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NSF'S Renewed Push For Innovation

Agency's chemistry centers program funds collaborative research to pursue bold ideas

by Rochelle F. H. Bohaty
December 8, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 49

Credit: Dave Harvey/University of Arizona
Arizona Radio Observatory Submillimeter Telescope on Mount Graham will facilitate the study of interstellar chemistry by researchers in a project supported by NSF's CCI program.
Credit: Dave Harvey/University of Arizona
Arizona Radio Observatory Submillimeter Telescope on Mount Graham will facilitate the study of interstellar chemistry by researchers in a project supported by NSF's CCI program.

CHEMISTRY CAN HELP SOLVE many of today's grand challenges. But finding support for major, long-term fundamental chemical research to address big problems can be difficult. To help chemists with bold ideas, the National Science Foundation's Division of Chemistry has rolled out a rejuvenated funding opportunity.

Through a new program called Centers for Chemical Innovation (CCI), groups of scientists can compete for multi-million-dollar collaborative research grants to pursue their big ideas. The fact that these ideas could lead to new technologies that benefit society makes this program an important addition to the Chemistry Division's funding portfolio.

"I think it is crucial for the chemistry community to move more toward solving grand-challenge ideas by working together," says Luis A. Echegoyen, director of NSF's Division of Chemistry.

To tackle enormous challenges, it is necessary to assemble teams of scientists with a wide range of expertise, making it difficult to secure funding, several CCI principal investigators tell C&EN. "The group of people who have come together would not have come together in the absence of this centers program," says Brooks H. Pate, a chemistry professor at the University of Virginia and a principal investigator of the CCI-supported Center for Chemistry of the Universe.

What's distinctive about the CCI program is it demands that all projects include an innovation component—something its predecessor, the Chemical Bonding Centers (CBC) program, did not explicitly require. The centers that were previously referred to as CBCs are now associated with the CCI program.

This fall, NSF identified four centers to support (C&EN, Oct. 20, page 42). These centers are poised to solve chemistry challenges including chemical reactions in space (Center for Chemistry of the Universe), environmentally friendly materials (Center for Green Materials Chemistry), molecular interfaces (Center for Molecular Interfacing), and liquid solar fuels (Powering the Planet).

The first three centers are brand new and in the first phase of CCI's two-phase funding program. The fourth center completed the first phase as a CBC and is now in its second phase under CCI. A center's status within the two-phase funding program correlates with its stage of development.

"Chemistry is one of those subjects where a breakthrough can change the world overnight."

DURING PHASE I, centers receive start-up funding of $1.5 million over three years. It "is not a lot of money," Echegoyen acknowledges. But it allows NSF to figure out whether the group will work effectively together and to determine whether the project is feasible before it is given "big money," he explains.

Projects that show promise can apply for Phase II support, which provides enough cash—$4 million per year for five years—to hammer out the proposed work.

And at the end of Phase II, the center may be eligible for a five-year extension. This means a center could receive up to $41.5 million over 13 years through the CCI program.

During both phases, the centers must participate in annual reviews by the agency, including on-site visits. These visits and the two-step funding plan allow the division to do risk management effectively, Echegoyen points out.

Among other things, CCI's innovation element asks investigators to consider the potential industrial applications of their research. This requirement does not take away from the mission of funding fundamental chemical research, Echegoyen says. NSF's continuing commitment to basic science has "made all of us quite happy," Pate says.

Instead, it aims to encourage investigators to think deliberately about potential applications of some or all aspects of the research and the impact that it could have in the private sector, Echegoyen explains. Such links are not always easy to see, Katharine J. Covert, CCI's program manager, notes, but they are there.

For example, the new Center for Chemistry of the Universe aims to examine the molecular interactions that occur under the unique conditions of the interstellar medium such as ultracold temperatures and intense radiation. The research team includes 10 investigators from six institutions and is led by Pate. It may not seem like the project has an industrial application, Covert points out. The fact is that "a lot of the instrument and technique development required, particularly in microwave spectroscopy, might have significant applications in a lot of different industries," she explains.

For the two other new centers, the link to industrial innovation is more obvious, Covert says.

The Center for Green Materials Chemistry, led by Douglas A. Keszler, a professor of chemistry at Oregon State University, is using a new platform to make environmentally friendly inorganic films. These thin films are of particular interest to industry because they could reduce the cost of electronic manufacturing and reduce chemical hazards and waste.

And the Center for Molecular Interfacing, directed by Héctor D. Abruña, a chemistry professor at Cornell University, is using graphene sheets and carbon nanotubes to make molecularly well-defined connections to designed molecular assemblies that could enable major technology advancements. For example, this center's research offers "tremendous" possibilities in the development of chemical and biological sensors. The diverse seven-member team consisting of people who make molecules, people who do measurements, and people who do theory, hopes to better understand transport properties of molecular assemblies as a result of the center's program, according to Abruña.

For the new Phase II project, Powering the Planet, researchers are using photosynthesis to guide development of a solar water-splitting system that will enable storage of the sun's energy in the form of oxygen and hydrogen molecules. "Our work on solar fuels is absolutely brand new," says Siddharth Dasgupta, the manager of the center. It is completely different from the photovoltaic systems that people think of as the source of renewable solar energy, he explains.

Energy Boost
Credit: Elizabeth Santori/CalTech
Water-splitting solar cells are the focus of chemists supported first by CBC and now by CCI.
Credit: Elizabeth Santori/CalTech
Water-splitting solar cells are the focus of chemists supported first by CBC and now by CCI.

POWERING THE PLANET is a carryover from CCI's predecessor. Harry B. Gray, a chemistry professor at California Institute of Technology, directs the center, which involves scientists and facilities in 11 institutions. This center is the second Phase II center in the Chemistry Division's portfolio.

Last year under the CBC program, the Center for Enabling New Technologies through Catalysis received Phase II funding (C&EN, Dec. 17, 2007, page 23). The project has now transitioned to the CCI program.

A team of chemists and chemical engineers from several U.S. research facilities and one Canadian university makes up the center. It is led by Karen I. Goldberg, a chemistry professor at the University of Washington, Seattle. The group is developing new catalytic processes such as ways to produce clean fuel or to convert biomass to useful chemicals.

The CCI program retains many of the features of its predecessor. Like the CBC program, CCI emphasizes community outreach. To meet this requirement, projects must include activities to improve the public's understanding of science.

For instance, the Center for Molecular Interfacing together with Casa Pueblo, a community outreach center located in the mountains of Puerto Rico, is providing chemistry, physics, and material science education for young children and their families. This outreach includes virtual presentations as well as in-person visits to Casa Pueblo.

CCI applicants also have to include information about how they plan to incorporate virtual participation in their projects, Echegoyen says. Examples include videoconferencing and remote instrument access.

The Center for Chemistry of the Universe, for example, is meeting the virtual participation requirement by taking full advantage of cyberconnections. The center is currently building a facility at the University of Virginia to house a new spectrometer that can be remotely controlled by all center participants, Pate says. The center will also take advantage of cyberspace to remotely access telescopes located at the Arizona Radio Observatory and a new facility in Chile that is slated to open in 2011.

As a result of the innovation, community outreach, and virtual participation requirements, the CCI program could yield novel ways for scientists to learn, approach, and solve scientific challenges. Echegoyen hopes that it will push the boundaries of tradition and encourage scientists to explore research areas that they may not have thought of pursuing because the idea was too big for one scientist to solve or there was no research funding available because it was too cutting edge.

The centers could also develop innovative technologies that could benefit society. "Chemistry is one of those subjects where a breakthrough can change the world overnight," Echegoyen says.

To be considered for next year's Phase I centers, applicants must submit preproposals by Feb. 2, 2009. The division is looking forward to learning about the next big idea in chemistry, Echegoyen says.


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