Energy Frontier Research Centers Boost NREL Research
Energy Soft Semiconductors, Neuromorphic Computing, Bioinspired Chemistry, and Three Approaches To Water-Splitting: Multi-Institutional Teams Hunt for New Concepts for a Clean Energy Transformation
As human knowledge grows deeper and broader, new and more complex scientific problems require multidisciplinary teams with more diverse ideas and skills.
Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences (BES) are a prime example of this approach, bringing together teams from multiple organizations and disciplines to tackle the toughest challenges in energy technologies through fundamental research. This year, the Department of Energy awarded $400 million to establish and continue 43 EFRCs.
By leading one of these EFRCs and supporting six others, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will collaborate with many different organizations to advance the BES goals to use discovery science and basic research to enable future clean energy technologies and advanced manufacturing.
A Powerful Format for Team Science
“EFRCs are designed to embrace team science, bringing together researchers from universities and national laboratories to tackle tough, challenging scientific questions,” said Garry Rumbles, an NREL senior research fellow and a researcher in two current EFRCs. “I really enjoy the challenge that joining an EFRC provides me as a researcher. It forces you to think outside your comfort zone and learn new scientific ideas.”
Each EFRC is funded for four years of research to address a key challenge. It is led by a lead principal investigator at a lead institution and supported by researchers at several other institutions. All EFRCs seek to discover or better understand materials that could change how we use energy. To accomplish such fundamental research, collaboration between different institutions with different strengths is crucial.
“While EFRCs are focused on basic science, they also explore technologically relevant foundational science,” said Rumbles. “NREL has a lot of expertise ensuring fundamental research impacts energy applications. Combine that with the deep knowledge that our university partners can bring on focused topics, and it is a very nice balance that helps to educate us and keep us fresh.”
EFRCs Bring NREL Valuable Partners and Perspectives
“EFRCs play a key role in NREL’s mission to advance the science and engineering of energy efficiency, sustainable transportation, and renewable power technologies,” said Peter Green, NREL’s chief research officer. “As a former EFRC director, I’ve seen firsthand how the diversity of perspectives and expertise EFRCs bring together yields groundbreaking advances in basic energy sciences.”
NREL leads one of these EFRCs the Center for Hybrid Organic-Inorganic Semiconductors for Energy (CHOISE) which launched in 2018 and was just renewed for four more years. CHOISE is studying perovskite materials with an eye toward new advances in spin dynamics, hot-carrier utilization, and light emission. Read about CHOISE’s recent work and its renewal.
Below, learn about each of the six other recently launched or renewed EFRCs that NREL is supporting:
Center for Soft PhotoElectroChemical Systems (SPECS)
Led by the University of Arizona, this EFRC will explore how organic polymers can create “soft” semiconductors that can convert sunlight into electricity and solar fuels. These materials could offer several key benefits compared to conventional semiconductor materials (like silicon): They could be more easily manufactured at large scales from abundant precursors, prove more durable or defect-tolerant, and be precisely tuned for a variety of applications.
Elisa Miller is the SPECS co-director and will lead this EFRC’s work at NREL with support from Andrew Ferguson, Garry Rumbles, Annie Greenaway, and Obadiah Reid.
Reconfigurable Electronic Materials Inspired by Nonlinear Neuron Dynamics (REMIND)
As our demand for computing power continues to grow, so does computing’s energy consumption. However, new approaches could make computing more energy-efficient and effective. This center is studying how new materials and approaches could enable computers that function more like a human brain for rapid and efficient processing.
Led by Texas A&M University, REMIND will try to create electrical circuits that mimic the fundamental behavior of biological neurons. Nonlinear responses to incoming electrical signals such as thresholding, amplification, integration, and embedded memory help to make our brains incredibly efficient and could do the same for computers. Andrew Ferguson is the REMIND co-director and will also oversee NREL’s contribution to this EFRC, along with Katie Jungjohann, Jeff Blackburn, and Lance Wheeler.