From Solar Energy to LEDs: Yale Scientists Tackle Energy Problems in Five New Energy Research Frontier Centers

Yale University chemists and engineers will be part of five new federally-funded Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) that are seeking novel ways to tackle the growing energy crisis. Funding for the centers begins this month.

A total of 46 EFRCs, established to address fundamental research ranging from solar energy to electricity storage to carbon sequestration, were announced in April. Hosted mainly by universities and national laboratories, they are made up of teams of leading researchers from different institutions across the country. The Department of Energy and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are providing a total investment of $777 million over five years to fund the centers.

The Yale Solar Group—a collaboration between chemistry professors Victor Batista, Gary Brudvig, Robert Crabtree and Charles Schmuttenmaer—aims to convert sunlight into fuel by using the sun’s energy to split water into its elementary components, hydrogen (a green fuel) and oxygen. Now Crabtree, Brudvig and Batista will build on that work as part of an EFRC run by Northwestern University that will receive $19 million over five years. Currently, the group is working to develop a water-splitting catalyst inspired by plant photosynthesis that could dramatically improve the efficiency with which sunlight is used to produce fuel.

Yale Solar Group

From left to right: Victor Batista, Gary Brudvig, Robert Crabtree and Charles Schmuttenmaer

Crabtree will also participate in an EFRC run by the University of Virginia focused on making natural gas more widely available to major population centers. While natural gas is a low-carbon-footprint fuel, it is expensive to transport. Crabtree will work on ways to chemically combine atmospheric oxygen with natural gas to produce the easily transportable liquid fuel methanol. The center will receive $11 million over five years.

As part of a third EFRC led by General Electric (the only corporate research laboratory awarded an EFRC), Crabtree and Batista will also work to improve ways to store energy from intermittent sources, such as solar and wind power, as liquid fuel. The center will pursue Crabtree’s “virtual hydrogen storage” approach to replace gasoline with an environmentally benign hydrogen fuel, a project originally funded by the Yale Institute for Nanoscience and Quantum Engineering (YINQE). Batista will contribute his expertise in computational modeling of catalysts and chemical fuels to this center, which will receive $15 million over five years.

Mark Reed, professor of electrical engineering and applied physics, will contribute to a University of Maryland EFRC focused on improving energy storage technology. The center aims to improve the storage capacity of lithium ion batteries, employing nanotechnology to create lighter storage systems that charge faster and deliver more power. Reed will help develop semiconductor nanowire structures for these applications. The center will receive $14 million over five years.

Mark Reed

Jung Han, professor of electrical engineering, will work to reduce the energy consumption of everyday lighting as part of a fifth EFRC run by Sandia National Laboratories. Both incandescent and compact fluorescent lighting are inefficient technologies that waste a significant portion of the electrical energy they convert into visible light. Han will help develop the significantly more efficient light emitting diode (LED) technology, which is becoming available commercially but is still expensive. The center aims to double the efficiency of current LED technology and make it more widely available. The EFRC will receive $18 million over five years.

Jung Han

More information is available about the newly established EFRCs

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Suzanne Taylor Muzzin: suzanne.taylormuzzin@yale.edu, 203-432-8555