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Frontiers in
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Frontiers in Energy Research: January 2013
  • Samson Lai

    Ask any scientist what the first step to quality research is and the answer will most likely be "identify a problem or question." Ask any corporate leader what the first step is to a winning strategy and the answer will likely be "have a vision." These two ideas are embodied in the five grand challenges set forth by the Department of Energy's Office of Basic Energy Science. The challenges resulted from recurring themes that surfaced during the BES-organized workshops that began in 2001.

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    The prevalent themes in the Basic Energy Sciences grand challenges are knowledge and control for a future based on sustainable energy.

Feature Articles
  • A two-compartment electrochemical cell uses light to reduce water or carbon dioxide. The challenge is to produce a high-energy fuel in the physically separated compartments of the cell that will ultimately be solely driven by light. The team at the UNC EFRC has synthesized a molecular ruthenium complex that can split both water and CO2 . Image designed by Yan Liang.

    Gyu Leem & Ralph L. House

    Redefining the nation's energy landscape demands overcoming nature's seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Each of the Department of Energy funded Energy Frontier Research Centers is working on one of at least five Grand Challenges to build the blueprints for truly disruptive technologies; the results are coming fast and are nothing short of remarkable. The first grand challenge engages 31 of the EFRCs to take experimental and theoretical approaches to design better materials, characterize the interactions between light and matter, develop digital memory by utilizing electron spin, create catalysts that overcome difficult fuel-producing reactions and capture and store the sun's energy as a fuel.

  • This challenge asks for materials by design, which contrasts with the conventional approach of empirical materials discovery by trial and error.

    Emily Pentzer & Andriy Zakutayev

    Designing new materials for specific applications is the Holy Grail of materials science. Historically, serendipitous discoveries of important materials for energy applications have been made by trial and error or by accident. Now materials scientists focus on novel approaches that follow the model "given the property, find the material," which is the inverse of the traditional model "given the material, find the property." Development and application of these novel approaches is the essence of the second grand challenge.

  • Lynn Trahey

    "One hundred years ago, people thought physics was understood, and they were proven wrong. Similarly today some of the key issues in physics that people may think are solved are not solved at all," said Director Séamus Davis.

  • Jaroslaw Syzdek

    Oliver Monti's career and his research with the Center for Interface Science: Solar Electric Materials demonstrate the power of merging diverse ideas and diverse materials to do something more.

Research Highlights
  • Wenbo Yan

    Mimicking photosynthesis, dye-based solar cells are promisingly efficient, but a toxic liquid in the cells can leak out. Scientists showed that this troubling liquid could be replaced...

  • Timothy D. Courtney

    Gas purification requires extreme changes in temperature and pressure, adding significantly to the production cost. Scientists showed that an iron-based porous material...

  • Ioannis (Yannis) Petousis

    Designers of new energy technologies are often limited by today's materials. The materials cannot handle the extreme temperatures and pressures required by the technologies. Creating ultra-tough materials could benefit energy-relevant technologies.

  • Enoch Dames

    A stumbling block to designing catalysts has been the lack of methods to characterize the size of the catalytic particles and their collective features. Using an instrument classically applied in biology...

  • Gonzalo Prieto

    By applying a nanometer-scale casting process, scientists successfully synthesized thin films of a molybdenum sulfide catalyst with unprecedented activity...

  • Jianguo Yu

    Novel techniques track the kinetics of lithium ions in batteries, contributing to a better understanding of how electrodes function in these crucial materials.

  • Khuram Umar Ashraf

    Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries have one of the best energy-to-weight ratios, but they lose their capacity to hold energy over time. These batteries could be even more efficient, thanks to...

As news of Beijing's air-pocalypse -- severe air pollution compounded by an air inversion -- spread, it is hard not to reflect on our nation's energy legacy and our own future. That future can be brighter, but it requires coming into the Age of Control, mastering fundamental processes to design chemicals and materials that have the exact properties needed for energy storage systems for wind turbines, for both affordable and efficient solar cells, for industrial catalysts and materials for today's and tomorrow's fuels, and much more. The challenges of the Age of Control are described in the Office of Basic Energy Sciences' five grand challenges. In this issue, you'll get a close-up look at two of the challenges: controlling material processes at the level of electrons and creating materials by design.

This issue features interviews with two leaders from different centers. Oliver Monti from the Center for Interface Science: Solar Electric Materials discusses the power of diverse ideas and diverse materials in "Synergy Within and Beyond." JC Séamus Davis at the Center for Emerging Superconductivity talks about his passion for posing big questions about the physics of our world in "Seeing Superconductivity with the CES Director."

You’ll also get a glimpse into new research that’s being done at different Centers and how it is meeting the grand challenges. For example, you'll learn about an all-solid-state solar technology that could end toxic corrosive liquid leaks from solar cells.  You'll also see work to overcome the limits of lithium-ion batteries for energy storage, more efficient gas separations for fossil fuels and research into the mysteries of catalysts.

This newsletter was developed by early career scientists who are tackling the grand challenges in their EFRCs. Some of the members of our editorial board are just completing their graduate degrees, while others are working in labs and lecture halls. All are dedicated, curious and committed to communicating about science. In addition, our board benefitted from two guest writers this issue.

Kristin Manke


Editorial Board

  • Khuram Ashraf, Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center
  • Timothy Courtney, Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation
  • Enoch Dames, Combustion Energy Frontier Research Center
  • Samson Lai, Heterogeneous Functional Materials Center (HeteroFoaM)
  • Gyu Leem, Center for Solar Fuels
  • Brandon O'Neill, Institute of Atom Efficient Chemical Transformations
  • Emily Pentzer, Polymer-based materials for Harvesting Solar Energy (PHaSE) 
  • Yannis Petousis, Center for Energy Frontier Research in Extreme Environments
  • Gonzalo Prieto, Center for Atomic Level Catalysis Design
  • Jaroslaw Syzdek, Northeastern Center for Chemical Energy Storage
  • Lynn Trahey, Center for Electrical Energy Storage
  • Wenbo Yan, Center for Nanostructures for Electrical Energy Storage

Guest Authors

  • Ralph House, Center for Solar Fuels
  • Andriy Zakutayev, Center for Inverse Design
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.