The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has selected its Argonne National Laboratory to lead an Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) focused on advanced materials for energy-water systems.
Established by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences within DOE's Office of Science in 2009, the EFRC program brings together researchers from multiple disciplines and institutions -- including national laboratories, universities and nonprofit organizations -- to tackle some of the biggest challenges we face in energy and related areas.
"A huge number of the challenges we face surrounding water center on the interface between water and the materials that make up the systems that handle, process and treat water." -- Seth Darling, director of the Argonne-led EFRC and an Argonne-University of Chicago joint appointee
In all, U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry announced $100 million in funding for 42 EFRCs to accelerate the scientific breakthroughs needed to strengthen U.S. economic leadership and energy security.
"By mobilizing the talents of our nation's top scientists and forging them into powerful, proactive teams, the EFRC program will help ensure America's leadership in the development of critical energy technologies and innovations," Secretary Perry said.
Argonne will partner with the University of Chicago and Northwestern University on the four-year project.
"A huge number of the challenges we face surrounding water center on the interface between water and the materials that make up the systems that handle, process and treat water," said Seth Darling, director of the Argonne-led EFRC and an Argonne-University of Chicago joint appointee. "Gaining a deeper understanding of what takes place when water -- and stuff dissolved or suspended in water -- comes into contact with those solids will be the focus of our work."
For example, in many water systems, a phenomenon known as fouling -- the accumulation of unwanted material on solid surfaces to the detriment of function -- occurs at interfaces.
"If you want to prevent an interface from gunking up," Darling said, "you need to understand what's happening at that interface that's causing things to bind so you can counteract that in some way. Related insights can help us discover new types of sorbents to selectively capture pollutants or sensors to detect trace contaminants."
Another area the team will explore is reactivity, or chemical reactions, at interfaces.
"One active area of research is to use catalysts to degrade pollutants in water, and to disinfect water," said Giulia Galli, deputy director of the Argonne-led EFRC and an Argonne-University of Chicago joint appointee. "That catalytic reaction will happen at an interface, so understanding that reactivity at the interface between the catalyst and water is important."
As Darling explains it, water and energy are deeply interconnected.
"You basically cannot separate energy and water, topically," he said. "The largest withdrawal of water in the United States is for electricity production. Conversely, the largest use of electricity in the U.S. is the treatment and distribution of water. So at a high level, these two things are deeply connected."
Water is also surprisingly complicated.
"Water is one of the weirdest substances we have ever known," Darling said. "It has all kinds of anomalous properties that scientists are still trying to understand."
The current cohort of EFRCs, selected by competitive peer review, includes 22 new centers, the renewals of nine existing ones and extensions for 11, including the Argonne-led Center for Electrolyte-Electrode Interface Science.
The current cohort of EFRCs will help to accelerate scientific understanding in diverse energy-relevant fields including catalysis, electro- and photo-chemistry, geoscience, quantum materials, and nuclear and synthesis science.
"The EFRCs are aligned with challenges that are so large, individual investigators would not be able to address them," Galli said. "They are complex subjects that require teams of researchers with complementary expertise and capabilities to fully tackle them."
Since 2009, the EFRCs have produced more than 10,000 peer-reviewed scientific publications and generated hundreds of inventions, contributing to a wide range of new technologies.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.