Science Is a Team Sport: 7 Energy Frontier Research Centers Boost NREL Research

Soft Semiconductors, Neuromorphic Computing, Bioinspired Chemistry, and Three Approaches To Water-Splitting: Multi-Institutional Teams Hunt for New Concepts for a Clean Energy Transformation

Nov. 23, 2022 | By Harrison Dreves | Contact media relations

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.

Bioinspired Light-Escalated Chemistry (BioLEC)

As the photosynthetic reactions that produce all the food we eat and air we breathe demonstrate, biological systems provide a master class in the conversion of photons into chemical energy. This EFRC draws inspiration from biological systems to make new molecules, fuels, and materials from solar energy. Specifically, bioinspired systems may be able to better harness the collective energy of two packets (quanta) of light to break and make strong chemical bonds.

This EFRC, led by Princeton University, was originally funded in 2018 and recently won renewal for another four years. Garry Rumbles is leading the NREL effort, supported by Obadiah Reid. One recent example of BioLEC's research is the resurrection of a century-old microwave technique to reveal a surprising feature of well-established light-driven chemistry.

Ensembles of Photosynthetic Nanoreactors (EPN)

This center, led by the University of California, Irvine, seeks to understand, predict, and control solar water-splitting nanoreactors in isolation and as ensembles. This work could improve the efficiency of splitting water to produce hydrogen—a key process in a clean energy economy.

Katie Hurst will lead NREL's efforts as part of EPN, supported by Wilson McNeary.

Center for Electrochemical Dynamics and Reactions on Surfaces (CEDARS)

Another effort focused on improving the splitting of water for hydrogen production, CEDARS will focus on the crucial role that surfaces play in facilitating these reactions.

The center is led by North Carolina A&T State University. Myles Steiner will lead NREL's contribution to CEDARS research.

Center for Alkaline-Based Energy Solutions (CABES)

This EFRC is working to deepen our understanding of alkaline-based electrocatalysis—an alternate approach to hydrogen production and conversion to electricity that does not require expensive platinum-group metals. CABES was originally launched in 2018 and has recently been renewed for four more years of research.

CABES is led by Cornell University, with Bryan Pivovar leading the NREL effort in the renewed center.

"I am delighted to see our scientists so engaged with EFRC teams," said Bill Tumas, NREL's associate laboratory director for Materials, Chemical, and Computational Science and a former director of two EFRCs. "They are very important to NREL and provide strong connectivity to universities and other labs to advance science critical to our mission and to BES goals. Fundamental science is experiencing an exciting moment at NREL."

Learn more about NREL's materials, chemical, and computational science work.

Tags: Computational Science,Chemistry and Nanoscience,Materials Science