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Spring 2016

From Fundamentals to Functional Products

The EFRCs' role in the quest for greener technologies

Robert Call & Kimberly Lundberg

At the nation’s Energy Frontier Research Centers, scientists are providing vital knowledge on the mechanisms that drive green technologies. Their contributions have led to startup companies, patents, and contributions to today’s technologies.

Born out of the international agreement on climate change in Paris this past December, twenty industrialized countries agreed to spur technological advancement in clean energy through Mission Innovation. Through this initiative, participating countries promised to increase funding for research and development and provide assistance in the commercialization of clean energy technologies. Clean or “green” technologies allow energy to be created and consumed more efficiently with fewer resulting pollutants than traditional methods. For example, an electric car that is charged using renewable solar or wind energy produces almost no emissions while a gasoline engine produces greenhouse gas emissions (for example, carbon dioxide) from non-renewable fuels.

As a member of Mission Innovation, the United States agreed to double spending in clean energy research and development in the next five years. At the Mission Innovation announcement meeting, President Obama told the audience that improvements to existing technologies may not result in products that are cheap, fast, or efficient enough to meet global green energy goals. Instead entirely new technologies will be needed, and that’s why research is imperative. He emphasized the United States’ dedication to clean energy in the 2017 Presidential Budget. The budget provides a 20 percent increase in funding for clean energy research and development with $33 million allocated to forming up to five new Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs).

EFRCs have been active since 2009 and pursue fundamental research on energy-related topics ranging from batteries to solar energy to catalysis and beyond. EFRCs provide essential knowledge on the mechanisms that drive green technologies, so while they are not actively at the forefront of developing commercial products, their scientific contributions have led to the creation of startup companies, patents, and contributions to pre-existing technologies.

Perhaps the most well-known startup to benefit from EFRC research is Alta Devices, the creator of single- and double-junction solar cells that have set world records for efficiency. Alta would not have accomplished this feat without the work done at the Light-Material Interactions in Energy Conversion (LMI) EFRC. Calculations by LMI researchers projected the theoretical efficiency of solar cells made from the compound gallium arsenide. These calculations revealed the surprising importance of a process called “luminescence extraction” in efficient solar cells. Luminescence extraction is a measure of how well light is able to escape from a material. The work at LMI predicted that the highest possible efficiency solar cell can only be achieved if it exhibits 100 percent luminescence extraction when no electric current is flowing. Alta Devices’ record-breaking solar cells were engineered according to these projections. In this case, theoretical predictions from an EFRC made a major impact by influencing a pre-existing company. Other research performed by EFRCs has provided the theoretical and experimental groundwork to launch companies.

SiNode Systems, a burgeoning startup, was formed because of discoveries made at the Center for Electrochemical Energy Science (CEES) EFRC. Scientists at CEES developed silicon-graphene composite electrodes and discovered that defects and vacancies in the graphene enhanced the electrode’s lithium-ion storage capacity and transport properties compared to anodes in current lithium-ion batteries. SiNode Systems was created to implement these holey silicon-graphene electrodes, developed at CEES, into high-energy lithium-ion batteries.

Spero Energy, another startup company, was inspired by research performed at the Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio) EFRC. C3Bio developed a chemical method to catalyze the conversion of lignin (a common waste product in converting biomass to biofuel) into its aromatic constituent molecules, molecules that are usually derived from petroleum. Spero Energy is developing a reactor to commercialize this process and is finding immediate applications for the molecules in flavorings and fragrances.

EFRCs contributed more to these startups than experimental breakthroughs alone; former EFRC graduate students helped drive the creation of and are now employed at SiNode Systems and Spero Energy. To get these companies off the ground, these graduate students became heavily involved in the entrepreneurial aspect of the ventures. They helped write business plans and proposals and then competed in and won funding at entrepreneurship competitions. Both companies found financial support by applying for phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the U.S. Department of Energy. Currently, both companies have been granted phase II SBIR grants to help them overcome the technical challenges of turning basic research into a viable commercial product. However, these companies have not forgotten their roots. Both SiNode Systems and Spero Energy retain EFRC researchers on their advisory boards and credit EFRC work for the basic science that launched the companies.

Since their formation in 2009, EFRCs have made a profound impact on green technologies. Approximately 85 companies, like those described above, have benefited directly from EFRC discoveries. In addition, the EFRCs have filed more than 335 U.S. and 210 foreign patent applications, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, which funds the centers. With the newly bolstered international and presidential support, EFRCs will continue to explore cleaner, safer, and more efficient approaches to energy technology.

Acknowledgments

Robert Call and Kimberly Lundberg would like to thank Eli Yablonovitch, Cary Hayner, Mahdi Abu-Omar, Ian Klein, and Carl Huetteman for their time and lively discussions during the interviews for this piece.

Miller et al. 2012. This work was supported by Light-Material Interactions in Energy Conversion, an Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences. The work of OD Miller was supported by the National Science Foundation's Fellowship.

Parsell et al. 2013. This work was supported as part of the Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio), an EFRC funded by the DOE, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.

Zhao et al. 2011. ACS Nano. This research was supported by the Center for Electrical Energy Storage, an EFRC funded by DOE, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.

Zhao et al. 2011. Adv. Energy Mat. This research was supported by the Center for Electrical Energy Storage, an EFRC funded by the DOE, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.

More Information

Miller OD, E Yablonovitch, and SR Kurtz. 2012. “Strong Internal and External Luminescence as Solar Cells Approach the Shockley-Queissar Limit.” IEEE Journal of Photovoltaics 2(3):303-311. DOI: 10.1109/JPHOTOV.2012.2198434

Parsell TH, BC Owen, I Klein, TM Jarrell, CL Marcum, LJ Haupert, LM Amundson, HI Kenttämaa, F RIbeiro, JT Miller, and MM Abu-Omar. 2013. “Cleavage and Hydrodeoxygenation (HDO) of C-O Bonds Relevant to Lignin Conversion using Pd/Zn Synergistic Catalysis.” Chemical Science 4:806-813. DOI: 10.1039/c2sc21657d

Zhao X, CM Hayner, MC Kung, and HH Kung. 2011. “Flexible Holey Graphene Paper Electrodes with Enhanced Rate Capability for Energy Storage Applications.” ACS Nano 5(11):8739-8749. DOI: 10.1021/nn202710s

Zhao X, CM Hayner, MC Kung, and HH Kung. 2011. “In-Plane Vacancy-Enabled High-Power Si-Graphene Composite Electrode for Lithium-Ion Batteries.” Advanced Energy Materials 1:1079-1084. DOI: 10.1002/aenm.201100426

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More Information

Miller OD, E Yablonovitch, and SR Kurtz. 2012. “Strong Internal and External Luminescence as Solar Cells Approach the Shockley-Queissar Limit.” IEEE Journal of Photovoltaics 2(3):303-311. DOI: 10.1109/JPHOTOV.2012.2198434

Parsell TH, BC Owen, I Klein, TM Jarrell, CL Marcum, LJ Haupert, LM Amundson, HI Kenttämaa, F RIbeiro, JT Miller, and MM Abu-Omar. 2013. “Cleavage and Hydrodeoxygenation (HDO) of C-O Bonds Relevant to Lignin Conversion using Pd/Zn Synergistic Catalysis.” Chemical Science 4:806-813. DOI: 10.1039/c2sc21657d

Zhao X, CM Hayner, MC Kung, and HH Kung. 2011. “Flexible Holey Graphene Paper Electrodes with Enhanced Rate Capability for Energy Storage Applications.” ACS Nano 5(11):8739-8749. DOI: 10.1021/nn202710s

Zhao X, CM Hayner, MC Kung, and HH Kung. 2011. “In-Plane Vacancy-Enabled High-Power Si-Graphene Composite Electrode for Lithium-Ion Batteries.” Advanced Energy Materials 1:1079-1084. DOI: 10.1002/aenm.201100426

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.