Jim Schretter is President of Beacon Energy and a Member of World-Gen’s Class of 2002

This spring, the White House and Department Of Energy announced that the DOE Office of Science plans to invest $777 million in basic scientific research through Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) awards over the next five years. While the concept of funding basic energy research is intriguing, many people ask how will this money be spent and what will be the accomplishments achieved through this funding.

Based on work started in 2001 and updated yearly at academic energy conferences, the DOE cites five key scientific challenges to a better energy future:

• Control of material processes at the electron level
• Syntheses of revolutionary new forms of matter with tailored properties
• Control of properties from complex correlations of atomic or electronic constituents Nanoscale energy and information
rivaling living things
• Control of matter away from equilibrium


Jim Schretter

According to workshop participants and the DOE, these scientific areas reflect barriers to achieving breakthroughs in energy technologies, the cost of energy to US consumers and the creation of green jobs. A total of 1,800 researchers at 46 EFRC institutions are expected to work on conquering these challenges. The EFEC awards to these institutions, 31 of which are leading universities and 12 are current DOE National Laboratories, are expected to
total $2-5 million per year for each of the next five years.
From a less theoretical perspective of small particle control, the DOE lists six application areas that may reflect a more applied view of the research:

• Direct conversion of solar energy into electricity and chemical fuels
• Nanoscale size material fabrication and process control using physical, chemical and biological tools not available until recently.
• Understanding how biological feedstocks are converted into portable fuels
Biological systems, including catalytic conversions, are the “proof of concept” for
what may be achieved at the nanotechnology level.
• A new generation of radiation tolerant materials
• New materials, at the molecular level, can be created that are superior in strength, weight, and corrosion resistance able to operate at extreme temperatures.
• Addressing fundamental knowledge gaps in energy storage A better understanding of physical and chemical processes may result in new energy storage that can transform renewable energy supply options.
• Transforming energy utilization and transmission Nanotechnology properties when controlled may transform the transmission of electricity and current barriers to transmission losses and costs.
• Science based geological carbon sequestration Equilibrium research, with membranes and new materials may allow us to visit on a molecular level the best way to capture and store unwanted carbon.

The 46 EFRC institutions include: Arizona State University, Cal Tech, Lawrence Berkeley Labs, Stanford, University of California at Berkley, University of Delaware, Nation Energy Lab, Idaho National Lab, Purdue, University of Notre Dame, LSU, MIT, University of Mass, Michigan State, University of Michigan, UNC, Princeton, Los Alamos National Lab,Columbia, Cornell, GE Global Research, Penn State and University of South Carolina.
Twenty of the 46 EFRC entities are focused on renewable and carbon neutral energy, 14 on crosscutting science, and the remaining twelve split equally on energy efficiency and energy storage.

According to the DOE, the program is designed to provide opportunities to “inspire, train, and support leading scientists of the future”. In addition, the intention is to support individual research project
and a multi-faceted collaboration of scientific work from leading institutions on the
same or similar topics.

Those in the more applied end of the energy business may be struggling to get a grip on what the work really entails. For example, Northwestern University lists their objective as “To revolutionize the design, synthesis, and control of molecules, materials, and processes in order to dramatically improve conversion of sunlight into electricity and fuels.” They go on to say, “The center will focus on the science needed to create integrated molecular systems for artificial photosynthesis, to control interfacial processes critical in organic photovoltaics, and enable three deminensional nanostructured materials organization for solar fuels and hybrid photovoltaics.”

It may be difficult to process all of that, but they also discuss their planned collaboration between Argonne National Labs, University of Chicago, University of Illinois and Yale. The remaining synopses are similar to Northwestern, although they focus on different technical areas.

Perhaps it is wise to put this basic scientific research in perspective. The DOE reports that the 2009 US stimulus package involves $34 billion of funding for improving national systems of energy production, distribution and transmission. A seed amount of $6 billion will be used on loan guarantees for commercial projects with difficulty in obtaining traditional loans. Another $786 million was announced in early May 2009 to be used to accelerate biofuel research and commercialization with $480 million for demonstration projects and $110 million for fundamental research. In addition, the DOE announced $467 million in geothermal research and $117 million in solar research endeavors. These funding amounts can be compared to industry activities.
For example in 2008, Exxon spent $847 million on R&D and $35 billion in stock repurchases, Chevron $835 million on R&D, Shell $1.266 billion on R&D and BP spent $1.4 billion on investments and related alternative energy research. When put in that context, the basic research funding levels are low.

The results of this research will take years to determine. The programs themselves span 5 years and it will take many more to commercialize new technologies.
However, from industry past experience, it is clear that the best results may be obtained from the commercial side of the energy business being directly and actively involved in helping to guide the basic research. Many examples exist that show research funds not used wisely or research efforts with an incorrect focus. For construction projects, progress reports are quite normal. Frequent progress reports on the status and progress of basic scientific research being funded through EFRC would be beneficial to all participants. Industrial partners should get involved in the next round of funding and help provide direction, additional resources and collaboration for advanced research projects. In this manner, we can focus scarce resources on the most pressing areas with the most potential. We all eagerly await energy breakthroughs.