40-Year Review Stresses Importance of Discovery Science

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Basic research and scientific facilities sponsored by the Department of Energy (DOE) have played a critical role over the past 40 years in the development of a wide range of present-day technologies according to a new report released today by the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC).

The report, titled A Remarkable Return on Investment in Fundamental Research, explores the connections between DOE-sponsored fundamental research in fields such as physics, materials science, and chemistry and the present-day technologies in information and other fields that pervade our lives.  The critical role of DOE in these technological advances ranges from LED lighting and smartphone communications to more efficient internal combustion engines and lighter vehicles.

 “The technological revolutions that we have witnessed in our lifetime all have their roots in basic discovery science,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry.  “Federal support for basic research remains a key to America’s technological leadership, and I’m proud to say that the Department of Energy’s innovative research and development is a mainstay of that support.”

The report cites multiple examples of familiar modern-day technologies whose origins can be traced to DOE-sponsored basic research.  It focuses mainly on research supported by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences (BES), the largest of six major program offices within DOE’s Office of Science.

For example, DOE-sponsored research on multi-layer semiconductors have led not only to efficient solar cells, but also to the development of today’s LED lightbulbs, which convert electricity at 10 times the efficiency of incandescent bulbs and outlast incandescent bulbs by years.  According to the report, DOE has been a critical player in this effort, sponsoring more than 200 research projects on LED lighting, resulting in the award of over 270 patents. 

In another area, DOE-sponsored basic research in materials science aimed at potential defense applications—specifically in understanding the role of microstructure in how materials deform—has resulted in new alloys and materials that have helped make cars and trucks lighter and thus more energy efficient. 

DOE materials science research also led to improvements in the cathode of lithium ion batteries, resulting in technologies that, for example, were ultimately incorporated in the Chevy Volt and Bolt automobiles.  Decades of computational modeling of combustion sponsored by DOE, meanwhile, have led to the development of more efficient diesel and other internal combustion engines. 

In addition to direct research support, BES has been responsible for the construction and operation of major scientific user facilities—including large X-ray light sources, neutron scattering sources, and specialized facilities for nanoscience—used by tens of thousands of researchers from national laboratories, universities, and industry each year. 

X-ray light sources, in particular, have become major tools of discovery for pharmaceutical companies.  In one instance, a pharmaceutical consortium used a beamline at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s X-ray light source to screen 20,000 potential drug candidates. 

BESAC is a body of outside experts commissioned by the government to advise DOE’s Office of Science on research priorities and directions. The BESAC report was commissioned to commemorate the 40th anniversary of BES, which was established by the Department in 1977.