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05/11/2009 07:00:00

DOE Names Caltech Professor as Director of EFRC Focusing on Light-Material Interactions

Caltech also picked to partner in three additional EFRCs

PASADENA, Calif.--The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science has announced that it will fund the creation of 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) over the next five years, including one that will be housed at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). That EFRC will be headed by Harry Atwater, the Howard Hughes Professor and professor of applied physics and materials science.

"It is essential and very appropriate for a place like Caltech to serve as an intellectual center for fundamental scientific research in solar energy," says Atwater. "We have programs that support work on photovoltaic devices, but the Energy Frontier Research Center will address fundamental optical science issues relevant to solar energy. It's the kind of center that is best suited to our strengths."

In addition, Caltech researchers will partner with three additional EFRCs at other institutions.

According to Ares Rosakis, chair of Caltech's Division of Engineering and Applied Science, "Radical new approaches to harnessing solar energy are at the heart of many efforts here at Caltech to help contribute to the world's energy infrastructure with innovative, sustainable, core technologies. This new center brings Caltech one step closer to our goal of providing the resources necessary for some of the best minds in the country to lay the groundwork for a new energy economy."

This $777 million program is a major effort to accelerate the scientific breakthroughs needed to build a new 21st-century economy, the White House said in announcing the initiative. The 46 new EFRCs, which will each be funded at $2-5 million per year for a planned initial five-year period, will be established at universities, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations, and private firms across the nation.

Supported in part by funds made available under President Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the EFRCs will bring together groups of leading scientists to address fundamental issues in fields ranging from solar energy and electricity storage to materials sciences, biofuels, advanced nuclear systems, and carbon capture and sequestration.

The EFRCs were selected from a pool of some 260 applications received in response to a solicitation issued in 2008 by the DOE's Office of Science. Over 110 institutions from 36 states plus the District of Columbia will be participating in the EFRC research. In all, the EFRCs will involve nearly 700 senior investigators and employ, on a full- or part-time basis, over 1,100 postdoctoral associates, graduate students, undergraduate students, and technical staff. Roughly a third of these researchers will be supported by Recovery Act funding.

Atwater's EFRC, entitled "Light Material Interactions in Energy Conversion," will include collaborations with scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois, and some of the work will be done at the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

"The goal of the center is to understand how to sculpt and mold the flow of light through materials," Atwater explains. "By that I mean we will be working to design structures at the nanoscale that steer and change the speed of light to optimally convert sunlight to electricity and chemical fuels."

The three additional EFRCs that will be partnering with Caltech researchers include

  • Rational Design of Innovative Catalytic Technologies for Biomass Derivative Utilization (headed by the University of Delaware), with Mark Davis, the Warren and Katharine Schlinger Professor of Chemical Engineering at Caltech
  • EFRC for Solid State Lighting Science (headed by Sandia National Laboratories), with Harry Atwater
  • Center for Catalytic Hydrocarbon Functionalization (headed by the University of Virginia), with William Goddard, the Charles and Mary Ferkel Professor of Chemistry, Materials Science, and Applied Physics at Caltech

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Written by Lori Oliwenstein