Credit: DOE

The next few days should be fun for materials scientists and engineers. Tomorrow (May 25) begins the start of a three-day meeting where participants in the DOE’s 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers will begin the initial reporting-out (at least to the public) about what kind progress they have been able to make. There is a PDF brochure about all of the projects here.

These shouldn’t be expected to be anything close to final reports; most of the EFRCs are five-year projects begun in 2009, so they are only about one-third of the way through their work. It’s probably better to think about what will be reported as a combination of status report and dog-and-pony-show. I don’t intend this latter description to be taken as a negative. Political realities being what they are, the DOE and the Obama administration (not to mention the research teams, themselves) need to show how the monies for these projects are being spent, and what some of the eventual payoffs might be.

Unlike ARPA-E, the EFRCs are less applications- and deployment-oriented, and more aimed at basic science and discovery. The idea was to form “dream teams” of researchers who focus on fundamental breakthroughs needed for a new generation of “production, conversion, storage, transmission and waste mitigation.”

Put another way, without advances in basic science, applied technology and engineering would soon be tapped out. At the beginning, five major challenges were described:

  • 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?

One thing EFRCs have in common with ARPA-E projects is that there is considerable risk involved, at least in the sense that not every project is going to hit the jackpot. The EFRCs involve some highly theoretical and esoteric fields of study, so some educated guesswork had to be employed by DOE after it received over $1 billion in proposals (but only had the funding for about one-third). In this case, it’s better to think of the DOE as a venture capitalist who put together a large portfolio of promising investments knowing that there will be an enormous payoff even if only a few elements of the portfolio pan out.

I am sure we will be hearing much more in the next few days, but the DOE is teasing us with developments in four intriguing (and, coincidentally, materials-intensive) areas:

Microscopic Battery ChargingLead institution: University of Maryland

“This research team has built the world’s smallest lithium battery inside an advanced microscope, and for the first time has been able to watch how its structure changes while it’s being charged. Understanding these changes may enable new design and production of batteries that perform better and last longer.”

Safer Materials for Nuclear ReactorsLead institution: Los Alamos National Laboratory

“Using a combination of modeling tools, the research team is looking at improving the safety of our nuclear reactors and has discovered possible ‘self-healing’ mechanisms for nuclear reactor materials.”

Controlling How Light Interacts with MaterialsLead institution: California Institute of Technology

“Using computer simulation, the research team found that small glass spheres could affect the absorption of sunlight by solar cells by helping to collect and retain light. The small glass spheres could enable efficient coupling of sunlight to ultrathin semiconductor layers, significantly increasing solar cell efficiency and cost-effectiveness.”

Improved LED’s for Homes and BusinessesLead institution: University of California, Santa Barbara

“A new understanding of the mysterious drop-off in efficiency when LEDs are subjected to strong electric current could eventually help remove barriers to widespread use of low-energy solid-state lighting for homes and industry, greatly reducing power usage.”

In a 2009 interview I did with John Hemminger, who chairs the DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee, he spoke optimistically about the prospect for EFRC success. “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,” he said.

I also think the EFRCs have a far less discussed benefit: They also represent, to a large extent, investments in promising early-career scientists, and I give credit to DOE Secretary Steven Chu for noting in a news release that, “In just two years, these research centers have inspired a new generation of talented young Americans to dedicate their careers to meeting our nation’s energy challenges.”