Energy Frontier Research Centers: Tackling US Energy Challenges

bridges vol. 22, July 2009 / Institutions & Organizations

By Philipp Marxgut

With the advent of the Obama administration a new wind is blowing in the US capital, a wind that has also brought change to S&T. Among the top challenges are climate change and energy.  "Driving the energy-technology innovation needed to reduce energy imports and climate-change risks, while creating green jobs and competitive new businesses" is one of four top S&T priorities for the US, according to Science Advisor John Holdren. 1   

Energy Secretary Steven Chu and President Barack Obama

With Nobel Prize-winner Steven Chu as the energy secretary, Barack Obama has chosen a first-rate scientist to lead the green energy revolution in the Department of Energy (DOE). Prior to his appointment, Chu led the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in pursuit of new alternative and renewable energies.

Immediately after his confirmation, Dr. Chu began to untangle the red tape and start the changes required to develop a more carbon-constrained US economy. On top of the FY2009 budget of the DOE, Chu received an additional $38.71 billion in stimulus funding to implement the vision of becoming the world's leading exporter of renewable energy.

Within the Office of Science, the basic research funding arm of DOE, $777 million will go into 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) over a period of five years. Roughly one-third of the centers are supported by Recovery Act funding. Each center will receive between $2 million to $5 million per year for an initial five-year period.

A new wind is blowing that should overcome hurdles which block energy breakthroughs.

The 46 EFRCs were selected from a pool of 260 applications and will be established at 31 universities, 12 DOE National Laboratories, 2 non-profits, and at a corporate research laboratory. Among the host institutions are MIT, Princeton, Michigan State, Carnegie Institution, Argonne, and Oak Ridge.

"EFRCs are small-scale collaborations that focus on overcoming known hurdles in basic science that block energy breakthroughs - not on developing energy technologies themselves," Secretary Chu testified before Congress. 2

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Involving almost 1800 researchers and students (700 senior investigators; 1100 postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students, and technical staff), EFRCs will address energy and science "grand challenges" and should accelerate scientific breakthroughs in energy production: from solar energy and electricity storage to materials, biofuels, advanced nuclear systems, and carbon capture and sequestration. The centers will address the full range of energy research challenges in

  • renewable and carbon-neutral energy (20 centers)
  • energy efficiency (6 centers)
  • energy storage (6 centers)
  • cross-cutting science - catalysis, materials under extreme environments, etc. (14 centers).


New methods of converting solar energy to electricity and its storage shall be invented at the EFRCs.

For instance, two EFRCs will be established at MIT: The Center for Excitonics, supported with $19 million, has the goal of understanding the transport of charge carriers in synthetic disordered systems, which hold promise as new materials for converting solar energy to electricity and for electrical energy storage. MIT's Solid-State Solar-thermal Energy Conversion Center's objective ($17.5 million) is to create novel solid-state materials for the conversion of sunlight and heat into electricity. Moreover, MIT was named as sub-awardee for four more EFRCs. 3  

EFRCs bring together the skills and talents of multiple investigators to enable research of a scope and complexity that would not be possible within the standard individual investigator or small group award. EFRCs will have research programs at the forefront of one or more of the research challenges; the centers will also provide opportunities to inspire, train, and support leading scientists of the future. High-risk, high-reward research is encouraged.

EFRCs are part of a broader initiative of the US administration to increase the visibility of energy research and to attract new faces into this field, which has an important role in reducing carbon emissions. As Secretary Chu said at the AAAS S&T Policy Meeting on May 1, 2009, the administration wants to take advantage of the idealism of people willing to contribute to climate change research. With the initiation of the 46 EFRCs, whose establishment has been debated since 2003, the administration shows its seriousness about promoting breakthroughs in energy and providing the necessary funds. President Obama stated it well: "A nation's potential for scientific discovery is defined by the tools that it makes available to its researchers." 4


The author, Philipp Marxgut, has been accredited as Austria's Attaché for Science & Technology to both the USA and Canada since July 2007. He is also the director of the Office of Science & Technology at the Embassy of Austria in Washington, D.C.


1. John Holdren, "Science in the White House," Science 324 (2009): 567.

2. Statement of Steven Chu before the Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies, May 19, 2009.
3. MIT news. "DOE to establish two Energy Frontier Research Centers at MIT." April 27, 2009; updated May 13, 2009.

4. Remarks by President Obama at the National Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting, April 27, 2009.