May 7, 2009

Stimulus money will fuel energy research and add jobs

Cornell researchers have won federal stimulus funding for three projects that will help meet the nation's future energy needs, with additional state support for one project. The proposals are the first to be approved among dozens submitted by the university for the federal aid.

The funding is expected to support at least 30 new graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, and according to the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, each new Cornell researcher generates two or three support jobs in the surrounding community.

At the top of the recipient list is the Center for Nanostructured Interfaces for Energy Generation, Conversion and Storage, to be directed by Héctor D. Abruña, the E.M. Chamot Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and co-director of the Cornell Fuel Cell Institute. The goal of the center is to discover and design materials that will dramatically enhance the performance of fuel cells, batteries, photovoltaics and photo-electrochemical cells.

"The proposal we put forth was a great collective effort, and the Department of Energy recognized in it Cornell's strengths in materials design, characterization and modeling, and the close-coupling of the various components of the proposed work. This is great news," said Abruña. The proposal team includes 14 faculty members from five departments and two colleges. The center will receive funding of $17.5 million over five years, according to Paul Mutolo, associate director of the Fuel Cell Institute. Additional funding of $500,000 has been committed by the office of New York state Gov. David Paterson, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority will provide a one-time $250,000 contribution. The Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future, a key partner in developing the proposal, will provide additional support.

The research will include an expanded search for better catalysts for fuel cells, work already in progress at the Fuel Cell Institute, and the development of better materials for electrodes in lithium-ion batteries to increase the amount of energy the batteries can store per unit of weight, which is essential for viable electric cars and will enhance wind and solar electricity systems.

The new center will be one of 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRC) created by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Basic Energy Sciences. Several of these new centers, including the one at Cornell, will be funded by President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package.

Cornell also is collaborating with other institutions in two other EFRCs.

J.C. Séamus Davis, the James Gilbert White Distinguished Professor in the Physical Sciences, who holds a joint faculty appointment at Brookhaven National Laboratory, will lead a Center for Emergent Superconductivity involving Cornell, Brookhaven, Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Illinois. The center aims to move superconductor research from theoretical to practical. Some materials can superconduct -- conduct electricity without heating or energy loss -- at temperatures up to around 150 degrees above absolute zero (-125 Celsius). But superconductors that need even less cooling could lead to more efficient motors and generators, Davis said. One possibility, he suggested, would be lightweight yet more powerful generators for wind-power towers.

"We're going to try and refocus scientific and technology efforts on driving up the superconducting critical temperature," Davis said. "We have world-leading materials development people to search for and develop new superconductors and a world-leading team for analysis of those materials."

Stephen Pope, the Sibley College Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, will participate along with scientists at six other universities and institutions in the Energy Frontier Research Center for Combustion Science, directed by Chung K. Law of Princeton University. The researchers will create computer models of the combustion process, verified by experiment, in order to design novel, more efficient engines for cars and trucks, including engines using alternative fuels.

Pope's expertise is in the modeling of turbulence and its interaction with chemical reactions, and he will focus on the mixing of fuel, air and recirculated exhaust in combustion chambers. "In this center Cornell is at the end of the food chain and others will be feeding into us [with models of the chemical reactions at the atomic scale]," Pope explained. "The goal is to create better tools that can be used in engine design." Cornell's share of the institute's funding will be up to $1.25 million over five years, he said.