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September 2011

The 3 R’s of Energy

Scientists turn to reduce, reuse and recycle to solve today’s energy problems

Natalie Ray

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. The 3R’s. This mantra defines the conservation movement around the world. The first Earth Day in 1970 catapulted conservation and the 3R’s into the spotlight. Americans rallied for clean air and water, which drove government policies. As conservation efforts expanded, new programs were advocated: the 1990’s saw strong efforts to promote recycling, the 2000’s focused on climate change and clean energy, and the 2010’s look to science to improve the way energy is generated, stored and used.

As children, we learn the 3R’s, and as adults, those conservation concepts permeate our routines. Turn off the lights when leaving a room to reduce electricity usage. Reduce paper waste by printing on both sides. Bring reusable bags to the grocery store. Use a mug instead of paper cups for the morning coffee. Recycle paper. Recycle plastic. Recycle glass. These practices spread from our homes to our work places; manufacturing plants are now zero waste by recycling, reusing and reducing. These practices spread from our work places to our government: tax credits are offered for energy efficiency. These practices spread from our government to our science; in 2009 the U.S. Department of Energy launched 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers to attack current energy challenges.

This impressive undertaking is redefining energy research. DOE is investing in the EFRCs to push energy-related discoveries from small steps to giant leaps. Through creativity and collaboration, the EFRCs are working to discover new energy sources and dramatically improve current ones. By conducting fundamental research, centers are learning to control and design materials, matter and processes to rival the efficiencies found in nature.

There are eminent basic energy research needs in nuclear, catalytic, combustion, energy storage, solar and superconductivity sciences. Yet, at the heart of these complex scientific goals and 900 papers by the EFRCs are the principles of reusing, reducing, and recycling.

Reduce: Imagine reducing carbon dioxide or CO2 emissions from aluminum smelters by halting the emissions before they reach the atmosphere. Several EFRCs are working on technologies to trap emissions and lock them away from the environment. For example, scientists at the Center for Nanoscale Control of Geologic CO2 have designed a polymer capable of turning CO2 into chalk. Other centers focus on reducing CO2 by trapping it in complex, metal-organic frameworks.

Reuse: Imagine harvesting the entire field of wheat so that the stalks can be used for fuel. The Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels is studying the reactions of how cellulose, from discarded plant material, is broken down and turned into bio-crude. Nuclear research centers reuse in a different way: synthesizing reusable fuels.

Recycle: Imagine taking the heat electronic devices produce and recycling it into electricity again. Thermoelectric devices recycle lost heat from solar, electric and hydrocarbon energy sources, and the Center for Energy Efficient Materials is developing more efficient ones. Low thermal conductivity and high electrical conductivity will help recycle lost heat energy into useable electric energy. Other EFRCs are cycling the sun’s energy with plasmonic solar cells.

The 3R’s is a simple principle described in just three words and provides simple answers to many conservation concerns. The world’s energy problems are more complex than just three words, but the EFRCs work combined with reducing, reusing and recycling are helping to solve those problems. This newsletter highlights the EFRC work funded by DOE, which is leading research for a bright, sustainable energy future.

About the author(s):

  • Natalie Ray conducts research in palladium catalysis and is a member of IACT, an Energy Frontier Research Center. Under the guidance of Professors Peter Stair and Richard Van Duyne, she is studying how to design catalysts for selective hydrogenation using atomic layer deposition.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.