GRID-C, ORNL researchers are testing different kinds of transmitter coils they've designed on a receiving coil that moves along a 60-foot dynamic rail at speeds up to 20 miles per hour.
"You have to take baby steps before you go full-scale," Raines said. He hopes that "real-world validation" will begin to happen with the Michigan demonstration. The ultimate DOE goals are 200-kilowatt dynamic wireless EV charging capabilities embedded in 8.2% of interstate highways.
Thanks to stimulus funding during the Great Recession of 2007-09 by DOE's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (which funds work in Raines' division), Chattanooga's EPB modernized its grid by adding a fiber-optic network that enables high-speed communication and exchange of data. Raines said EPB is "one of the most innovative utilities" he has encountered, partly because the EPB Smart Grid offers an ideal testbed for ORNL technologies developed at GRID-C.
Researchers are testing innovative sensors of the grid environment, as well as modern controls devised to better balance the power load in response to sensor data indicating fluctuations. The goals are to reduce outages and manage changes in the supply of and demand for power in a smart grid in which solar generation and other renewable energy sources have been integrated.
ORNL and eight other national labs have partnered with EPB since 2014 on developing smart microgrids and networked controls. Each microgrid would distribute electricity reliably and securely to a community of 50 to 100 residences or other types of buildings.
Using ORNL and other sensors, EPB is collecting real-time data on sunlight intensity, temperature, humidity, wind speed and signs of cyber intrusion attempts, according to an ORNL news release. If sunlight is intense, more megawatts can be injected into the grid from a solar farm. If sensors indicate imminent heavy cloud cover or nightfall, the controls will fetch the megawatts customers will need from large lithium-ion batteries or other energy sources.
Raines said that ORNL and EPB are learning how best to apply sensors, controls, secure communications, modeling on supercomputers using real-time data and other technologies to a modernized electric grid. Such a smart power grid must function more autonomously and reliably as it becomes larger and more complex with the incorporation of low-carbon energy sources and the addition of EVs and other power users.