Green to Lead $19.5M DOE Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) at Michigan

Green to Lead $19.5M DOE Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) at Michigan

Professor Peter Green

The University of Michigan 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 DOE plans to fund this center at a level of about $19.5 million.

It is one of 46 centers announced across the nation and one of two in Michigan. 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 Office of Science at universities, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations and private firms across the nation.

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

The center, funded for five years, will focus both 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," said 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 at U-M.

Peter Green, Vincent T. and Gloria M. Gorguze Professor of Engineering chair of the Materials Science and Engineering department and principal investigator of the EFRC, explained that while materials that convert solar energy and heat into electricity have been around for years, the challenge is developing new generation of materials that are significantly more efficient. Currently, too much energy is lost during the energy conversion process.

U-M's distinction, he said, is its vast array of expertise to tackle the questions on all fronts—from fundamental research involving synthesis and fabrication of materials to understanding their properties at the nano, molecular or atomic scale.

"We are working on challenging problems that can't be solved by just one person in a laboratory, but by an interdisciplinary team of world-class researchers from across the campus of the University of Michigan," Green said. "Our team includes researchers who study optical and electronic processes using very sophisticated tools, people who fabricate new materials and control structures at the nanoscale, people who can synthesize materials with unusual properties and people who are experienced in designing and making devices."

U-M's scientists and engineers 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 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," said 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 workforce in pursuit of the breakthroughs that are essential to make alternative and renewable energy truly viable as large-scale replacements for fossil fuels."

Forrest said 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 said. "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 developed with DOE 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 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.