Photos: Top fifteen inventions and innovations of the National Renewable Energy Lab

Categories: Environment, Tech

Solar Panels, nrel.jpg
Big photos below.
In this week's feature, "Sun Burn," we go inside the National Renewable Energy Lab -- the federal facility in Golden that has for 35 years been dedicated to innovations in energy efficiency. In print, we take an in-depth look at NREL's important role in solar energy and other industries over the past three decades. Here, we count down the top fifteen inventions and innovations NREL leaders tout as the lab's key accomplishments.

As the lab, owned by the Department of Energy, undergoes a massive expansion -- even seizing small plots of private property for its growth -- some neighbors have a simple question: What has this federally-funded lab actually produced?

Below are fifteen specific answers to that question.

15: Solar cells on Mars

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Artist's simulation of a Mars Exploration Rover at work on Mars.
The National Renewable Energy Lab was founded with support from President Jimmy Carter as the Solar Energy Research Institute -- the first national lab dedicated specifically to research and development focused on harnessing the sun's energy. Now, the lab -- with an expanded research focus across different kinds of renewable technologies -- has its highly efficient solar cells flying aboard satellites orbiting Earth and in association with NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission. Solar cells from NREL work well for powering spacecrafts and on-board instruments because they are lightweight and flexible and don't require bulky mechanical controls.

14: Robots that build and test solar cells

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Pat Corkery, NREL
Who needs humans when you have robots that can do the work faster? NREL has ideveloped stainless steel robots that fabricate, analyze and improve solar cells faster and with more precision as part of the campus's Process Development and Integration Laboratory. In this lab, industry engineers fix glitches and get maximum efficiency from the cells. This, NREL says, translates to lower costs for homeowners and utilities. NREL says a robot working with silicon can build a semi-conductor on a six-inch-square plate in about 35 minutes. As a press releases notes: "It pivots and dishes like a point guard, sifts like a master chef, analyzes like a forensics expert and does it all while maintaining a vacuum seal on the entire process."

13: Air-conditioning-testing manikin

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You read that right. This is a manikin that NREL researchers designed specifically to test out air-conditioning in a car. The life-sized manikin, called the Advanced Automotive Manikin and conveniently abbreviated ADAM, is able to sweat and shiver and react to sweltering or freezing temperatures in a car as if it were a human. NREL says auto manufacturers have turned to ADAM as a resource when trying to lower air-conditioning fuel use. Innovations in this area can make a big difference, because fuel used for air-conditioning in cars accounts for about seven billion gallons in the United States every year.

12: Army green

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This is a different kind of green for members of the military. As part of NREL's Net Zero Installation Energy scorecard program, the lab has worked to push military bases to achieve net zero status. NREL reports that 53 army installations now have targets for net zero energy, net zero water or net zero waste. These kinds of achievements can happen in a variety of ways, including installing solar panels or wind turbines and also converting trash and waste into energy.

11: Weathering systems

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NREL has developed what officials call an Ultra-Accelerated Weathering System, which is able to gauge how well an outdoor product will hold up to decades of sunlight. And it can do this testing in just a few weeks. It's a one-of-a-kind device that works by using mirrors with 96 layers of alternating high and low refractive material that essentially allows it to shine the equivalent of fifty suns of ultraviolet light onto a product.

Continue to keep counting down our top fifteen NREL inventions and innovations.

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The RSF building is an absolutely amazing feat of green engineering.  If you ever get a chance to tour it, take it!

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