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By  Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) researchers are leading analyses of recycling, repairing, and reusing solar photovoltaic (PV) installations in support of NREL’s mission to incentivize a circular economy for energy materials.  According to NREL, the increase in the installation of PV systems is leading to environmental and supply chain concerns because the technology relies on imports and mining of raw materials to meet domestic demands.  NREL predicts that, by 2030, decommissioned PV modules could total a million tons of waste in the United States or one percent of the world’s e-waste.  Concerned by these facts, NREL researchers have been leading ongoing analyses of the end-of-life management of PV modules in the current market.  Taylor Curtis, an NREL sustainability analyst, highlights that “[r]epair, reuse, or recovery of this equipment would reduce negative environmental impacts, reduce resource constraints, and stimulate U.S. economic growth.”
According to NREL research, if best practices are applied and regulatory barriers removed in the future, the U.S. industry for recovered PV materials could total $60 million by 2030 or $2 billion by 2050, from modules alone.  A summary of NREL’s recommended best practices for retiring PV systems is detailed in this report, and a detailed analysis of current federal and state regulatory barriers to PV module recycling and recovery is available in NREL’s March 2021 report titled “Solar Photovoltaic Module Recycling: A Survey of U.S. Policies and Initiatives.”


By Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.

On February 22, 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) announced its comprehensive strategy to decarbonize transportation by 30-85 percent by 2050. A strategy based on research and engineering, it aims to enable industry stakeholders, government bodies, communities, and early adopters to meet their climate goals. In a nutshell, the strategy takes a whole-system approach to pair the best technology with the right application. Chris Gearhart, NREL’s Center for Integrated Mobility Sciences Director, stated that NREL envisions “a mobility system fueled with clean, renewable energy, delivered directly by vehicle electrification, or indirectly by low-carbon, energy dense fuels and renewable hydrogen for those sectors, like marine and aviation, that are harder to electrify.” Johney Green, Associate Laboratory Director for NREL’s Mechanical and Thermal Engineering Sciences, expanded: “The spectrum of technological, social, and environmental shifts happening today requires a novel research agenda.” Keeping long-term trends in mind, NREL’s vision entails a multi-pronged strategy that provides scientific building blocks for advancing research and development (R&D) priorities such as:

  • Accelerating vehicle technology innovations;
  • Increasing transport efficiency;
  • Maximizing the use of renewable electrons through time; and
  • Integrating transportation with building, the grid, and renewables to realize system-wide benefits.


By Lynn L. Bergeson

On March 22, 2018, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) announced that by studying and comparing the cellulose-degrading enzymes of two fungi, NREL researchers have pinpointed regions on these enzymes that can be targeted via genetic engineering to help break down cellulose faster.  The article published in Nature Communications, “Engineering enhanced cellobiohydrolase activity,” describes NREL’s long-running study of the fungal cellobiohydrolases (CBH) -- enzymes that use hydrolysis as their main chemistry to degrade cellulose -- Trichoderma reesei (TrCel7A) and Penicillium funiculosum (PfCel7A).  The announcement states that in both nature and industrial processes, enzymes from this family are among the most significant enzymes for breaking down cellulose; a “projected 2,000-ton-per-day cellulosic ethanol plant could potentially use up to 5,000 tons of enzyme per year, and half of that enzyme cocktail could be from this enzyme family.”


By Kathleen M. Roberts

Researchers at the DOE National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are seeking responses to a survey on biorefinery operations.  Yimin Zhang, an environmental engineer at NREL, and Marshall Goldberg, a subcontractor for NREL, developed the brief survey to improve the NREL’s understanding of the next generation biofuel industry and its contribution to the local, state, and national economy.  Industry stakeholders in the planning, construction, or operation stage of a biorefinery are asked to complete the survey by March 8, 2018.  The aggregate data will be used to report the survey results.  Individual responses will not be published.



By Kathleen M. Roberts

On November 29, 2017, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced that a collaboration between the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) resulted in the successful modification of a microorganism to produce a versatile fermentation intermediate that can be upgraded into valuable biobased fuels and chemicals.  NREL’s cellulosic ethanol fermentation organism (Zymomonas mobilis), is capable of exclusively producing 2,3-butanediol (2,3-BDO), which can be catalytically upgraded to a variety of hydrocarbon fuel precursors and valuable chemical co-products.  Techno-economic modeling was performed to study the potential of producing hydrocarbon fuel precursors and co-products in a cost effective manner.  The first breakthrough occurred with genetic modifications to eliminate the ethanol pathways to ensure that sugar metabolism pathways also produced 2,3-BDO.  ORNL continues to explore modifications to its catalytic upgrading system to achieve further process simplifications and cost savings.


By Lauren M. Graham, Ph.D.

On September 26, 2017, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced the selection of an additional project for the Bioenergy Technologies Office’s (BETO) Advanced Algal Systems Program funding opportunity announcement (FOA).  DOE is awarding up to $3.5 million to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to more than double the productivity of biofuel precursors from algae.  Researchers aim to improve productivity by increasing algal cultivation productivity, optimizing biomass composition, and extracting and separating different types of algal lipids to reduce the cost for lipid upgrading to renewable diesel.  The project team includes researchers from NREL, as well as Colorado State University, Colorado School of Mines, Arizona State University, Sandia National Laboratories, POS Bio-Sciences, Sapphire Energy, and Utah State University.
In addition to the $3.5 million being provided, DOE provided $15 million in Fiscal Year 2016 for three projects under the Algal Biomass Yield, Phase 2 (ABY2) FOA.  BETO expects that projects selected under this FOA will help demonstrate a reasonable and realistic plan to produce 3,700 gallons/acre/year by 2020.