The Basic Energy Sciences (BES) program supports fundamental research to understand, predict, and ultimately control matter and energy at the electronic, atomic, and molecular levels in order to provide the foundations for new energy technologies and to support DOE missions in energy, environment, and national security.
The BES program is one of the nation’s largest sponsors of research in the natural sciences. The program funds fundamental science at more than 170 research institutions in the U.S., with approximately 40% of the program’s research activities sited at academic institutions. The BES program also supports world-class scientific user facilities that provide outstanding capabilities for imaging; for characterizing materials of all kinds from metals, alloys, and ceramics to fragile biological samples; and for studying the chemical transformation of materials. These facilities are used to correlate the microscopic structure of materials with their macroscopic properties, which provides critical insights to their electronic, atomic, and molecular configurations, often at ultrasmall length and ultrafast time scales.
The BES program supports basic research that underpins a broad range of energy technologies. Research in materials sciences and engineering leads to the development of materials that improve the efficiency, economy, environmental acceptability, and safety of energy generation, conversion, transmission, storage, and use. For example, advances in superconductivity have been introduced commercially in a number of demonstration projects around the country. Improvements in alloy design for high temperature applications are used in commercial furnaces and in green technologies such as lead-free solder. Research in chemistry has led to advances such as efficient combustion systems with reduced emissions of pollutants; new solar photoconversion processes; improved catalysts for the production of fuels and chemicals; and better separations and analytical methods for applications in energy processes, environmental remediation, and waste management. Research in geosciences results in advanced monitoring and measurement techniques for reservoir definition and an understanding of the fluid dynamics of complex fluids through porous and fractured subsurface rock. Research in the molecular and biochemical nature of photosynthesis aids the development of solar photo-energy conversion.
The BES program also plays a major role in enabling the nanoscale revolution. The importance of nanoscience to future energy technologies is clearly reflected by the fact that all of the elementary steps of energy conversion (e.g., charge transfer, molecular rearrangement, and chemical reactions) take place on the nanoscale. The development of new nanoscale materials, as well as the methods to characterize, manipulate, and assemble them, create an entirely new paradigm for developing new and revolutionary energy technologies.
Fundamentally, the energy challenges of the next century will increasingly involve scientific discovery and technological innovation. The lessons of the previous century illustrate that major breakthroughs in energy technologies are largely built on a solid foundation of research advances. At the core of these advances is the ability to create new materials using sophisticated synthetic and processing techniques, precisely define the atomic arrangements in matter, and control physical and chemical transformations.
The research disciplines that the BES program supports—condensed matter and materials physics, chemistry, geosciences, and aspects of physical biosciences—are those that discover new materials and design new chemical processes. These disciplines touch virtually every aspect of energy resources, production, conversion, transmission, storage, efficiency, and waste mitigation. BES research provides a knowledge base to help understand, predict, and ultimately control the natural world and serves as an agent of change in achieving the vision of a secure and sustainable energy future.
The energy systems of the future, whether they tap sunlight, store electricity, or make fuel from splitting water or reducing carbon dioxide, will revolve around materials and chemical changes that convert energy from one form to another. Such materials will need to be more functional than today’s energy materials. To control chemical reactions or to convert a solar photon to an electron requires coordination of multiple steps, each carried out by customized materials with designed nanoscale structures. Such advanced materials are not found in nature; they must be designed and fabricated to exacting standards using principles revealed by basic science.
The 20th century witnessed revolutionary advances in physical sciences, bringing remarkable discoveries such as high temperature superconductors, electron microscopy with atomic resolution, and carbon nanotubes that combine the strength of steel with the mass of a feather. Observational science is now giving birth to the science of control, where accumulated knowledge derived from observations is used to design, initiate, and direct the chemical and physical behavior of materials at atomic and nanoscale. BES-supported research stands at the dawn of an age in which materials can be built with atom-by-atom precision and computational models can predict the behavior of materials before they exist. These capabilities, unthinkable only a few decades ago, create unprecedented opportunities to revolutionize the future of sustainable energy applications and beyond, from information management to national security.