A core mission of the DOE Office of Science is to lay the scientific groundwork for the next generation of energy technologies. We do so by supporting basic research across a wide range of disciplines, as well the construction and operation of major scientific facilities, to provide the foundation for new technologies for energy production, conversion, distribution, and use.
Tomorrow’s sophisticated technologies will be based on today’s breakthroughs in basic science. New energy technologies will require new materials and new chemical processes. Biology is also playing an increasing role in the emerging energy economy, as production of an expanding range of fuels and other products becomes possible using microbes and renewable plant feedstocks. In addition, there is the promise of fusion energy as a potential future source of essentially limitless clean energy using abundant elements—research for which we are the nation’s main sponsor. And there is a continuing need for science to support nuclear energy, especially science that will enable longer use of materials in these environments and the treatment of waste.
The Office of Science's support of core research in physics, materials science, chemistry, and bioscience has contributed to breakthroughs and innovations across a multitude of energy technologies. They have brought major improvements in solar cells, LED lighting, lithium-ion batteries for transportation, stronger and lighter materials for vehicles, better catalysts for fossil fuel production, improved materials and chemical processes for carbon capture, and resilient materials to withstand the extreme conditions within nuclear and fusion energy reactors, to name just a few areas. The core research programs provide the continued replenishment of breakthroughs in basic science necessary to sustain continued progress in energy technologies.
In recent years, as a complement to these core efforts, we have developed an innovative approach to mobilizing researchers and accelerating progress in energy research through large, coordinated centers. Each of these centers is typically led by a university or national laboratory and involves several partner institutions. The purpose of these center is to create a synergistic multidisciplinary research team, with the aim of becoming a dynamic whole that is more than the sum of its parts. While these centers are focused on research in basic science, they also seek to bridge the gap between science and technology—by being alert to breakthroughs in basic science that are ripe for technological development and commercialization, and by pursuing patents and licensing to facilitate this.
Among the most successful of such programs have been the DOE Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs). Since the beginning of the program in 2009, we have established 104 EFRCs, with 51 currently in operation. Typically funded at $2-$4 million per year, EFRCs bring together multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional teams of top researchers from universities, national laboratories, nonprofits, and private sector firms to tackle specific research challenges. Over its lifetime the EFRC program has produced over 10,500 peer-reviewed publications, more than 550 invention disclosures, and over 160 patents. They have concluded at least 100 licensing agreements with companies both small and large. They have spurred progress across a wide range of energy-relevant science related to solar energy, energy storage, catalytic chemistry and biochemistry, gas separation, nuclear energy including waste remediation, energy-water issues, synthesis, and predictive materials science and chemistry.
DOE Energy Innovation Hubs represent a similar approach, but on a larger scale and providing stronger bridges to commercialization, including the development of prototypes. These are efforts aimed at tackling big challenges, funded at $15-$25 million per year. We established two such Hubs, one aimed at tackling the daunting challenge of artificial photosynthesis, and the other at revolutionizing the science and technology of batteries.
The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) led by the California Institute of Technology in partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was established in 2010. In the first five years, JCAP achieved its initial goal of developing a first-ever solar prototype capable of splitting water to produce hydrogen fuel at greater than 10 percent efficiency—recently achieving efficiencies of up to 19 percent.
A second Hub, the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), led by Argonne National Laboratory, was established in 2012 to tackle the challenge of battery science and technology for both transportation and the grid. It has delivered four prototypes, two for transportation and two for the grid—and achieved energy density increases of a factor of three. One of the prototypes is now in the process of commercialization by one of three start-up companies that JCESR has generated.
The Innovation Hubs have also been very productive, with nearly 1,000 peer-reviewed publications, over 125 invention disclosures, and 125 patent applications. They have also made new computational codes and data available to the research community to accelerate the discovery of materials and processes.
Finally, established in 2007, the DOE Bioenergy Research Centers (BRCs) provided the original model for these other centers. For over ten years, the BRCs have led the world in pioneering the science and technology breakthroughs that are laying the groundwork for the emerging bio-economy, where an expanding range of environmentally friendly fuels and products are being produced using reengineered microbes and renewable plant feedstocks and related methods. They have kept America in the forefront of this economic revolution. The program started with three multidisciplinary, multi-institutional centers funded at $25 million per year, led respectively by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in partnership with Michigan State University. A fourth center, led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was added in 2018 when the program was re-competed.
The BRCs have produced nearly 3,000 peer-reviewed publications, 670 invention disclosures, 433 patent applications, 224 licenses, or options, and 112 patents. Eighteen start-up companies have been established based on BRC science and technology, and twenty-one firms have licensed BRC-generated technology, including such giants as DuPont, Monsanto, and Dow AgroSciences, among others.