Energy Technologies Area

A Conversation with ravi prasher

Energy technologies research has a storied past at Berkeley Lab, including pioneering work in energy efficiency research and early scientific research that led to the development of the lithium-ion battery. Today, the Energy Technologies Area (ETA) is organized into four divisions: Building Technology and Urban Systems (BTUS), Energy Analysis and Environmental Impacts (EAEI), Energy Storage and Distributed Resources (ESDR), and Cyclotron Road, which supports entrepreneurial scientists in advancing technology projects with the potential for global impact. Ravi Prasher, the associate lab director for ETA, shares his thoughts about the Area’s mission and priorities.

How does the ETA support the Lab’s mission?

The Energy Technologies Area’s mission is the Lab’s mission: to bring science solutions to the world. ETA is well poised to bring solutions to the challenging problem of climate change. We are working on ways to mitigate against climate change, to adapt to its effects, as well as to pull harmful emissions from the air (also known as negative emissions).

The history of these fields of research goes back to the 1970s with the Lab’s then-called Environmental Energy Technologies Division (EETD). At the time, there were urgent needs for solutions to the energy crisis as well as to environmental pollution. It became important to start conserving energy and to be self reliant.

And the impact of our work in these areas has been huge. Art Rosenfeld’s pioneering work created the field of energy efficiency research, which has helped save significant amounts of energy. The original work on lithium-ion electrochemistry which was instrumental in the development of lithium-ion batteries started at the Lab in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and we have continued to expand upon that work on energy storage.

The Lab also provides global leadership on climate change issues. Our scientists provided research on climate change, its implications, and options to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), giving policymakers the scientific assessments they needed for the negotiations that resulted in the Paris Agreement. The work earned a Nobel Prize for the group that worked on this project (including ETA researchers).

ETA also supports the Lab’s efforts to develop science solutions for moderate and lower income communities. We are working on both scientific research and policy research that take into account the needs of these communities, focusing on environmental and energy justice.

What are ETA’s top priorities today? Why are they important?

At the highest level, our research priorities support the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, and negative emissions. In particular, there are six key research initiatives:

  1. Energy Storage across Time and Space Scales. We recognize that energy storage for a car is different from an electricity grid. The time duration needs for energy storage are different, and the costs are different. Our research will take into account these different needs.

  2. Resilience. We are already seeing the effects of climate change. A worsening fire season in California. Freezing temperatures in Texas. To build resilient communities, we will need technologies, policies, and schemes for adapting to climate change.

  3. Manufacturing Sector Technologies. One of the hardest sectors to decarbonize is the manufacturing sector. In the electricity grid, transportation, and building sectors, the U.S. is doing a relatively good job. But industry, which is the third largest source of harmful emissions in the U.S., uses a lot of heat. We are looking at various ways to help the manufacturing sector decarbonize, including ways to create low-carbon chemicals and materials, materials recycling, zero-carbon methods of delivering heat, and energy storage solutions.

  4. The Water-Energy Nexus. ETA is engaged in this Lab-wide initiative. In California and elsewhere, water is scarce and will become increasingly so. Snow packs are melting faster and underground water reservoirs are receding. We must find ways to use wastewater or brackish water in inland areas. We need to make desalination technologies more efficient through new chemistries and new membrane technologies, for example.

  5. Integrated Energy Systems. Three critical grids—electricity, petroleum, and natural gas—have to be integrated if we are to achieve a zero-carbon energy society. The electricity grid connects to buildings, the petroleum grid to the transportation sector, the gas grid to industry and buildings. All of these need to be integrated so that we can take advantage of a wide range of renewable energy options and manage energy use efficiently and in real time. This will be an important research area in the near future.

  6. Negative Carbon Emissions. ETA is participating in the Lab-wide negative carbon emissions initiative. With the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, we won’t be able to avoid a two-degree rise in temperature, so ETA has made this a strategic priority. Today, it takes a huge amount of energy to pull CO2 from the air. We need science, engineering, systems development, and economic systems analysis to develop solutions.

Beyond scientific research, we are also prioritizing environmental energy justice. We are doing research on how disadvantaged communities are being affected by technologies and policies. We are monitoring air pollution in diverse communities, for example.

Last but not least, we are continuing to strive for a culture of inclusion at the Lab. Diversity is what makes us strong. We need to make sure there is accountability for our goals.

Who do you partner with at the Lab to be successful?

When I came to the Lab six years ago, the first thing I realized is that the Lab is a Disneyland of science. We can access so many tools and partners on the same campus. We can tap into tremendous facilities, such as the Molecular Foundry, the Advanced Light Source, and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center. We partner closely with Energy Sciences, Computing Sciences, and Earth and Environmental Sciences so that we can work toward solutions in an expedited manner. We don’t have much time left to solve the climate crisis, and it helps to have a cohesive science-to-systems framework that provides quick feedback between basic and applied science.

We also partner with the operations team, Environment, Health and Safety, Human Resources, and Finance teams. The research machinery works because we have good people working on the operations and administrative support side.

In addition, we have a strong partnership with UC Berkeley and are continuing to expand our partnerships with the other UC campuses, such as UCLA, UC Davis, and UC Santa Barbara.