Southern Research began working on an air pollution control device called an electrostatic precipitator in 1968, earning the organization an international reputation in the field.
In a power plant, an electrostatic precipitator removes dust particles from exhaust by applying a high-voltage electrostatic charge and collecting the particles on charged plates. The work of Sabert Oglesby, then head of Southern Research’s Engineering division, advanced the technology. He later served as president of the International Society of Electrostatic Precipitation and wrote a manual on the technology.
Southern Research’s work in air pollution actually stretches further back. In the 1950s, researchers developed equipment to trap dust in a measured volume of air, as well as a portable device called an aerosol photometer, to count tiny particles in the air. The device had a number of useful applications in air pollution studies and in measuring contamination in areas such as hospital operating rooms, instrument assembly rooms, and a nuclear submarine.
Air pollution work during the 1960s included a program to develop new methods for sampling the atmosphere and concentrating the pollutants for analysis. A copper tube, filled with gas chromatographic column packing, collected the sample, allowing materials in the sample to be identified using a gas chromatograph with a hydrogen flame detector.
Photo shows early air pollution testing in Birmingham
Discussions with the Environmental Protection Agency, then in its infancy, led to a contract calling for Southern Research engineers to develop ways to measure fine particles in industrial flue gases. These tiny particles were proving difficult for air pollution control devices to capture.
Southern Research’s pioneering efforts to measure concentrations and size distributions of these minute particles became the basis of a decades-long effort supported by industry and the EPA to improve the performance of particulate-control devices.
Southern Research was involved in several full-scale test programs sponsored by the EPA, the Department of Energy, and the Electric Power Research Institute.
Southern Research begins work for the newly formed National Toxicology Program (NTP), evaluating environmental contaminants, pharmaceuticals, and industrial products for potential health hazards to humans.
Among the many successes associated with the NTP program was the demonstration at Southern Research of the carcinogenicity of hexavalent chromium, commonly referred to as the “Erin Brockovich chemical.” This work was directly responsible for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations limiting the amount of this dangerous chemical in human drinking-water supplies.
In June 1979, workers began moving into the new Environmental Sciences Laboratory on Eight Avenue and 22nd Street in Birmingham.
The Environmental Sciences Department of Southern Research sprang from a group in the Engineering Division that pioneered the development of systems for sampling and measuring the concentrations and sizes of particles in air. Their work preceded changes to the Clean Air Act of 1970 that required regulatory controls.
The Water Research Center, located at Georgia Power’s Plant Bowen near Cartersville, Georgia, evaluates technologies developed to treat wastewater created by power plants. A very important step in many wastewater treatment processes will be the processing of difficult-to-treat wastewaters, such as those created by acid gas scrubbers.
The goal of the projects at the Water Research Center will be to understand the applicability of the various commercial technologies to treat scrubber waters and to meet the requirements of newly proposed EPA effluent guidelines, as well as to produce clean water for power plant reuse or discharge back into lakes and rivers.
Southern Research teamed with the Electric Power Research Institute, Georgia Power Company, Southern Company Services, and power companies throughout the United States to develop the Water Research Center.
The organization’s Southeastern Solar Research Center, which opened in 2014, is designed to focus on the study on solar photovoltaic (PV) systems and host a range of research programs and initiatives. The first program, sponsored by the Electric Power Research Institute, focuses on solar PV system orientation, tracking and aging.
The center boasts a testing area comprising multiple configurations of PV solar panel arrays, microinverters and an advanced energy-monitoring system.
Michael D. Johns, vice president of engineering at Southern Research, said the new facility will accelerate the institute’s research into solar photovoltaics and yield data to aid utilities in the optimal design of solar PV systems.
While Southern Research’s historic focus in energy has been on fossil fuel and air pollution, its capabilities had been expanding include solar, clean water and more. That prompted the organization to establish an Energy & Environment division in 2015 to expand that evolution.
Dr. Bill Grieco, an industry veteran, was hired to direct the activities of the new division.
Energy & Environment focuses on cleaner and more efficient energy production, water research at the industrial and watershed level, new technology development for grid-scale energy storage, creation of carbon fiber production technologies from bio-based sources, and new fuel source development from biomass and other feedstocks.
Continuing to involve its focus in energy-related activities beyond fossil fuels, the organization launched an initiative concentrating on next-generation nuclear power in 2016.
Generation IV nuclear power is viewed as a substantial leap forward compared to current technology, though next-generation reactor designs remain in the developmental stage. Southern Research will work with leading utilities, universities, and technology developers with the objective of developing safe ‘Gen IV’ nuclear power systems with no radioactive waste or nuclear proliferation concerns.
Next-generation nuclear power has the potential to play a key role in meeting global demand for energy, which is projected to increase by 48 percent by 2020, compared to 2012 levels. Renewables and nuclear are projected to be the two fastest growing segments in that time frame.