West Virginia Lab Focuses on Science to Solve Energy Problems

THE JOURNAL RECORD, May 3, 2001 | Go to article overview
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West Virginia Lab Focuses on Science to Solve Energy Problems


MORGANTOWN, W. Va. (AP) -- With computer mouse in hand, Jack Halow controls the swirling plumes of blue and yellow on his display screen.

Each click magnifies the colored streams of tiny bubbles that mix and flow together. Another few clicks and Halow's vantage point is from inside the current.

Instead of analyzing endless pages of data, this high-tech imaging allows him to actually see how tiny pellets of zinc oxide, represented by one bubble plume, can be positioned to capture air pollutants produced when coal is burned. The pollutants are depicted by the other bubble stream.

"It's like a personal Omnimax," said Halow, sitting at what looks like a satellite dish turned on its end. "If a picture is worth a thousand words, an animation is worth a million numbers."

Halow is director of systems and multiphase flow analysis at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown. The lab has but a single mission -- performing basic science involving coal, natural gas and other fuels that could someday help solve the world's energy problems.

The key word is someday: Most of the 1,100 research projects going on here and at satellite facilities in Pittsburgh and Tulsa are done with a long-range view.

"We're not going to have an impact on the California crisis tomorrow," said Rita Bajura, the lab's director. "The cycle time in energy is a little different than the cycle time with Barbie dolls."

Yet even if it takes NETL another decade to solve problems presented by greenhouse gases or an aging pipeline network that may not meet demand for natural gas, Bajura says that timeline would outpace the private sector, where the overriding concerns are profit margins.

"We're doing research for the public, so we're only successful if it goes to the private sector," Bajura said.

But the lab's intention is not just to enrich industry. There must be what she calls "a public policy benefit" -- in this case, cleaner air.

That's why Halow and others are focusing on the zinc oxide pellets.

Coal is cheap and plentiful, but burning it produces the pollutant sulfur dioxide, so researchers are developing other combustion techniques, including gasification -- partially burning the coal to create gas that powers a turbine to generate electricity.

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