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Science for Energy Flow

Powering the Future with a New Era of Science

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Energy Flow 2010

Tracking U.S. Energy Flow

Innovations hold the key to transforming U.S. energy supply, efficiency, and use. With rapid economic development occurring in much of the world, global energy demand is increasing dramatically, escalating the competition for dwindling resources and potentially exposing America's economy and energy security to greater volatility. At the same time, there is compelling evidence that carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions from human activities related to energy are affecting climate. In 2009, 87% of the 6.6 billion metric tons of U.S. carbon emissions were from energy use, accounting for 20% of global energy emissions. Scientific advances are essential for developing and deploying new technologies that can reduce carbon emissions and ultimately move the nation toward energy independence and a sustainable energy future.


Science for Improving U.S. Energy Flow

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Overcoming America's energy challenges and gaining an edge in the energy innovation race require basic research to better understand the fundamental phenomena that limit the efficiency, performance, or lifetime of the materials and processes underlying energy technologies. Because no single energy source can meet all future demands, a diverse set of solutions is needed. The challenges are complex, requiring researchers in different disciplines to work together to advance scientific discovery at the leading edge of many energy applications.
American science is entering a new era of discovery with powerful tools for imaging, modeling, understanding, and manipulating matter on atomic and molecular scales. Empowered by capabilities unthinkable a few decades ago, researchers are unveiling scientific breakthroughs enabling a new generation of materials that can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and catalyze the transition to clean energy technologies.
The Basic Energy Sciences (BES) program of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Science supports basic research to understand, predict, and ultimately control matter and energy at atomic and molecular levels. BES research-spanning physics, materials science, chemistry, geosciences, nanoscience, and physical biosciences-provides the scientific foundation for advancing a broad range of energy options. As illustrated by the examples below, this research is fundamental to numerous energy breakthroughs-including capabilities for tapping sunlight, maximizing the efficiency of electricity storage and transmission, or making fuels from carbon dioxide.

Bio-Inspired Processes for Producing Solar Fuels
Imagine if we could directly convert excess atmospheric CO2 into energy-rich fuels by leveraging the principles of photosynthesis, the process by which plants and algae use the sun's energy to convert water and CO2 into the chemical energy of life. Inspired by nature, scientists are designing systems for artificial photosynthetic fuel production. By applying the scientific principles that control photosynthesis, researchers are developing self-assembling components that can integrate the functions of light harvesting and catalysis for fuel production into an operational unit with overall greater efficiencies.

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Artificial photosynthetic structure enhances light adsorptionFlow

Artificial photosynthetic structure enhances light adsorptionFlow.

Nanofabrication of New Superconducting Materials

Superconductors can carry larger electrical currents without loss to resistance, which eliminates heat generation. Unlike metallic conductors that increase resistance and get hotter as wire diameter decreases, scientists have discovered superconducting organic chains less than 1 nanometer wide and just four molecular pairs in length. This research exploits diverse nanoscale techniques emerging in labs across the country and paves the way for fabricating new superconducting nanomaterials that can transmit electrical power far more efficiently than conventional cables and devices in the U.S. electric grid.

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Smallest superconductor contains just four pairs of molecules.

Smallest superconductor contains just four pairs of molecules.

Simulations for Designing More Efficient Engines
Scientists combined computer modeling and laser-diagnostic tools to achieve a more complete understanding of the complex turbulent flows and chemical reactions in diesel combustion. This basic research led to new methods for simulating engine design that reduced the time and cost of developing a cleaner, more efficient diesel engine. Computational tools for engine design are now being adopted by industry.

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Computer simulation of combustion accelerates engine design.

Computer simulation of combustion accelerates engine design..

Solar Energy Science

Among all energy options, sunlight is the most abundant, clean, and secure. Although enough sunlight strikes Earth each hour to fuel a year's worth of human energy needs, current solar energy technologies provide less than 0.1% of the world's electricity. Fully exploiting this enormous yet undeveloped potential is a grand challenge for energy science. Three key approaches to harvesting the sun's energy involve (1) converting sunlight to electricity in solar cells, (2) mimicking natural photosynthesis to store solar energy in the chemical bonds of fuels, and (3) capturing solar heat to drive electricity generation and chemical reactions. Basic research is needed to make the many solar-based routes for producing electricity, fuel, and heat competitive with the cost, reliability, and performance of fossil fuels. Scientists can improve solar technologies by designing new materials that absorb more of the wavelengths in solar radiation, characterizing the mechanisms that limit solar energy conversion efficiency, and adapting nature's strategies to develop low-cost catalysts and new paradigms for energy conversion.

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Light-concentrating nanospheres that coat thin-film solar cells boost light-harvesting efficiency.

Light-concentrating nanospheres that coat thin-film solar cells boost light-harvesting efficiency.

DOE Energy Innovation Hub for Solar Fuels
With a multidisciplinary team of nearly 200 top scientists and engineers, the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), a DOE Energy Innovation Hub, is developing artificial systems that produce fuels from sunlight, water, and CO2. Building on breakthroughs in nanotechnology, physics, chemistry, and materials science, JCAP researchers are using inexpensive, earth-abundant elements to nanoengineer new light absorbers, membranes, and molecular catalysts for producing fuels such as hydrogen, alcohols, or even gasoline. These new nanomaterials would work together like a multilayer, high-performance fabric that oozes solar fuel. JCAP's ultimate goal is to demonstrate a manufacturable device that produces fuel from the sun 10 times more efficiently than current crops.

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Like blades of grass on a nanoscale lawn, these light-absorbing nanofibers and other innovative components will make up the JCAP solar-fuels generator.

Like blades of grass on a nanoscale lawn, these light-absorbing nanofibers and other innovative components will make up the JCAP solar-fuels generator.

Materials in Extreme Environments

Future energy technologies will place increasing demands on materials that can withstand extremes in stress, temperature, pressure, chemical reactivity, radiation flux, and electric or magnetic fields. For example, increasing the efficiency of a coal-fired power plant will require new materials that tolerate higher operating temperatures and pressures, and next-generation nuclear reactors will need to withstand higher radiation flux in corrosive environments. These conditions can weaken chemical bonds and accelerate material aging, leading to reduced performance and eventually failure. With current research and computational capabilities, scientists can study the mechanisms of damage evolution from atomic to macroscopic scales. This research is revealing new strategies for developing self-healing materials or using extreme conditions to turn certain material properties on or off as needed. Beyond energy, these new materials would advance many other important application areas such as national security or industry that also require robust, reliable materials.

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Fine white shear lines (see arrow) form to prevent crack extension in a new damage-tolerant metallic glass that is stronger and tougher than any other known material. generator.

Fine white shear lines (see arrow) form to prevent crack extension in a new damage-tolerant metallic glass that is stronger and tougher than any other known material.

Electrical Energy Storage

For grid applications, electricity must be reliably available 24 hours a day. Even second-to-second fluctuations can cause major disruptions that cost billions of dollars annually. New approaches for maximizing energy storage capacity are essential to expanding the use of electric vehicles; bringing solar, wind, and other intermittent renewables to the grid; and effectively managing electricity generation to meet peak demand. Today's energy storage devices-are limited by the performance of their constituent materials. Overcoming these limitations requires understanding the myriad interactions that transfer ions or electrons in these devices and the physical and chemical processes that degrade them. Recent advances in visualizing and building nanostructures are enabling the design of a new generation of devices that dramatically increase charge density and last longer by minimizing degradation from charge-discharge cycles.

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Assembled using viruses, these nanowires are coated in silicon, which has a higher energy density than graphite, the material typically used in battery electrodes..

Assembled using viruses, these nanowires are coated in silicon, which has a higher energy density than graphite, the material typically used in battery electrodes.

Clean and Efficient Combustion

As new transportation fuels derived from oil shale, coal, plant biomass, and other sources become available, development of these future fuels must be coordinated with evolving engine design. Combustion dynamics, turbulent flows, and chemistry are astonishingly complex, with hundreds of different fuel molecules and thousands of possible reactions underlying the release of energy stored in chemical bonds. Researchers are overcoming this complexity with powerful computational modeling. By enabling realistic simulations for testing different fuel formulations in existing and proposed engine designs, these models represent an experimentally validated, predictive capability for combustion. They will accelerate the integrated development of fuel and engine concepts needed to curb emissions and increase engine efficiency by 30% or more.

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Using simulations, researchers can digitally experiment with new combustion technologies to gather data, such as this representation of dissipation rates in a jet flame.

Using simulations, researchers can digitally experiment with new combustion technologies to gather data, such as this representation of dissipation rates in a jet flame.

Superconducting Grid Solutions

As one of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century, the U.S. electric grid emerged by connecting isolated local grids largely based on technologies from the 1950s-70s. By 2030, U.S. electricity demand is expected to rise 50% or more with the growing use of electric vehicles-an increase the grid will struggle to meet. One potential new solution to this bottleneck is superconductivity-the loss-free transmission of electrical currents observed in certain materials at very low temperatures. Superconductivity is ultimately a phenomenon determined by electron behavior and molecular properties at scales ranging from a tenth of a nanometer to hundreds of nanometers. By applying today's nanoscale characterization and fabrication tools, scientists can attain the mechanistic understanding needed to design less expensive materials that work at higher temperatures and can carry larger currents over greater distances. Such advances will make the grid smarter and more reliable by automatically adjusting to large fluctuations in demand.

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Study of electron behavior in a network of copper oxide units (yellow) reveals a break in symmetry that may underlie the loss of superconductivity at higher temperatures.

Study of electron behavior in a network of copper oxide units (yellow) reveals a break in symmetry that may underlie the loss of superconductivity at higher temperatures.

Catalysis for Energy Applications

Chemical transformations are essential for generating fuels and other useful chemical products. As the ultimate enablers of these transformations, catalysts facilitate quicker, less energy intensive conversion of molecules into desired products. Without them, most energy and materials needed for daily life would not exist. Whether extracting chemicals from complex fossil feedstocks or transforming plant biomass or CO2 into fuels, the catalysts and reactions underlying these processes must be understood at the atomic level where the intricate breaking and forming of chemical bonds occur. This detailed understanding of catalyst structure and performance under technologically realistic conditions provides the foundation needed to design and control the synthesis of more efficient, less expensive catalysts with atom-by-atom precision.

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New microscopy methods track electrochemical activity along the triple-phase boundaries (TPB) for platinum (Pt) nanoparticles on an yttria-stabilized zirconia (YSZ) surface of a fuel cell.

New microscopy methods track electrochemical activity along the triple-phase boundaries (TPB) for platinum (Pt) nanoparticles on an yttria-stabilized zirconia (YSZ) surface of a fuel cell.


Hydrogen Production, Storage, and Conversion

Another option for attaining a secure energy future is expanding the use of hydrogen-the third most abundant element on Earth's surface. Exploiting hydrogen for diverse energy uses requires new science-based strategies for producing it from fossil fuels, biomass conversion, or the splitting of water; storing it chemically or physically; and converting stored hydrogen to electrical energy and heat at the point of use. A key research need is to understand the atomic and molecular processes that occur at the interface of hydrogen with materials, enabling the discovery and design of new membranes, catalysts, and fuel cells with higher performance and lower costs.

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A potential inexpensive alternative to platinum catalysts, this new synthetic nickel-based catalyst produces hydrogen 70 times faster than natural hydrogen-evolving enzymes.

A potential inexpensive alternative to platinum catalysts, this new synthetic nickel-based catalyst produces hydrogen 70 times faster than natural hydrogen-evolving enzymes.

Solid-State Lighting

Traditional sources of artificial light, such as incandescent or fluorescent bulbs, are extremely inefficient because they generate light as a byproduct of indirect processes that produce heat or plasmas. Most energy consumed by incandescent bulbs is lost to heat; only about 5% is used to produce visible light. For fluorescent sources, only about 20% is converted to light. Solid-state lighting (SSL), an emerging technology based on direct electricity-to-light conversion using semiconductor materials, has the potential to generate visible white light at much higher efficiencies, possibly approaching 100%. Developing low-cost, efficient SSL technologies with high color-rendering quality will require detailed understanding of the mechanisms and material properties controlling electron conversion to light rather than heat. Applying the latest nanoscale techniques, researchers can experiment with radical new designs of SSL material at the atomic level and study conversion processes in nanostructures much smaller than the wavelength of light.

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With a diameter 7,000 times smaller than a human hair, this flashlight-shaped nanowire is made of gallium nitride, a semi-conductor used in the light-emitting diodes of SSL devices.

With a diameter 7,000 times smaller than a human hair, this flashlight-shaped nanowire is made of gallium nitride, a semi-conductor used in the light-emitting diodes of SSL devices.

Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems

Recent advances in nanoscale research and predictive modeling of complex systems are transforming the science-based development of structural materials, fuels, separation processes, and waste forms for nuclear energy. ln addition to extending the operational lifetime of existing reactors, these advances also support a new generation of nuclear energy systems based on materials that withstand extremes in temperature, radiation, mechanical stress, and corrosive conditions. With a more detailed understanding of the nanoscale phenomena controlling defects in system components, researchers are developing techniques for real-time monitoring of structural integrity in reactors and for recycling nuclear fuels in ways that minimize production of long-lived radioactive waste.

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A computer model shows how nanometer-sized, atom-free regions called voids (white circles) form under irradiation and impact heat flow in nuclear fuels.

A computer model shows how nanometer-sized, atom-free regions called voids (white circles) form under irradiation and impact heat flow in nuclear fuels.

Geosciences for Sequestering Energy Byproducts

Even with a growing energy supply from clean alternatives, fossil fuels will continue to be major energy sources for years to come. Efforts to minimize the environmental impacts of fossil CO2 emissions and radioactive waste from nuclear energy will increase demand to store these and other energy byproducts deep underground for centuries. Safely sequestering large quantities of these byproducts in rock formations thousands of meters deep requires research to understand and reliably predict and monitor their transport and fate as they alter or interact with fluids, minerals, and microbial life in the subsurface.

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Simulation of water-CO<sub>2</sub>interactions between two parallel quartz layers at conditions found in the deep subsurface.

Simulation of water-CO2 interactions between two parallel quartz layers at conditions found in the deep subsurface.

Image credits. Energy flow diagram images: iStockphoto. Earth's city lights: NASA Visible Earth. Photosynthetic structure: Center for Bio-lnspired Solar Fuel Production Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC). Smallest superconductor: S. W. HIa and K. Clark, Ohio University. Combustion simulation: K. L. Ma and H. Yu, University of California Davis, and J. Chen, Sandia National Laboratories. Solar energy science image: Light-Material Interactions in Energy Conversion EFRC. DOE Energy Innovation Hub image: Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis. Materials in extreme environments image: M. E. Launey, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Electrical energy storage image: Nanostructures for Electrical Energy Storage EFRC. Combustion image: K. L. Ma, H. Akiba, and H. Yu, University of California Davis, and E. Hawkes, Sandia National Laboratories. Superconductivity image: Brookhaven National Laboratory. Catalysis image: Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Hydrogen image: Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis EFRC. Solid-state lighting image: EFRC for Solid-State Lighting Science. Nuclear energy image: Center for Materials Science of Nuclear Fuels EFRC. Geosciences image: Center for Nanoscale Control of Geologic CO2 EFRC.

Last modified: 3/18/2013 10:18:47 AM