An iterative process to identifying and pursuing transformative research opportunities in the Energy sector
Trent R. Graham

As the Department of Energy, Energy Frontier Research Center program passes the 10-year mark, we take a moment to reflect on the program’s history and mission.

The mission of DOE’s Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences (BES) is to conduct fundamental research to acquire the ability to understand, predict and ultimately control matter and energy at the atomic and molecular levels. BES research provides the basis for new energy technologies and supports DOE missions in energy, environment and national security. Identifying transformative opportunities for research required careful deliberation.

In 2001, the BES Advisory Committee (BESAC) was tasked with considering 21st century fundamental scientific challenges that would improve energy efficiency, fossil fuel usage, renewable energy resources, nuclear energy, stockpile stewardship, and limit environmental impacts of energy production and use. The committee produced a report in 2002 entitled “Basic Research Needs to Assure a Secure Energy Future.” However, due to the large number of topics identified in their report, additional deliberation was required to focus research activities.

EFRC awards span the full range of energy research challenges described in the series of BES workshop reports while also addressing one or more of the science grand challenges described in the BESAC report, Directing Matter and Energy: Five Challenge for Science and the Imagination and one or more of the transformative opportunities identified in the follow-on BESAC report, Challenges at the Frontiers of Matter and Energy: Transformative Opportunities for Discovery Science.

In 2005, the DOE Office of Science Director tasked BESAC Chairperson John Hemminger to identify specific challenges that would impact all of the diverse topics. BESAC reported their findings in 2007 in Directing Matter and Energy: Five Challenges for Science and the Imagination which identified critical knowledge gaps in our ability to predict the properties of matter and control chemical reactions.

The five grand challenges for basic energy sciences are to:

  • Control the processes of materials at the spatial scale of electrons
  • Design atom- and energy-efficient syntheses of novel materials that exhibit tailored properties
  • Understand and control emergent material properties arising from complex correlations of atomic and electronic constituents
  • Master energy and information at the nanoscale to conceive new technologies rivaling capabilities found in living things
  • Characterize and control matter in states far from equilibrium

The BESAC report led to the creation of several multidisciplinary energy frontier research centers (EFRC) to pursue both these five challenges and use-inspired science equally. Use-inspired science is fundamental research with the potential to solve energy related problems identified in the Basic Research Needs (BRN) reports. By periodically creating new centers and competitively refreshing the existing centers, the DOE has created an agile funding system that is responsive to the changing landscape of the energy sector.  Recent workshop and BRN reports span many topics ranging from carbon capture, catalysis science, subsurface fracture and fluid flow, energy and water, environmental management, nuclear energy, hydrogen economy, electrical energy storage, quantum materials, solar energy, solid-state lighting, synthesis science, and the development of transformative experimental tools. A complete list of topic areas in BRN reports is available online.

There are currently 46 EFRCs which involve over 115 institutions through 310 partnerships in 36 states and 4 foreign countries. These EFRCs are highly integrated centers which perform cross-disciplinary research involving researchers with diverse backgrounds and skill sets. A list of the current EFRCs is available in the 2019 EFRC booklet.

EFRC programs have published over 11,000 peer reviewed publications and declared over 650 invention disclosures. The fundamental research performed by the EFRCs inspired 550 U.S. patent applications (and 400 foreign patent applications), with approximately 180 patents awarded. In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of the EFRC program, high impact scientists were given the “Ten at Ten” award for their novel ideas, tools and technologies,.

Beyond the numerical impact of EFRCs on the scientific community, the EFRC programs prioritize training the next generation of scientists and engineers. Groups of graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and early career scientists form a constructive community through participation in the Basic Energy Sciences Early Career Network. Early career scientists and students also benefit from participation in diversity events, panel discussions and science communication contests at biennial EFRC meetings, webinars, and meet-ups at national meetings.

The next ten years will present additional challenges to the energy sector. BES’s continuous process of identifying and exploring answers to these problems accelerates innovation. The EFRC program and communities within are poised to leverage the collective 10 years of experience to address these future challenges.

More Information

Additional information about the discussions leading to the creation of the EFRC programs is available in Appendix 1 of Directing Matter and Energy: Five Challenges for Science and the Imagination.

All of the Basic Research Needs reports which influenced the EFRC program are publicly listed at the links above through OSTI.

Additional achievements of the EFRC programs and scientific highlights are available in the 2019 EFRC booklet.

Further details regarding the Ten at Ten awardees and their transformative scientific ideas and technology are available here.

About the author(s):

Trent R. Graham is a post-doctoral fellow at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, where he is a proactive member of the Department of Energy, Energy Frontier Research Center on Interfacial Dynamics of Radioactive Environments and Materials (IDREAM). He has accumulated a diverse research experience through both National Science Foundation programs and through the Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.