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What are the Energy Innovation Hubs?

August 1, 2010 - 9:07am


Energy Innovation Hubs are major multidisciplinary, multi-investigator, multi-institutional integrated research centers. The Hubs are modeled after the forceful centralized scientific management characteristics of the Manhattan Project (e.g., Los Alamos and the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago), Lincoln Lab at MIT that developed radar, and AT&T Bell Laboratories that developed the transistor, and on the three $25 million-per-year DOE Bioenergy Research Centers (BRCs) established by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science in 2007.

The Hubs bring together top researchers from academia, industry and the government laboratories with expertise that spans multiple scientific and engineering disciplines under the leadership of a dynamic scientist-manager. These teams orchestrate an integrated, multidisciplinary systems approach to overcoming critical technological barriers to transformative advances in energy technology.  The Hubs also advance U.S. global leadership in the emerging green economy and are focused in areas that have exceptional potential to reduce our dependence on imported oil and greenhouse gas emissions.

What kind of infrastructure support is provided for the Hubs?

Infrastructure support for Hubs may include renovation of existing buildings and the leasing of buildings.  A Hub award includes a total of up to $10 million in the first year for the start-up needs of the Hub, excluding new construction.  Allowable costs include those necessary to house the Hub (including a possible lease for the first five years of the project), to renovate laboratories as needed, and to purchase research equipment and instrumentation. New buildings will not be constructed as part of these awards.

How will the Energy Innovation Hubs impact the energy future of the Nation?

Moving beyond our present overwhelming dependence on fossil fuels and achieving truly significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions on an urgent basis-represents a technological challenge of historic scale. Success will require major mobilization of our nation's basic and applied energy research capabilities, along with new investments in engineering and development to accelerate the deployment of revolutionary energy technologies in the marketplace. The developments of the atomic bomb under the Manhattan Project and of radar technology at the MIT Radiation Laboratory during World War II, as well as the invention of the transistor at Bell Laboratories in the 1950s, stand as evidence that exceptionally rapid technological breakthroughs are possible.  These transformational breakthroughs came as a result of significant investments in highly motivated and focused scientific collaborations, combining basic and applied research, and aimed at overcoming a specific technological challenge.

The leaders of these efforts-scientists themselves-understood the necessity of close-quarters give-and-take between those involved in fundamental research and technology development.  The paths of scientific discovery and technological need to inform each other:  Advances in basic sciences create entirely new technology possibilities; likewise, technology development efforts identify key roadblocks that require improved scientific understanding or wholly new approaches.  Connecting fundamental research and technology development through an integrated team was essential to these rapid achievements.

The purpose of the Energy Innovation Hubs will be to assemble the most talented scientists and engineers to focus intense, systems-level research and development efforts on the critical areas listed above. The Hubs are designed to accelerate current state-of-the art energy science and technology toward their fundamental limits and to support high-risk, high-reward research projects that produce revolutionary changes in how we produce and use energy.  Ideally, each Hub will have a central location housing many of the investigators, who will likely span multiple disciplines.

What distinguishes the Department's other energy R&D programs, and particularly Energy Frontier Research Centers and ARPA-E, from the proposed Energy Innovation Hubs?

How R&D is managed can impact the pace of innovation.  The rapid pace of development of radar, the transistor, and the atomic bomb occurred in part because of the management model employed.  These achievements were organized around a particular challenge, with a highly integrated management model in which outstanding scientist-leaders actively managed a team of scientists, engineers, and technicians. 

The Hubs are inspired by the lessons of these past successes.  They will differ from the Department's other core energy R&D programs in their larger scale, their higher degree of integration of scientific research with engineering development, and their singular focus on driving energy technology solutions to their fundamental limits. 

Taken together, DOE's ongoing programs in energy R&D and technology demonstration and deployment, the recently launched Energy Frontier Research Centers, ARPA-E, and the proposed Energy Innovation Hubs comprise a robust portfolio of unique energy R&D modalities that complement each other and that maximize the Nation's ability to achieve energy breakthroughs as quickly as possible.

The following are synopses of the unique characteristics and roles of each of the three new energy R&D modalities:

  1. Energy Innovation Hubs will each comprise a large set of investigators spanning science, engineering, and policy disciplines focused on a single critical national need identified by the Department.  Top talent drawn from the full spectrum of R&D performers-universities, private industry, non-profits, and government laboratories-will drive each Hub to become a world-leading R&D center in its topical area.  Each Hub's management structure must allow empowered scientist-managers to execute quick decisions to shape the course of research.  With robust links to industry, the highly integrated Hubs will bridge the gap between basic scientific breakthroughs and industrial commercialization.  Initial awards will be openly competed among R&D performers and are for $22 million in the first year and $25 million in years two through five, for a maximum of $122 million over the five year term, subject to Congressional appropriations.
  2. Energy Frontier Research Centers advance fundamental science relevant to real-world energy systems.  Each focuses on the long term basic research needed to overcome roadblocks to revolutionary energy technologies in a particular area.  They are mostly multi-institutional centers composed of a self-assembled group of investigators, often spanning several science and engineering disciplines.  This research is both "grand challenge" and "use inspired" fundamental science motivated by the need to solve a specific problem, such as energy storage, photoconversion, CO2 sequestration, etc.  The choice of topics was at the discretion of the applicants in response to an FOA that solicited broadly across grand challenge and use inspired science.  The funding range is $2-5 million per year per project.
  3. ARPA-E supports research that is of potentially very high commercial impact but is deemed too risky for industrial investments. ARPA-E follows DARPA's highly entrepreneurial approach to mission-oriented R&D by funding scientists and technologists (sometimes by forging and nurturing partnerships of its own design) to accelerate an immature energy technology with exceptional potential beyond the risk barriers that prevent its translation from the bench to the marketplace. ARPA-E will not fund discovery science nor will it support incremental improvements to current technologies.  Its federal program managers take a "hands on" approach to managing the activities of R&D performers.  The funding range per project may be as low as $500,000 or as high as $10 million.  Projects will be selected on their potential to make rapid progress towards commercialization and will not be extended without demonstrable progress in a 2-3 year timeframe.

The following table compares some of the characteristics and roles of each new energy R&D modality.

   Energy Innovation Hubs  Energy Frontier Research Centers  ARPA-E Projects
 Investigators and their institutions  Large set of investigators spanning multiple science and engineering disciplines and possibly including other non-science areas such as energy policy, economics, and market analysis.  May be led by Labs or universities, nonprofit organizations or private firms.  The model is the three existing  Office of Science Bio-energy Research Centers. Self-assembled group of ~12-20 senior investigators.  May be led by DOE laboratories or universities.  About two thirds of 46 EFRCs are led by universities.  Single investigator, small group, or small teams.
Central location? Lead institution must provide a central location and strong scientific leadership. There must be a culture of empowered central research management. Mostly multi-institutional centers, but with a clearly defined lead institution responsible for management. Variable depending on project
Diversity of disciplines per award Many Several Few
Period of award and management 5 years. Managed by Offices across DOE. A Board of Advisors consisting of senior leadership will coordinate across DOE. 5 years. Managed by the Basic Energy Sciences program in the DOE Office of Science. 1-3 years. Managed by ARPA-E, which reports to the Secretary of Energy
Award Amount ~$22 million in the first year with up to $10 million for infrastructure start-up; ~$25 million per year in subsequent years. $ 2-5 million per year $ 0.5-10 million per year
Core motivation Integrate from fundamental research through potential commercialization. The breadth and emphasis of activities will be influenced by the nature of the Hub. Some Hubs may place a greater emphasis on basic and applied research, while others may focus more on technology development. DOE determines the topical areas of the Hubs and FOAs are topic-specific. Fundamental research with a link to new energy technologies or technology roadblocks. The investigators proposed the subject matter from among a large set of scientific grand challenges and energy-relevant topics identified in and the FOA. High risk translational research driven by the potential for significant commercial impact in the near-term. In general, DOE determines the topics of interest, except for the initial FOA, which was broad-based.