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May 2nd, 2009

EFRCs to provide big down payment for materials research

Published on May 2nd, 2009 | By: pwray@ceramics.org

First, I apologize for the length of this post (I’ve saved it for the weekend), but one of biggest “sleeper” stories in science in a long time is the DOE’s announcement concerning the establishment of 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers. These EFRCs have just been commissioned to focus work on a list of “grand challenges” (not to be confused with the NAE’s engineering Grand Challenges) related to fundamental breakthroughs needed for a new generation of “production, conversion, storage, transmission and waste mitigation.”

In particular, scientists have identified five major challenges:

•    How do we control material processes at the level of electrons?
•    How do we design and perfect atom- and energy-efficient synthesis of revolutionary new forms of matter with tailored properties?
•    How can we master energy and information on the nanoscale to create new technologies with capabilities rivaling those of living things?
•    How do remarkable properties of matter emerge from complex correlations of the atomic or electronic  constituents and how do we control these properties?
•    How do we characterize and control matter away – especially very far away – from equilibrium?

In an interview I did two months ago with John Hemminger, who chairs the DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee, Hemminger said, “there are these fundamental science roadblocks that we just don’t understand enough about how nature works to do what we want to do. That requires fundamental research. This needs to occur, along with the traditional applied technology and engineering research.”

Hemminger, who is also the dean at UCal-Irvine, said the time is ripe because of recent advances in control science. “We’ve developed capabilities to do certain materials engineering at an atomistic, nanometer-scale level combined with revolutionary computational abilities to predict materials properties in advanced of making them. We are at the dawn of a new age called control science, where we can say, ‘these are the properties we need,’ we can predict what the materials need to be like, and we have a way to make them,” he said. “Fundamental understanding of complex materials is essential to crating new energy strategies.”

Conceptually, the EFRCs are to be “dream teams,” for materials research. Explained Hemminger, “These are supposed to be multi-investigator, multi-institutional collaborator groups. These are not brick and mortar entities but collaborations among scientists at universities, national labs and industry that are focused on one or more of the research needs and grant challenge reports. The idea is to encourage the [scientific] community to gather together in collective groups to focus on well-defined, fundamental problems. This started the idea of dream teams composed of the right experimentalists, regardless of whether they are at the same institution.”

The creation of the EFRCs is good news for young scientists. There is a lot of enthusiasm for energy research around universities, but because of the downturn in endowment revenue, etc., many have had hiring freezes. As a result, postdoc opportunities have plummeted. Fortunately, the EFRCs will open up many new ones.

The DOE estimates that the EFRCs will employ 700 senior investigators plus an additional 1100 researchers, postdocs, grad students, undergrads and technical staff.

Sustaining funding will be key to the success of the overall EFRC effort, because there tends to be five-year frameworks to these kinds of projects. George Crabtree, director of the Material Science Division of Argonne National Lab and cochair of BESAC’s Subcommittee on Facing Our Energy Challenges, told me a while back that, “there’s been something like a billion dollars worth of proposals received, so we can’t fund them all, but funding one-quarter of them would be a great down payment.”

I am sure Crabtree was happy to learn that Congress and the Obama administration are funding closer to one-third of the projects. There are two revenue streams involved. First, $100 million is coming from the Fiscal Year 2009 budget to fund 30 EFRCs. DOE is planning on obtaining and additional $400 million in future federal budgets to provide five-years worth of funding. The second revenue stream is $277 million coming from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to fund 16 projects. These 16 ARRA projects are fully funded for five years.

As I mention above, the EFRCs are meant to be collaborative entities, not necessarily physical centers. Indeed, although there are 46 EFRCs, they span 110 institutions, 36 states plus the District of Columbia, and eight nations besides the United States.

Having noted that, here is a state-by-state breakdown of the EFRCs. Details of the projects can be found here, and there is a handy FAQ on the EFRCs here.


Anchor Institution


Arizona Arizona State U. Ctr. for Bio-Inspired Solar Fuel Prod. To adapt the fundamental principles of natural photosynthesis to the man-made production of hydrogen or other fuels from sunlight.
U. of Arizona Center for Interface Science: Hybrid Solar-Electric Materials To enhance the conversion of solar energy to electricity using hybrid organic-inorganic materials.
Calif. Cal Tech Light-Material Interactions in Energy Conversion To tailor the properties of advanced materials to control the flow of solar energy and heat.
Berkeley National Laboratory Center for Nanoscale Control of Geologic CO2 To establish the scientific foundations for the geological storage of carbon dioxide.
Stanford U. Center on Nanostructuring for Efficient Energy Conversion To design, create, and characterize materials at the nanoscale for a wide variety of
energy applications.
UCal – Berkeley Center for Gas Separations Relevant to Clean Energy Technologies To design and synthesize new forms of matter with tailored properties for gas
separations in applications including carbon capture and sequestration.
UCLA Molecularly Assembled Material Architectures for Solar Energy Production, Storage, and Carbon Capture To acquire a fundamental understanding and control of nanoscale material
architectures for conversion of solar energy to electricity, electrical energy storage, and
separating/capturing greenhouse gases.
UCal – Santa Barbara Center on Materials for Energy Efficiency Applications To discover and develop materials that control the interactions between light, electricity, and heat at the nanoscale for improved solar energy conversion, solid-state lighting, and conversion of heat into electricity.
USC Emerging Materials for Solar Energy Conversion and Solid State Lighting To simultaneously explore the light absorbing and emitting properties of hybrid inorganic-organic materials for solar energy conversion and solid-state lighting.
Colo. Nat’l. Renewable Energy Lab Center for Inverse Design To replace trial-and-error methods used in the development of materials for solar energy conversion with an inverse design approach powered by theory and computation.
DC Carnegie Inst. Center for Energy Frontier Research in Extreme Environments To accelerate the discovery of energy-relevant materials that can tolerate transient extremes in pressure and temperature.
Dela. U. of Delaware Rational Design of Innovative Catalytic Technologies for Biomass Derivative Utilization To design and characterize novel catalysts for the efficient conversion of the complex molecules comprising biomass into chemicals and fuels.
Idaho Idaho Nat’l. Lab Center for Materials Science of Nuclear Fuel To develop predictive computational models, validated by experiments, for the thermal and mechanical behavior of analogues to nuclear fuel.
Illinois Argonne Nat’l. Lab Institute for Atom-Efficient Chemical Transformations To discover, understand, and control efficient chemical pathways for the conversion of coal and biomass into chemicals and fuels.
Argonne Nat’l. Lab Center for Electrical Energy Storage: Tailored Interfaces To understand complex phenomena in electrochemical reactions critical to
advanced electrical energy storage.
Northwestern U. Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research Center To revolutionize the design, synthesis, and control of molecules, materials, and
processes in order to dramatically improve conversion of sunlight into electricity and fuels.
Northwestern U. Center for Integrated Training in Far-From-Equilibrium and Adaptive Materials To synthesize, characterize, and understand new classes of materials under far from equilibrium relevant to solar energy conversion, storage of electricity and hydrogen, and catalysis.
Indiana Purdue U. Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels To use fundamental knowledge about the interactions between catalysts and plant
cell walls to design improved processes for the conversion of biomass to energy, fuels, or
U. of Notre Dame Materials Science of Actinides To understand and control, at the nanoscale, materials that contain actinides (radioactive heavy elements such as uranium and plutonium) to lay the scientific foundation for advanced nuclear energy systems.
Louisiana LSU Computational Catalysis and Atomic-Level Synthesis of Materials: Building Effective Catalysts from First Principles To develop computational tools to accurately model catalytic reactions and thereby
provide the basis for the design of new catalysts.
Mass. MIT Solid-State Solar-Thermal Energy Conversion Center To create novel, solid-state materials for the conversion of sunlight and heat into
MIT Center for Excitonics To understand the transport of charge carriers in synthetic disordered systems, which hold promise as new materials for conversion of solar energy to electricity and electrical energy storage.
U. of Mass. Polymer-Based Materials for Harvesting Solar Energy To use novel, self-assembled polymer materials in systems for the conversion of sunlight into electricity.
Maryland U. of Maryland Science of Precision Multifunctional Nanostructures for Electrical Energy Storage To understand and build nano-structured electrode components as the foundation for
new electrical energy storage technologies.
Michigan Michigan State Revolutionary Materials for Solid State Energy Conversion To investigate the underlying physical and chemical principles of advanced materials for the conversion of heat into electricity.
U. of Michigan Solar Energy Conversion in Complex Materials To study complex material structures on the nanoscale to identify key features for their potential use as materials to convert solar energy and heat to electricity.
Missouri Donald Danforth Plant Science Ctr. Center for Advanced Biofuels Systems To generate the fundamental knowledge required to increase the efficiency of photosynthesis and production of energy-rich molecules in plants.
Washington U. Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center To understand the basic scientific principles that underpin the efficient functioning of the natural photosynthetic antenna system as a basis for man-made systems to convert sunlight into fuels.
N. Carolina UNC – Chapel Hill Solar Fuels and Next Generation Photovoltaics To synthesize new molecular catalysts and light absorbers and integrate them into nanoscale architectures for improved generation of fuels and electricity from sunlight.
New Jersey Princeton U. Energy Frontier Research Center for Combustion Science To develop a suite of predictive combustion modeling capabilities for the chemical design and utilization of non-petroleum based fuels in transportation.
New Mexico Los Alamos Nat’l. Lab The Center for Advanced Solar Photophysics To capitalize on recent advances in the science of how nanoparticles interact with light to design highly efficient materials for the conversion of sunlight into electricity.
Los Alamos Nat’l. Lab Extreme Environment-Tolerant Materials via Atomic Scale Design of Interfaces To understand, at the atomic scale, the behavior of materials subject to extreme radiation doses and mechanical stress in order to synthesize new materials that can tolerate such conditions.
Sandia Nat’l. Lab Solid State Lighting Science To study energy conversion in tailored nanostructures as a basis for dramatically improved solid-state lighting.
New York Brookhaven Nat’l Lab Center for Emergent Superconductivity By understanding the fundamental physics of superconductivity, to discover new high-temperature superconductors and improve the performance of known superconductors.
Columbia U. Re-Defining Photovoltaic Efficiency Through Molecule-Scale Control To develop the enabling science needed to realize breakthroughs in the efficient conversion of sunlight into electricity in nanometer sized thin films.
General Electric Global Research Center for Electrocatalysis, Transport Phenomena and Materials for Innovative Energy Storage To explore the fundamental chemistry needed for an entirely new approach to energy storage that combines the best properties of a fuel cell and a flow battery.
SUNY – Stony Brook Northeastern Chemical Energy Storage Center To understand how fundamental chemical reactions occur at electrodes and to use that knowledge to design new chemical energy storage systems.
Penn. Penn State Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Function To dramatically increase our fundamental knowledge of the physical structure of bio-polymers in plant cell walls to provide a basis for improved methods for converting biomass into fuels.
S. Carolina U. of South Carolina Science Based Nano-Structure Design and Synthesis of Heterogeneous Functional
Materials for Energy Systems
To build a scientific basis for bridging the gap between making nano-structured materials and understanding how they function in a variety of energy applications.
Tenn. Oak Ridge Nat’l Lab Energy Frontier Center for Defect Physics in Structural Materials To enhance our fundamental understanding of defects, defect interactions, and defect dynamics that determine the performance of structural alloys in extreme radiation environments.
Oak Ridge Nat’l Lab Fluid Interface Reactions, Structures and Transport Center To provide basic scientific understanding of phenomena that occur at interfaces in electrical energy storage, conversion of sunlight into fuels, geological sequestration of carbon dioxide, and other advanced energy systems.
Texas UT – Austin Frontiers of Subsurface Energy Security To harness recent theoretical and experimental advances to explain the transport of native and injected fluids, particularly carbon dioxide, in geological systems over multiple length scales.
UT – Austin Understanding Charge Separation and Transfer at Interfaces in Energy Materials
and Devices
To pursue fundamental research on charge transfer processes that underpins the function of highly promising molecular materials for photovoltaic and electrical energy storage
Virginia U. of Viginia Center for Catalytic Hydrocarbon Functionalization To develop novel catalysts and manipulate their reactivity for the efficient conversion of hydrocarbon gases into liquid fuels.
Wash. Pacific Northwest Nat’l Lab Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis To develop a comprehensive understanding of how chemical and electrical energy contained in fuels is exchanged, stored and released.

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