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5 Young Scientists Searching for Energy Breakthroughs With Stimulus Funds

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One of Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s top, if often overlooked, priorities has been to keep the U.S. from falling behind in the race to train the next-generation of scientists and engineers to build tomorrow’s energy technologies. “Strong support of scientists in the early career years is crucial to renewing America’s scientific workforce and ensuring U.S. leadership in discovery and innovation for many years to come,” Chu has said.

Earlier this month, Chu announced that 69 young researchers would receive up to $85 million in funding from the stimulus bill under DOE’s new Early Career Research Program. The five-year grants will cover salary and research expenses and this year’s awardees were selected by a panel of outside experts from a pool of 1,750 applicants. Earth2Tech asked five of the awardees to describe how their research might lead to tomorrow’s clean-energy breakthroughs:

David Erickson, Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Cornell University:

Erickson specializes in taking techniques used in the telecommunications industry to shuttle light around and applying them to nanomaterials on a microchip. The goal, he says, is to “create a special kind of tweezer that can pick up and assemble tiny elements of matter into new materials.” Basically a “light-based nano-assembly line.” He says the research could lead to highly efficient photothermal and photoelectric energy conversion devices.

Patrick Yin Chiang, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Oregon State University:

Chiang is working to improve the energy efficiency of interconnections among the thousands of processors used for super computing –- the power-hungry data crunching needed for, say, DNA sequencing or climate modeling. “It turns out that the energy consumed to make a computation is 10x less than the energy used to move that computed result somewhere else. This is the case at every level –- within a single integrated microprocessor, connecting multiple chips in a single server, and connecting multiple servers in a data center,” says Chiang. The goal of his research, he says, “is to tackle innovative circuit techniques that leverage Moore’s Law scaling to reduce the energy of these various interconnects.”

Maria?Victoria Fernandez-Serra, Department of Physics & Astronomy, Stony Brook University:

After modestly insisting that it is difficult to connect her research to the real world, Fernandez-Serra pointed to a decidedly concrete real-world application: extending the life and improving the efficiency of fuel cells, with the help of computer modeling. A critical hurdle to be surmounted, she says, is to design and synthesize the perfect electrode, “one that does not degrade and which is a very efficient catalyst for the chemical reaction that fuel cell is designed to operate with.”

“Computational experiments can shed light there where experiments cannot give accurate enough information. What I’m proposing to do is not only modeling the quantum mechanical processes that are the source of the energy provided by fuel cells, but do this on cells designed to work with hydrogen and oxygen as fuels,” she says.

She also takes the long view: “What we do will not be part of new technologies in one or two years, but in 10 or 20 years that hydrogen fuel cells will be a standard technology and our research will have contributed to it.”

Delia Milliron, The Molecular Foundry, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory:

Milliron’s research is aimed at understanding the basic mechanisms underlying the operation of nanostructured materials, specifically inorganic nanocomposites. “The unique properties that arise from combining materials on such a small scale can be useful for improving the performance of technologies crucial to our energy future,” she says, including next-generation dynamic windows and rechargeable batteries.

Working on such a small scale promises not just to improve the performance of all manner of next-generation products, it should also reduce production costs. “Because our materials are assembled entirely by solution processing and with low thermal budgets, they offer the possibility of low-cost fabrication, even over large areas,” Milliron says. “Our research may inspire new technologies capable of high performance at low cost.”

Andrew Gaunt, Chemistry Division, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Chemistry Division:

If nuclear power is to have a future in the U.S. energy mix, proponents and detractors alike agree that methods must be devised to safely secure or dispose of highly radioactive waste from spent nuclear fuel. Part of Gaunt’s research focuses on aiding one proposed solution, a process called partitioning and transmutation: partially recycling spent fuel by removing the radioactively long-lived actinide elements such as plutonium and “burning them up” in new fuel or inside a particle accelerator into much shorter-lived radioactive isotopes.

The hope, Gaunt says, is to drastically reduce both the volume of waste generated and the storage time required to guarantee the integrity of the waste from hundreds of thousands of years to just centuries. “Figuring out which actinide separations are most feasible and how to develop them will help decision-makers to decide which radioactive waste processing options will offer the best solution for safe, reliable, and cost-effective disposal,” he says.