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Frontiers in
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Summer 2016

Tackling Complex Problems in Energy Science: The Importance of Interdisciplinary Teams

Scientists weigh in on how scientific diversity has pushed back the frontiers of energy research

Dan Colman

Science teams from different scientific disciplines, institutions, and backgrounds are critical to developing the innovations needed to meet our energy demands. Image courtesy Cortland Johnson, Pacific Northwest National Lab

One of the largest and most pressing scientific challenges facing modern societies is closing the gap on future energy demands with clean, abundant, and economical energy sources. At its essence, this challenge is complex and necessitates scientific breakthroughs to develop next-generation energy technology.

To meet this challenge, the U.S. Department of Energy created Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) to answer foundational energy-related scientific problems across diverse energy technology areas, from solar fuels to batteries and beyond. Each EFRC is tasked with overarching goals that are unique and represent areas with exceptional promise for significant energy science advancements.

To meet these goals, EFRCs incorporate diverse, interdisciplinary teams of scientists that can tackle problems from multiple angles. “Funding is one thing, but more important, an EFRC provides a common set of goals for the disparate groups to work towards collaboratively,” said Dick Co, director of operations and outreach at Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research (ANSER), which is developing the fundamental understanding of molecules, materials, and methods necessary to create dramatically more efficient technologies for solar fuels and energy production.

Many great breakthroughs in science have come from individuals or individual laboratories working on specific problems. However, the problems tasked to EFRCs are too big for one person and demands a community of scientists with diverse expertise. Having interdisciplinary scientific teams allows EFRCs to do more as a center than as individuals or small research groups. “We need all the help we can get to solve complex problems,” said Bob Blankenship, director of Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center (PARC).

Meeting challenges in conducting interdisciplinary science. Bringing together scientists from diverse fields, institutions, and backgrounds brings challenges in forging collaborations. Scientists from disparate fields and backgrounds often have differing scientific norms and ways of approaching problems. For instance, experimental scientists may list the enormous complexities in a given chemical reaction, whereas modelers and theorists may seek to simplify a problem to make calculations and predictions run on available computing resources.

The development of personal relationships is key to this effort, suggests Blankenship, particularly when EFRCs such as PARC encompass a large geographic range. At PARC, understanding the molecular basis of light-harvesting biological antenna complexes is undertaken to better inform the design of solar energy technologies. Regular “all-hands,” in-person meetings have been instrumental in developing personal relationships within PARC. The personal relationships fostered at such meetings help facilitate communication and ongoing collaboration among scientists of differing disciplines.

The geographic proximity of Center for Electrochemical Energy Science (CEES) institutions has promoted casual interactions that help build on the various forms of expertise present at the center, notes Paul Fenter, director of CEES. At CEES, interdisciplinary teams improve the molecular-level understanding of the chemical reactions in energy storage devices to improve the capacities of lithium-ion batteries. One benefit to proximity is the ease of travel, which has allowed frequent exchanges between young scientists at CEES universities and Argonne National Lab. The participating scientists are crucial for sharing ideas and methods across applied science laboratories and those focused on science that is more fundamental.

Similar young scientist exchanges implemented at many EFRCs spanning larger geographic ranges have been important in promoting cross-laboratory collaborations. Blankenship notes that these exchanges within PARC have been tremendously successful in doing interdisciplinary work.

At ANSER, the researchers employ a unique program that promotes collaboration among laboratories and young scientists while also providing training opportunities. Senior graduate students at ANSER act as program officers for collaborative projects and present updates to the EFRC every quarter. These interactions provide increased scientific understanding for those involved and foster collaboration opportunities among laboratories.

Dick Co notes that it is these and other opportunities to mingle that build trust among groups. That trust is then crucial to conducting interdisciplinary science.

Bridging theory and new technologies. Catalysts improve production of fuels, plastics, and other chemicals with economic value or improve energy-harnessing technology. Scientists at the EFRCs working on catalysts often computationally predict new catalysts before their synthesis.

However, the scientists use theory with other techniques, including new material synthesis, characterization, and the upscaling of these technologies to meet industrially relevant needs.

Bridging theory and new materials design to create a novel, heat-stable catalyst required collaboration among many members of the Inorganometallic Catalyst Design Center (ICDC) team, including experimentalists, theorists, and materials synthesis scientists. The theorists provided predictions of novel materials based on fundamental principles, synthesis experts designed the materials, and experimentalists provided measurements—with much back and forth in the process.

Regarding this synergistic achievement, ICDC director Laura Gagliardi said, “If this work wasn’t done within the ICDC umbrella, it might not have been possible.”

Similarly, at Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI), close collaboration between experimentalists, theorists, and computational scientists is key to the production of fuels and chemicals from non-food-based biomass. Stavros Caratzoulas, associate director of CCEI, said, “There is no doubt that this interdisciplinary approach has worked for us.”

For instance, having the collective expertise at CCEI allows scientists to iteratively revise experimental procedures with theoretical calculations, and vice versa, in short time frames. Caratzoulas adds that these interactions were integral in the recent development of new technology that produces industrially important polymer precursor molecules (called aromatics) from non-food-based biomass.

At CEES, theoretical and experimental approaches are combined to provide novel insights into the poorly understood molecular mechanisms of the electrode-electrolyte interface in battery applications—an area that was new to many of the scientists at the onset of CEES. In the early days of the center, most of the assembled team was new to the “battery world.” The academic scientists made frequent trips to Argonne National Lab (the home of CEES) to immerse themselves in battery assembly. These cross-disciplinary immersions, which still occur at CEES, have been important interactions.

Paul Fenter, director of CEES, noted that these collaborations have allowed the EFRC to really push what is conceptually possible with batteries.

Borrowing energy technology insight from biology. A better understanding of biological energy capturing processes could inform next-generation biology-inspired energy technologies. Regarding understanding fundamental energy challenges from a biological perspective, Bob Blankenship, PARC EFRC director, said, “It makes all the sense in the world to find out how biology has already solved problems.”

At the Center for Biological Electron Transfer and Catalysis (BETCy) EFRC, microbiologists, electrochemists, computational biologists, biochemists, and bio-engineers are all key to meeting its scientific goals. Their aim is to better understand electron flow and energy management in biological models with emphasis on systems that have energy implications such as hydrogen gas production from microorganisms. John Peters, director of BETCy, notes, “Having strong people that effectively span enough different approaches allows us to approach the problems from a lot of different angles.”

An example of this intra-center expertise is linking computational predictions of biological function to experimentation with biological material. For instance, certain biological enzyme catalysts, called hydrogenases, found in microorganisms use an enigmatic biological energy conserving strategy known as “electron bifurcation” to produce hydrogen gas, which is of interest as a biologically produced fuel.

The scientists make predictions about hydrogenase function and test these predictions using a suite of characterization techniques. The process requires a multitude of scientific backgrounds all present within the center. For BETCy, this intra-center collaborative approach has led to new insights about the functioning of hydrogenases and other enzyme catalysts of interest.

At the PARC EFRC, chemists, physicists, and biologists are uncovering the molecular basis of natural photosynthetic antenna complexes to ultimately inform solar energy-harnessing technologies. Collaborations among national laboratories and universities are an especially integral component of PARC. One example arising from these collaborations is the use of the Small Angle Neutron Scattering facilities at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to provide insight into the molecular structure and organization of light-harvesting antenna complexes.

Blankenship noted that insights such as these are especially promoted by the instrumentation and infrastructure at national laboratories coupled with the collective range of expertise present within the EFRC. Indeed, at all of the centers discussed here, collaborations between academic and national laboratories are critical to success.

Interdisciplinary, collaborative science is essential for EFRC success. The late geologist Wilmot H. Bradley was quoted as saying, “Wherever we look there is a striving for deeper understanding of ever more complex problems and a corresponding realization of how much more we must learn.”

The scientific world faces the dauntingly large, complex, and imminently pressing problem of meeting future energy demands. This challenge, among others, requires scientific and technological advances that will likely be borne from basic research produced by diverse scientific collaborations. As the above EFRCs have highlighted, the way to efficiently meet these solutions lies in the interdisciplinary model of conducting science that has been critical to individual EFRC success.


The Energy Frontier Research Centers are funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.

About the author(s):

  • Dan Colman received his Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico in studies of extremophile microorganisms and is a postdoctoral researcher in the Microbiology and Immunology Department at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. He is a member of the Biological Electron Transfer and Catalysis (BETCy), an Energy Frontier Research Center. His current research includes using bioinformatics approaches to understand the mechanistic basis for electron bifurcation, an enigmatic energy-harnessing process performed by microorganisms. Dan also has a range of other projects focused on understanding the microbial-geochemical interactions that occur within extreme environments, such as hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

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.