Issue Date: July 11, 2011
The Department of Energy is gunning to accelerate innovative energy R&D in the U.S. In the past two years, the agency has funded three new initiatives: Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs), Energy Innovation Hubs, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The programs’ scales and operations are different, but the idea is the same: Give teams of scientists and engineers the resources to solve the U.S.’s most pressing energy challenges—quickly.
The EFRCs, hubs, and ARPA-E joined DOE’s portfolio of programs starting in 2009. Since then, DOE has funded 46 EFRCs, three hubs, and 121 projects across ARPA-E’s seven programs. T. Brent Gunnoe, a chemist at the University of Virginia and a director of an EFRC, says the new programs complement the individual principal investigator’s (PI) efforts traditionally funded by DOE and enhance the national energy research portfolio by aggressively focusing on alternatives to petroleum-based fuels and other long-standing energy issues.
Of the three programs, ARPA-E is the most recognizable as it’s modeled on the high-profile Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). ARPA-E provides short-term funding to high-risk but potentially game-changing energy technologies developed by small teams or single investigators that the private sector can’t afford to back. For example, the agency is betting on electrofuels, which exploit microorganisms to harness energy and convert carbon dioxide into liquid fuels without requiring petroleum or biomass as feedstock.
ARPA-E projects receive anywhere between $500,000 and $10 million per year for two to three years. Current solicitations are in areas such as batteries, capture of CO2 from coal-fired power plants, and energy-efficient technologies to cool buildings.
ARPA-E does have one notable difference from its defense counterpart, as noted last month by ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar during a live chat with the public about clean energy: For DARPA, the customer is the Department of Defense. “In the case of ARPA-E, it’s the whole economy,” he said, “so we have to work a little differently” in ensuring technologies integrate into the marketplace.
The Energy Innovation Hubs are modeled after DOE’s Bioenergy Research Centers, says William F. Brinkman, director of the DOE Office of Science. Each one is annually funded at around $25 million for a five-year period; hubs are physical entities intended to concentrate on a single energy topic that can drive technology forward.
For instance, the Energy Innovation Hub in Fuels from Sunlight, called the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), has a single goal: Turn solar energy into chemical energy in the form of fuel. When its facilities are completed next spring, JCAP will consist of two buildings in two locations, one at California Institute of Technology and the other at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
“All work will be done for JCAP in one of these two buildings,” says Nathan Lewis, a chemist at Caltech who spearheads the hub. The idea, he says, is to exploit “the synergy from having people over a large number of disciplines, all in the same place, committed to working on the same problem at the same time.” When fully staffed, JCAP will have a workforce numbering between 150 and 180. The two buildings will be linked by pervasive telecommunications, with every desktop, workstation, laboratory bench, and conference room equipped with videoconferencing capabilities so the two buildings will almost function as one, he notes.
JCAP will cover all the bases, from fundamental research on capturing solar energy to make fuels, to engineering a device with potential commercial applications. All aspects of the research will be carried out simultaneously. “We’re not waiting to discover the parts to build the prototypes,” Lewis explains. “We can do that with dummy parts that still function, just maybe too expensively” or only in certain regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, he says, adding that new components will be integrated as they get faster, better, and cheaper.
In addition to JCAP, DOE is funding a hub for nuclear reactor design and engineering and one for design, construction, and retrofitting of commercial and residential buildings for energy efficiency.
in contrast to hubs, EFRCs connect researchers across the country to focus solely on the fundamental science of energy and matter in a given field, such as advanced biofuels or molecular electrocatalysis. The EFRCs “are not technology incubators. They are really meant to accelerate the pace of discovery in energy-relevant basic research,” explains Eric A. Rohlfing, director of the Chemical Sciences, Geosciences & Biosciences Division at the Office of Basic Energy Sciences (BES) in the DOE Office of Science.
The genesis of EFRCs goes back almost a decade. In 2002, the BES advisory committee issued a report that broadly covered the fundamental research needs of every energy topic. On the basis of that report, BES initiated the Basic Research Needs workshop series. Each of 10 workshops focused on a particular area—such as superconductivity or electrical energy storage—and identified the gaps and challenges in the fundamental understanding of the science in that area. The BES advisory committee captured the resulting reports in a 2008 document that identified the most critical scientific questions and technological challenges facing society.
DOE was eager to address the numerous scientific challenges that the reports identified, Rohlfing says. But to implement the diversity of approaches that the challenges demanded, “there was a strong feeling, both in the research community and the department, that doing a large number of small centers was appropriate,” he says.
So in DOE’s fiscal 2009 budget request to Congress, the agency proposed EFRCs, structuring them around the challenges identified in the reports. Congress responded by funding the centers at $100 million, which allowed DOE to award and support 30 EFRCs.
EFRCs got another boost in 2009 when the DOE Office of Science received $1.6 billion from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009. The extra funds allowed the agency to support 16 more centers.
Each EFRC will receive $3 million to $4 million annually for five years to focus on a grand challenge described in one of the Basic Research Needs workshop reports. For example, the Center for Catalytic Hydrocarbon Functionalization, directed by UVA’s Gunnoe, concentrates on three fundamental research areas of natural gas utilization: turning it into liquid fuels, facilitating its use as a feedstock in the chemical industry, and developing methane-based fuel cells.
EFRCs mix established experts in a field with researchers from a different field who bring a fresh perspective and a complementary skill set. A case in point is Emily A. Carter, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor at Princeton University, who says that her expertise in quantum mechanics landed her in two EFRCs. She codirects the combustion EFRC with Chung K. Law, an engineering colleague of hers at Princeton. Law had requested that Carter join him in leading the EFRC because of her work in developing fast methods to accurately calculate from ab initio quantum mechanics the thermochemistry and kinetics of large molecules. It was natural for her to join the EFRC.
But the other EFRC Carter is involved with is in a field she had never considered before. Kenneth Reifsnider, a mechanical engineer at the University of South Carolina, was setting up an EFRC on heterogeneous functional materials and asked Carter to contribute her skills toward understanding the quantum mechanics of novel materials for electrodes and electrolytes of fuel cells. “It’s been terrific because it got me into a completely new area of science,” Carter says, adding that her team has “come up with some material design principles that are based on fundamentals of quantum mechanics that people had never thought of before.”
DOE made a wise decision “to fund these EFRCs for five years rather than three years because building a large team effort takes some time,” Gunnoe says. Team building is something Brinkman notes DOE management has been concerned about because it isn’t trivial to pull a diverse group of researchers together from various institutions to focus on a particular area of research.
One problem that faces EFRC participants is communication, according to Car-ter and Gunnoe. They note, however, that this difficulty is being overcome through the use of meetings in all forms—in person, over the phone, and by webcast—among PIs. But the students and postdocs in the various groups, who organize their own weekly videoconferences, have really been the key to cohesion. Their enthusiasm has surprised DOE management.
When EFRCs were first launched, Rohlfing recalls, he and others were worried that they wouldn’t be able to adequately staff them with graduate students and postdocs. “They’ve had no trouble with that,” he states. “They are overwhelmed and inundated by people wanting to work with the EFRCs. It’s gratifying to see the next generation of scientists who are really desperately eager to solve these basic research problems related to energy.”
In addition to individual project goals, DOE has a bigger objective for the three innovation programs: coupling efforts to enhance innovation. For instance, Lewis says that in addition to establishing corporate partnerships, JCAP’s management team is working with some 20 EFRCs. “Any EFRC working on the theory of catalyst design can be very helpful in applying those methods to the catalyst that we care about in the hub,” Lewis says.“The hub can in turn tell them which catalyst families are very active and help channel their theoretical method development into systems that are of interest.”
DOE program managers regularly monitor ARPA-E projects, EFRCs, and hubs. For ARPA-E, project managers can cut funding if milestones are not met. And last year EFRCs were reviewed on their early operations and management to see how well they got off the ground. In 2012, each EFRC will undergo a rigorous scientific and technical review by an external scientific advisory board to determine whether they are making their intended impact.
EFRCs must prove that DOE’s money is being well spent, Gunnoe and Carter say. Gunnoe anticipates that DOE “will be carefully evaluating the EFRCs, including the critical question of whether the program has facilitated research in a way that is distinct from simply funding multiple individual PI grants.”
Carter says that two years into the program, she can already point to instances of EFRCs accelerating the pace of research. For example, when a group at the combustion EFRC decided to analyze the burning of butanol, a biofuel close to commercialization, the theorists and the experimentalists shared their data, and within two years they came up with a reasonable combustion mechanism.
“It is unheard of for something like this to happen that quickly,” Carter stresses. The data sharing even helped the theorists identify errors in their databases early in the process. Had the researchers relied on the convention of doing experiments, writing a research paper, going through peer review, publishing, and then getting feedback from the scientific community, she says, the research would have moved at a much slower pace.
Current EFRCs have guaranteed funding for the five-year grant period, as do the three hubs. Congress will have to grant additional money to DOE in 2014 for EFRCs and in 2015 for the hubs if they are to continue. ARPA-E, however, receives yearly appropriations from Congress and can fund projects only if Congress provides the funds in the annual budget. With the state of the federal budget, it is likely that the programs will face cuts, with ARPA-E feeling them more immediately.
But participants agree that DOE’s new programs should continue to be supported so they can help the U.S. remain competitive in energy R&D. Lewis points out that Japan, South Korea, and Brazil are already setting up hubs of their own to study the conversion of solar energy into chemical energy, and Chinese and European versions are anticipated.
“The world is now laying out big dollars to surpass what the U.S. has started,” Lewis says. “We’re still ahead. We can stay that way but only if we keep the ball rolling and don’t cut our legs out from under us just when we’re starting the race.”
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