The pros and cons of government assistance to industry have been debated forever. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, a wise government is one that shall leave men “free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

Conversely, proponents of government-sponsored R&D argue that many worthy projects would never be undertaken if left to private industry alone. What is good for society is often not good for a single company or institution, they contend.

Clearly, a degree of merit falls to both sides of this argument. For example, the U.S. would not have put a man on the moon in the 1960s if left to industry alone. In contrast, the Department of Energy spent hundreds of millions of dollars on magneto hydrodynamics research in the 1970s and 1980s, and today exactly zero MHD facilities are producing power commercially.

The plot below shows federal spending on non-military R&D (in billions of dollars, adjusted for inflation).[1] Interestingly, total government-sponsored R&D expenditures have risen just $15 billion (in constant dollars) since 1967, while health-related federal R&D has risen $20 billion, with the largest share of the shortfall being the space program. Energy-research dollars saw an upswing between 1975 and 1985 but have been on a steady decline ever since.

Today, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has offices for Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, Environmental Management, Fossil Energy, Nuclear Energy, Electricity Delivery, Science and others. The DOE oversees 17 National Laboratories, which “perform research and development that is not well suited to university or private-sector research facilities … but for which there is a strong public and national purpose.”

The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), with offices in Pittsburgh, Morgantown, Tulsa, Fairbanks and Albany, Ore., is the only national lab dedicated to fossil energy research. The lab employs 1,100 on a budget of $800 million and oversees a portfolio of 1,800 research projects. NETL’s roots go back nearly 100 years to when the U.S. Bureau of Mines opened the Pittsburgh Experiment Station in Bruceton, Pa., in 1910.

One hundred patents are promoted on the NETL website as being available for licensing (although some appear to have expired). The list of licensable technologies includes: chromate refractory formulations to reduce slag penetration; a method for separating organic from inorganic flyash; a method for processing spent arc-furnace potliners; a process for surface hardening titanium alloys; and rigid media for hot-gas filtration.

NETL’s R&D Division conducts research on energy topics that may be of interest toIH readers. For example, researchers at the Albany site study technical issues related to melting and casting, material development and refractories. Unique testing facilities available at Albany include a thermal-waste-treatment facility, an instrumented cupola facility, and several induction, arc-melting, casting and heat-treating (vacuum and atmosphere) furnaces. Many of these test units have extensive pollution-abatement capabilities and existing air permits that could allow more accelerated process screening than what is possible with an industrial user’s test equipment.

The Process Development Division can perform “work for others,” where NETL staff and equipment are utilized to the proprietary benefit of a paying industrial client. Another option is the Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, where the industrial partner provides “in-kind” funding only (i.e. costs for NETL staff and equipment are covered from existing DOE funds), but the results of such research become public domain.

Readers – with the possible exception of Jeffersonian “laissez faire” fundamentalists – might find it beneficial to review the NETL website for possible collaborative opportunities.IH