Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

DOE to establish Energy Frontier Research Center at U-M

U-M will be home to an Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) that will explore new materials to better convert solar energy to electricity, the White House has announced. The U.S. Department of Energy plans to fund this center at a level of about $19.5 million.

It is one of 46 centers across the nation and one of two in Michigan that were announced. The other is Michigan State University's Revolutionary Materials for Solid State Energy Conversion.

President Obama made the announcement at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences. The EFRCs, which will pursue advanced scientific research on energy, are being established by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science at universities, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations and private firms across the nation.

The Solar Energy Conversion in Complex Materials Center will be dedicated to studying complex material structures on the nano scale to identify key features for their potential use to convert solar energy and heat to electricity.

The center, funded for five years, will focus on fundamental research on materials for solar energy conservation and storage and on designing realistic materials based on this research.

"The University of Michigan will be exploring the fundamental properties of materials and how to exploit those properties to ultimately result in high-efficiency solar cells," says Stephen Forrest, vice president for research and one of the scientists in the new center. "People at the university have enormous ability to grow new materials at the nano scale and bring new products to market. It's all about surface materials."

Twenty-two U-M faculty researchers will be part of the center, in areas from materials science and engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, physics and chemistry. Six of these are faculty fellows in the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute.

U-M's scientists also are partners in other EFRCs across the nation.

Researchers Rod Ewing and Udo Beck are co-principal investigators in a center based at the University of Notre Dame in Lafayette, Ind., that will study nuclear materials under extreme conditions to lay the scientific foundation for advanced nuclear energy systems.

Beck is a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences. Ewing is the Donald R. Peacor Collegiate Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences, the William Kerr Professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences, and a professor of materials science and engineering.

Sharon Glotzer, professor of chemical engineering, materials science and engineering, physics, macromolecular science and engineering, and applied physics, is part of a center being established at Northwestern University to synthesize, characterize and understand new classes of materials under conditions far from equilibrium relevant to solar energy conversion, storage of electricity and hydrogen, and catalysis.

The U-M EFRC is one of 16 to be funded by Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"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," says Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. "Meeting this challenge will require significant scientific advances. These centers will mobilize the enormous talents and skills of our nation's scientific work force in pursuit of the breakthroughs that are essential to make alternative and renewable energy truly viable as large-scale replacements for fossil fuels."

Forrest says U-M's Solar Energy Conversion in Complex Materials Center not only is high-impact nationally, but also crucial to Michigan's economic recovery.

"This center is a significant win for the state of Michigan," Forrest says. "Renewable energy — solar energy in particular — is one of the major areas for opportunity in rebuilding the economy and this is exactly the sort of activity that makes sense not only to generate new science, but also very important economic opportunities in the long run."

The 46 EFRCs were selected from a pool of some 260 applications received in response to a solicitation issued by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science in 2008. Selection was based on a rigorous merit review process utilizing outside panels composed of scientific experts.

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 was developed with the DOE’s Office of Science support over the past decade, 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 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 post-doctoral associates, graduate students, undergraduates and technical staff, in keeping with the Recovery Act's objective to preserve and create jobs and promote economic recovery.