New solutions for low-emission energy developed by power engineer Meet Nana Zhou

With the fast-growing renewable energy and the forthcoming carbon free mission, a new technology paradigm is needed for the safe and smooth transition to an international net-zero carbon energy sector. Nana Zhou researched just that through her National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) Postgraduate Research Program (PGRP) fellowship administered through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE).

From farming to engineering, Nana Zhou, doctorate in power engineering, comes up with new ways to help the planet cope with the rising cost of global energy emissions. (Credit: Nana Zhou)

The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) offers opportunities to participate in energy-related research. Its mission is to strengthen our nation’s security, to improve our nation’s environment, and to advance energy options that fuel our nation’s economy.

Long before she became a published scientist and NETL fellow, Zhou grew up on a farm with her family. Her uncle was a great inventor, but without any patents. He invented various tools and methods which benefited countless farmers. He always insisted that one should never waste one’s talent. Though he had never finished college, he encouraged Zhou to finish in his stead. From there, she would go on to achieve her bachelors and doctorate in power engineering, making her family, especially her uncle, extremely proud.

During her doctorate study, Zhou came across the NETL’s Hybrid Performance Project, also known as HyPer. She found HyPer’s approach in the research field to be novel and promising, having the potential to be applied to a broad range of power systems. After graduation, Zhou joined NETL’s PGRP internship program through ORISE performing research for NETL’s HyPer project with Dr. David Tucker as her mentor.


HyPer, the project Zhou continued to focus on until the end of her fellowship, was designed to develop a more efficient power generation system. “Fuel cell-gas turbine hybrids are believed to have higher efficiency, lower emissions, higher reliability and greater resilience during the transition to a carbon free energy sector,” said Zhou of her research. Zhou and her team were dedicated to other control methodologies and novel approaches that can be applied to any other energy system in the future.

Zhou discovered that the controller working perfectly in one operation condition could become unstable in a different operation state. To develop a full map of control methods working at a variety of operating states, a series of other experiments were needed, however this was time-consuming and risky to the facility. Zhou and her team developed a new methodology for testing controller performance that, if successful, all dynamic operating power systems could be operated reliably.

“When insufficient or excess electricity is generated by solar or wind, traditional power plants need to ramp down or up rapidly,” explained Zhou. “However, when they are operated at off-design conditions, more emissions are produced. Moreover, frequent cycling might cause power plant equipment to degrade fast or to fail.”

To achieve the carbon neutral mission, a technology revolution in both renewables and traditional power plant technologies is essential. Zhou’s team is at the forefront of this new paradigm.

A typical day for Zhou involves designing and running experiments for HyPer, analyzing the data collected upon completion, discovering problems and opportunities and then redesigning the experiment.

Throughout her study and fellowship, Zhou never forgot her uncle’s wish, being a useful person to society and never wasting talent, and this became her life credo as well. Since beginning her fellowship at NETL through ORISE, Dr. Zhou has become one of a handful of world leaders in cyber-physical systems and hybrid power systems. Zhou also pays it forward by mentoring students and graduates with all different backgrounds, disciplines, and education levels.

Overall, Zhou said that she had a great well-rounded experience with NETL’s PGRP internship and has even helped to organize several events that added value to her experience, such as international workshops and technical forums for the Department of Energy (DOE). Zhou recommends the program to students looking to bridge the gap between graduation and the scientific field outside of school.

“There are always gaps between school and work. This fellowship bridges the gap between the knowledge I learned from school and the applications in the real physical fields,” she said. “The best part is that ORISE takes care of everything else, including stipend, medical insurance, travel; all I need to do is to focus on my research. It is just great!”

Dr. Zhou is now working as a full-time employee for a site support contractor at NETL and continuing her HyPer research. Zhou hopes that she and her mentor’s research will help the world implement clean, low-emission energy, and until then NETL will continue to perfect the science behind it.

The NETL programs are administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy. ORISE is managed for DOE by Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU).