Frontier Research Center will pursue materials science for energy efficiency

June 24, 2009
Could usher in a new era of materials science – not only in renewable energy – but in other technology areas.

The U. S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will be home to a new multi-million-dollar Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) established by the DOE Office of Science. NREL’s Center for Inverse Design will pursue advanced scientific research on material discovery for energy.

It is one of 46 Centers to study various areas of scientific research that were selected for funding by DOE over a planned initial five year period. NREL will participate in six additional Centers led by other organizations.

The NREL EFRC, expected to receive $4 million per year for a five-year period, was selected from a pool of some 260 final applications received in response to a solicitation issued by the DOE Office of Science in 2008. Selection was based on a rigorous merit review process, which included outside panels composed of scientific experts.

Dr. Alex Zunger, NREL Research Fellow, is the director of the Center for Inverse Design. Researchers from Northwestern University, Oregon State University and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory will partner with NREL. Zunger said the Center’s approach will be like playing “Quantum Jeopardy.” Given the answer (e.g., a material having these unique and useful properties), researchers must find the question (what material is it?).

“This could usher in a new era of materials science – not only in renewable energy – but in other technology areas where specialized key materials are needed,” he said.

In addition to the Center for Inverse Design, NREL researchers will participate in six other Energy Frontier Research Centers, including the Center for Molecularly Assembled Material Architectures for Solar Energy Production, Storage, and Carbon Capture led by the University of California, Los Angeles; Center on Materials for Energy Efficiency Applications led by the University of California, Santa Barbara; Center for Interface Science: Hybrid Solar-Electric Materials led by the University of Arizona; Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels led by Purdue University; Center for Polymer-Based Materials for Harvesting Solar Energy led by the University of Massachusetts; and Center for Advanced Solar Photophysics led by Los Alamos National Laboratory.

EFRC researchers will take advantage of new capabilities in nanotechnology, high-intensity light sources, neutron scattering sources, supercomputing, and other advanced instrumentation, much of it developed with DOE Office of Science support over the past decade. The Centers will work together in an effort to lay the scientific groundwork for fundamental advances in solar energy, biofuels, transportation, energy efficiency, electricity storage and transmission, clean coal and carbon capture and sequestration, and nuclear energy.

Of the 46 EFRCs selected, 31 are led by universities, 12 by DOE National Laboratories, two by nonprofit organizations, and one by a corporate research laboratory. The primary criterion for providing an EFRC with Recovery Act funding was job creation. The EFRCs chosen for funding under the Recovery Act provide the most employment for postdoctoral associates, graduate students, undergraduates, and technical staff, in keeping with the Recovery Act’s objective to preserve and create jobs and promote economic recovery.

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