Stanford Report - May 7th, 2009 - by Emmanuel Romero

As a key player in the race for clean energy, Stanford University has won a $20 million federal grant to launch the Center on Nanostructuring for Efficient Energy Conversion.

Researchers for CNEEC, who will launch the new center on August 1, will concentrate their research on sustainable energy technology. The interdisciplinary enterprise will integrate faculty from four departments: Chemical Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Physics.

The Carnegie Institution, HRL Laboratories, and the Technical University of Denmark will contribute to CNEEC as collaborative partners. Funding is projected for an initial five-year period, at $4 million per year.

The grant, awarded by the Department of Energy's Office of Science, comes on the heels of President Barack Obama's appearance at the Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Sciences on April 27, during which he proclaimed his commitment to strengthening scientific research, education and technology. To that end, the DOE's award designates Stanford as one of 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers.

"It's a great opportunity to increase Stanford's efforts and collaborative research on sustainable energy," said Stacey Bent, professor of chemical engineering. Following a jump in campus research on energy technology in recent years, CNEEC creates a focal point for nanostructuring and energy conversion.

Nanostructuring is technology that exists on the scale of one billionth of a meter. Knowledge of how systems work at such a small scale can lead to advances for devices such as solar cells and batteries.

"We're basically trying to understand and solve cross-cutting, fundamental problems in improving energy conversion efficiency," said Bent, who is co-directing CNEEC with mechanical engineering Professor Fritz Prinz. A lot of this research aims to refine existing energy conversion and storage technology, which Bent said is too expensive or too inefficient. Specific targets for CNEEC include photovoltaics, fuel cells, energy storage, and conversion of solar power into chemical fuels such as methanol.

The interdisciplinary nature of the center's collaborators creates a wide arsenal of expertise to tackle questions about nanostructuring. Researchers can study energy efficiency using principles from quantum mechanics, theoretical calculations, and even biology.

"If you take carbon dioxide, with the right catalyst, you could convert that into a fuel," Bent said, "which is something that would be desirable in reducing CO2 emissions." Understanding this process, comparable to photosynthesis in plants, is just one approach CNEEC is taking to create innovative and sustainable energy using nanostructuring.

"As global energy demand grows over this century, there is an urgent need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and imported oil and curtail greenhouse gas emissions," U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said in a press release. "Meeting this challenge will require significant scientific advances."

The solution to the energy crisis cannot just be one city fixing its energy problems, Bent said: "This is a global issue." Part of tackling such a global issue is thinking broadly about multiple solutions, incorporating both renewable energy sources and energy storage.

"A lot of energy sources that are really clean, like sunlight and wind, are intermittent," Bent said. "The sun's not always shining, and the wind's not always blowing, so storage of energy is also an issue."

In its quest to change the nation's energy landscape, CNEEC also hopes to generate general knowledge and interest in energy efficient technology for a whole new generation of students.

The DOE selected Stanford, along with the other 45 Energy Frontier Research Centers, from a pool of about 260 applicants. Selection was based on a rigorous merit review process, using outside panels of scientific experts.