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News Release: DOE to establish Energy Frontier Research Center at NREL

May 27, 2009

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.

“As global energy demand grows over this century, there is an urgent need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and imported oil and curtail greenhouse gas emissions,” said Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu.  “Meeting this challenge will require significant scientific advances.  These Centers will mobilize the enormous talents and skills of our nation’s scientific workforce in pursuit of the breakthroughs that are essential to make alternative and renewable energy truly viable as large-scale replacements for fossil fuels.”

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. 

 “This is a wonderful opportunity for NREL,” said NREL Director Dan Arvizu.  “The Center will bring together a multidisciplinary team of researchers to design new semiconductors in a unique approach that will dramatically increase the speed and scale of materials discovery.”

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.

“This Center will embark on daring research that uses quantum theory and high performance computers to design new materials that have desired properties and then use state-of-the-art synthesis to make them in the laboratory,” Zunger said. “Deliberate design of material with tailored properties is an inverse approach to traditional accidental discovery.”

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.

“These new Centers will drive innovation and shape the direction of basic research at NREL for years to come,” said Robert McGrath, NREL’s deputy laboratory director for science & technology.

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.

NREL is the U.S. Department of Energy's primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. NREL is operated for DOE by the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC.