By Neal Singer
Sandia researchers scored big in the $777 million, five-year DOE Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) announced April 27 by the White House.
The overall announcement was made in conjunction with a speech by President Barack Obama at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences.
Sandia expects to become home to one of 46 new multimillion-dollar centers, be a significant partner in three others, and may be involved in another four.
The winners, selected from a pool of 260 applicants by DOE’s Office of Science, are expected to pursue advanced scientific research on energy.
According to a DOE news release, center selections and plans for funding “were based on a rigorous merit review process utilizing outside panels composed of scientific experts.”
The centers will be situated at universities, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations, and private firms across the nation.
Sandia’s Solid-State Lighting Science center, under the direction of Jerry Simmons (1120), is expected to receive $18 million in funding over the course of five years. Mike Coltrin (1126) will be associate director and Jeff Tsao (1120), chief scientist.
Says Jerry, “More than 20 percent of our country’s electrical energy is consumed in lighting. Solid-state lighting, a new technology that will be the focus of our research, has the potential to cut that energy consumption in half — or even more.”
Investigating three areas
Center researchers expect to investigate three areas: the conversion of electrical energy to light through radical designs involving luminescent nanowires, quantum dots, and hybrid structures; energy conversion processes in photonic structures smaller than the wavelength of the light they create; and understanding and eliminating defects in the semiconductor materials that presently limit solid-state lighting efficiency.
The work is projected to include collaborations with scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the University of New Mexico, California Institute of Technology, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Yale University, Northwestern University, the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, and Philips Lumileds Lighting.
Sandia also expects to receive $7.75 million as a significant partner in an EFRC led by the University of Texas at Austin to understand, over multiple length scales, the potential for capturing and geologically storing carbon dioxide underground. Larry Costin (6311) is lead investigator for Sandia.
Sandia expects to play a further major role in a third center established at the University of Maryland that focuses on improving electrical energy storage in batteries, capacitors, and other technologies. Nano-structured electrode components are expected to provide greater surface areas to store charge, as well as smaller path lengths for the motion of electrons and ions, thereby increasing the rate at which charges can be moved and stored. Sandia’s research budget under Bob Hwang (1130) is tentatively set at $6 million.
In a fourth major effort, Sandia will aid Princeton University on its “Energy Frontier Research Center for Combustion Science.” The center aims to develop a suite of predictive computing modeling capabilities for the chemical design and utilization of nonpetroleum-based fuels in transportation. Sandia principal investigators Jackie Chen (8351), Nils Hansen, and Jim Miller (both 8353) expect to oversee funds totaling $3.75 million.
Another $8.25 million in total is expected to aid research in collaboration with Notre Dame for “Materials Science of Actinides,” with Sandia principal investigator May Nyman (6316); the University of Arizona’s Center for Interface Science on “Solar Electric Materials and Devices,” with Sandia PI Julia Hsu (1114); Washington University at St. Louis’ Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center “to understand the basic scientific principles that underpin the efficient functioning of the natural photosynthetic antenna system as a basis for manmade systems to convert sunlight to fuels,” with Sandia PI Jerilyn Timlin (8622); and the University of Texas at Austin for ”understanding charge separation and transfer at interfaces in energy materials and devices,” with Sandia PIs Julia Hsu and Kevin Leung (1114).
Says Julia Phillips, director of Sandia’s Physical, Chemical, and Nano Sciences Center (1100), "Our success in the EFRC competition is a credit to the talent and extraordinary efforts of many Sandians who developed the science vision for each of the proposals, linked that science to some of the nation's energy challenges, and engaged with our partners to build winning teams. My heart-felt appreciation goes to those who put in the long hours to make it happen. And of course, this is just the start of a new opportunity to render exceptional service in the national interest."
CINT capabilities tapped
Still other projects are expected to make use of nanoscience-related capabilities of the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies, jointly operated by Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia.
In general, EFRC researchers are expected to take advantage of new capabilities in nanotechnology, high-intensity light sources, neutron-scattering sources, supercomputing, and other advanced instrumentation to lay the scientific groundwork for fundamental advances in solar energy, biofuels, transportation, energy efficiency, electricity storage and transmission, clean coal and carbon capture and sequestration, and nuclear energy.
Said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, “These centers will mobilize the enormous talents and skills of our nation’s scientific workforce in pursuit of the breakthroughs that are essential to make alternative and renewable energy truly viable as large-scale replacements for fossil fuels.”
Of the 46 EFRCs selected, 31 are led by universities, 12 by DOE national laboratories, two by nonprofit organizations, and one by a corporate research laboratory.
Six will center on energy efficiency, six on energy storage, 20 on renewable and carbon-neutral energy, and 14 on so-called “cross-cutting science” involving, among others, catalysis and materials under extreme environments.
The criterion for providing an EFRC with Recovery Act funding was job creation. The EFRCs chosen for funding under the Recovery Act provide the most employment for researchers, postdoctoral associates, graduate students, undergraduates, and technical staff, in keeping with the Recovery Act’s objective to preserve and create jobs and promote economic recovery. -- Neal Singer
Sandia researcher Cy Fujimoto (6338) may hold one of the keys to making hydrogen hybrid cars a commercially viable transportation option. It’s a new type of hydrocarbon polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) he invented that shows great promise in being as durable and able to perform as well as current commercial state-of-the-art PEM materials made out of perfluoronated polymers.
A proton exchange membrane fuel cell converts chemical energy into electrical energy. In the case of a hydrogen fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen are converted to water and produce electricity and waste heat.
“What is interesting is that while most hydrocarbon membranes are significantly cheaper to produce and manufacture than perfluoronated polymers, they do not typically last as long or perform as well as perfluoronated membranes under dry conditions. Our current hydrocarbon membrane appears to do both,” Cy says.
The lack of reliable PEMs that work well in both dry and humid environments has been one of the impediments to hydrogen hybrid cars reaching the marketplace.
“The findings have been quite intriguing and may impact the future of hydrogen cars,” Cy says as he reflects on recent tests where the Sandia polymer outperformed in two categories those made by manufacturers of current state-of-the-art fuel cells for automotive use.
The new PEM hydrocarbon material evolved from an earlier generation Cy and former Sandian Chris Cornelius developed five years ago that operate at elevated temperatures. The early Sandia fuel cell material, however, was not specifically designed for automotive applications. Cy is making adjustments so that it will fit automakers’ needs, which include high proton conductivity at high temperature and at low water contents.
Cy anticipates that the new materials he developed over the past year and a half will make the Sandia PEM perform better at low relative humidity. The chemistry allows him to control where and how much acid is deposited on the polymer backbone, which enables fine-tuning of the size of ion conducting channels. With larger pathways for proton movement the membranes will work better in low humidity environments.
Current acid-containing perfluoronated polymers, such as Nafion, maintain a path for protons to pass through when the membranes are hydrated. As they dehydrate, the path shrinks and becomes disconnected, restricting proton movement. The result is diminished function of fuel cells in dry desert climates like the Southwest.
Cy compares the current state of PEMs to a path in a park.
“You can be moving right along and then come to a place where the path breaks. A person walking the path can maneuver around the break and move on. Not so with protons. They come to a dead end,” he says. “Automobile manufacturers want a membrane that is reliable in all environments. They can’t have one that functions well in a humid climate like Miami, for example, and not work well in dry Albuquerque.”
Working through Sandia’s Intellectual Project Management, Alliances & Licensing Dept. 1031, Cy is collaborating with a consortium of automobile manufacturers to build the better PEM. He says a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) and possible licensing of the technology are forthcoming.
Before the collaboration can proceed much further, he says, he needs to come up with a way to “scale up the chemistry” so the membrane can be mass-produced at a low cost.
“We have to get the cost of manufacturing the membrane below $25 per square meter for the method to be practical for cars,” Cy says. “This is one of the biggest challenges.”
Cy Fujimoto’s (6338) membrane project is one of the first projects of a new and improved Project Management, Alliances & Licensing Dept. 1031, says department manager Mark Allen.
When he became manager about six months ago, Mark says, he wanted to try something different to make the department work more efficiently. He came up with the idea of assigning each of his six licensing executives the responsibility for specific SMUs. The licensing agents serve as a link between the SMUs, research foundations, lawyers, and potential partners.
“Historically the line people came to us with ideas for licensing and tech transfer,” Mark says. “Now we are being more proactive, seeking out candidate research. We are more engaged in working with senior managers and people are eager and excited about the prospect of their inventions receiving patents and being licensed. We hope this makes for a better method of getting our research commercialized.” -- Chris Burroughs