By Timothy Puko
Dustin McIntyre spends his career researching engines, but a few nights of watching the evening news gave him a winner of an idea for the drilling industry.
McIntyre, an engineer at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, beat out eight colleagues on Tuesday in a competition for the first Game Changer Award. The scientists pitched developmental technology to judges at the Energy & Innovation Conference at Southpointe in Cecil, like a brainy version of the reality TV show “Shark Tank” for Ph.Ds.
McIntyre, 37, of Washington uses lasers to precisely measure pollutants and chemicals in water and air, even underground, with a device about the size of a phone. He long had worked with lasers that can turn on engines and, upon seeing people on TV news raise concerns about water contamination from gas wells, he realized his lasers could work in underground testing wells, too.
Winning “definitely helps me make more contacts and get more visibility in NETL in the Pittsburgh area. I think the visibility is very, very important, just to let people know that you’re out there,” McIntyre said. “It makes us actually work toward developing products, bringing products closer to market.”
That’s by design, officials said.
The lab is making an aggressive push to get its research into the public realm. The Department of Energy runs the energy labs around the country, including in South Park and Morgantown — where McIntyre splits his time. They do early-stage research on big-picture problems such as trapping carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants.
The department has started to include project advancement as part of employee performance reviews and encourages scientists to promote their work so that it isn’t left on the shelf, officials said.
Such communication is critical to the energy industry, especially when the lab’s ideas become realistic, said Samuel H. Johnson, director of the water division at Consol Energy Inc. The energy industry has been profitable for so long that it often is reluctant to invest in research and development, making the labs critical forces for advancements in efficiency and safety, said Connie Palucka, managing director at Catalyst Connection, conference co-sponsor.
“We have to make a profit ... so we can’t afford to do research at the early-stage level,” said Johnson, who judged the pitches and praised the lab for its work. “I was pleasantly surprised to see that many creative, innovative technologies that have a future.”
He voted for McIntyre because his technology could help almost any industry that uses water — and that’s a lot of industries, Johnson said. At Consol, it takes days to retrieve most water samples from remote locations, and the samples can morph on their way to analysis, so on-site lasers would be a big help with speed and accuracy, he said.
Christopher Matranga, director of the molecular science division at the South Park lab, won an audience award for his technology to break down carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — into a chemical that can be sold for profit.
Other scientists showcased work on using liquid chemicals as catalysts to capture carbon pollution and on self-cleaning windows to help industrial plants look inside and fine-tune boilers.
The competition was the idea of Tom Reed, managing director for marketing and community outreach at Catalyst Connection, a manufacturers consortium. The energy world is changing rapidly, and it’s important to discuss ideas, even with competitors, he said.
“The companies that can act quickly and establish relationships in the energy industry, they’re the ones who are going to benefit into the future,” Reed said.