How the grand challenges for Basic Energy Sciences aim to usher in the next scientific revolution
Samson Lai

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


The combination of a nanostructure inspired by a biological system and nanoscale control over the chemical synthesis exhibited by this novel battery anode foreshadows other possibilities in the "Age of Control." This work was done by Nanostructures for Electrical Energy Storage. Reprinted with permission from Chen X, K Gerasopoulous, J Guo, A Brown, C Wang, R Ghodssi and JN Culver. 2010. "Virus-Enabled Silicon Anode for Lithium-Ion Batteries." ACS Nano 4(9):5366-5372. Copyright 2010 American Chemical Society.

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, or BES. The challenges resulted from recurring themes that surfaced during the BES-organized workshops that began in 2001.

The prevalent themes in the grand challenges are knowledge and control. For example, rarely are scientists able to organize tiny bits of matter, a.k.a. gain control at the nanoscale, to obtain the properties needed for new energy technologies. By addressing the grand challenges, researchers will better understand the relationship between the structure of matter and its properties, leading to more rational design of materials to address the nation's energy problems. The aim is to bring about an Age of Control, where scientists can deliberately create chemicals and materials that have properties tailored to their purpose. Let's take a look at each grand challenge.

How do we control material processes at the level of electrons?

Today's technology controls electricity on a large scale, through turbines, power plants and transmission lines. Electricity is made of electrons the way a river is made of water molecules. The first grand challenge strives to control reactions at the level of electrons. Some examples include shuttling electrons created by sunlight, storing electrons in a fuel or harvesting electrons from waste heat. However, electrons are responsible for more than just electricity. Artificial photosynthesis, superconductivity and catalysts also depend on electrons. This challenge is about making theoretical and experimental methods focused on electrons more useful for solving problems in the 21st century.        

How do we design and perfect atom- and energy-efficient synthesis of revolutionary new forms of matter with tailored properties?

The goal is to develop a predictive and rational design model, instead of relying on the traditional trial-and-error approach, to make scientific discoveries more deliberate and less serendipitous through better theory and simulations. The "design" part of this challenge focuses on developing methods that can systematically build new materials from the ground up without disproportionate expense. The "perfect" part lies in setting targets for specific properties and choosing how to arrange matter to synthesize chemical compounds with the desired properties.

Atom- and energy-efficiency are vital to commercialization. Ken Reifsnider, Director of the Center for Heterogeneous Functional Materials, explained, "Synthesis at the nano-level requires very high temperatures or high-energy particle processes. The result is very high cost, as we see in, for example, solid oxide fuel cells and meta-materials for superconductivity."

How do remarkable properties of matter emerge from complex correlations of the atomic or electronic constituents, and how can we control these properties?

This challenge centers on the term "emerge," which refers to "emergent phenomena." Emergent phenomena are the unexpected outcomes that result because the actions of many individual particles are correlated together. Superconductivity, cell colonies and magnetism are all examples of emergent phenomena. However, emergent phenomena, particularly those that result from the collective behavior of electrons, are not always well understood or controlled. This grand challenge seeks to uncover the fundamental rules that govern correlation and thus emergence, and then use that knowledge to create novel compounds that have emergent behavior and highly desirable properties.

How can we master energy and information on the nanoscale to create new technologies with capabilities rivaling those of living things?

Engineering and biology aren't frequently compared, but the fourth challenge acknowledges that nature is the superior architect when it comes to nanostructures. Biological systems have remarkable features that science has yet to replicate, such as efficient transfer and conversion of energy and chemicals, communication of information and adaptive behaviors. The goal is to draw inspiration from biological systems and direct new knowledge towards controlling energy and information at the nanoscale. Challenging aspects include building compatible interfaces between biological and non-biological systems, controlling energy transfer and chemical reactions at the nanoscale and manufacturing nanoscale devices.

How do we characterize and control matter away—especially very far away—from equilibrium?

Traditionally, science is the strongest when the system is at equilibrium, the state where matter no longer experiences a net change. At equilibrium, matter is isolated and stable in the long term so it is easier to derive predictive and generalized equations. Unfortunately, nearly every biological reaction and human-induced activity occurs away from equilibrium. The goal is to understand and predict energetic reactions that occur far away from equilibrium to harness the energy.

As Grigorii Soloveichik, Director of the Center for Electrocatalysis, Transport Phenomena, and Materials, said, "It is important to control matter away from equilibrium because these processes may lead to unusual reaction pathways and therefore to new products with different properties."

Age of control: The BES framed the five grand challenges to guide research towards the "Age of Control," where matter can be controlled to possess new and remarkable properties for sustainable energy. The united research efforts of the Energy Frontier Research Centers will lead the way to this creative and yet controlled age.

About the author(s):

Samson Lai. A Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech and member of the HeteroFoaM Center, Samson is working on synchrotron-based in situ x-ray characterization of solid oxide fuel cells. Specifically, he is studying how catalyst infiltration improves cathode performance and how barium-based catalysts improve carbon and sulfur tolerance in anodes.