As the Lab approaches a new cycle for the Lab-directed Research and Development (LDRD) program, which funds innovative research at the Lab, Ravi Prasher contemplates how it sparked the success of an idea he had many years ago.
In 2015, when he first came to the Lab as the division director for the Energy Storage and Distributed Resources Division, Ravi was eager to get going on research that he had been considering while he was still at Intel in the mid-2000s. He wasn’t sure how his idea would be received, and he had missed the LDRD deadline, but he pitched his idea to Horst Simon, Deputy Lab Director for Research, anyway.
His idea was to design metamaterials for high temperatures that can help accelerate the understanding of radiative properties of materials, and eventually contribute to innovations in harvesting solar energy for energy conservation, water desalination, and other applications that require high temperatures. “No one had systematically investigated metamaterials that work reliably at high temperatures for energy conversion applications,” said Ravi. “And the Lab was the perfect place to do this kind of work.”
His passion for the idea was contagious, and Horst was convinced. The LDRD award Ravi received in 2016 allowed him to invest in an important tool called a Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) tool, and to hire a postdoc, Justin Freedman, to begin analyzing radiative properties of materials. Soon, Ravi was able to hire another postdoc, Sean Lubner, who saw further potential to use the tool to measure properties of materials at temperatures up to 2000 degrees Celsius — the type of work that would support the development of thermal material-based energy storage technologies. Sean wrote an Early Career LDRD proposal to allow him to conduct this research. He got the award and was hired as a research scientist in ETA.
Ravi’s lab continued to gather steam. Materials scientist Sumanjeet Kaur joined the team in 2016 to work on a DOE-funded project. Startup Antora Energy was accepted as a Cyclotron Road project, working with the research team to measure the optical and radiative properties of various materials used in their energy storage technology. Antora and the Lab were awarded an ARPA-E project to further develop Antora’s Thermophotovoltaic design. Ravi’s team also won another ARPA-E proposal to develop a machine learning project with the tool, accelerating the research even further.
This last December, the Thermal Energy Group was officially formed under the Energy Technology Area’s Energy Storage & Distributed Resources Division (ESDR), with Sumanjeet at the helm. It is a hive of activity with 28 members, covering a wide range of research projects and getting support from multiple funding sources, including the Department of Energy’s Building Technology Office and Vehicle Technology Office, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, Fossil Energy, the California Energy Commission, Advanced Manufacturing Office, and LDRD.
Moving forward, by collaborating with other national labs, universities, and industries, the Thermal Energy Group plans to target technologies that hold the potential to substantially improve the performance of industrial thermal processing systems, advance carbon negative efforts, and help meet the global demand for clean water.
“The LDRD program was instrumental in getting the thermal energy work off the ground,” said Ravi. “Who knew back then that we had hit a motherlode of research opportunities that could make such a difference in many applications?”
The LDRD support of the early thermal energy work has also made Ravi think about how to best support others who are passionate about their ideas. “I try to encourage an open door policy so that scientists can discuss their ideas with their division directors and with me, and I encourage scientists to collaborate with other areas of the Lab to solve bigger problems,” said Ravi. He also encourages many scientists to apply for an LDRD award.
One piece of advice Ravi has for LDRD would-be proposal submitters: “Think about what gap or need your project meets, that’s not being met otherwise. Articulating what differentiates your project will make all the difference.”