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SLAC to Join New Energy Frontier Research Efforts

(Image - artist's rendition of a nanotube)

The Department of Energy has funded 46 new projects that will investigate ways to make the U.S. energy economy greener and more secure. SLAC will contribute substantially to at least three of these Energy Frontier Research Centers.

Each of the 46 EFRCs, which the White House announced April 27, will receive between two and five million dollars per year for five years—a total DOE commitment of $777 million. One project, run out of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, will use the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource at SLAC to help identify more efficient materials for solar energy conversion. Another, based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, will try to find new ways to develop super-strong, radiation-tolerant materials, with possible applications in energy infrastructure. The Oak Ridge center will employ SLAC's Linac Coherent Light Source in this effort.

Stanford will host a third EFRC. The Center on Nanostructuring for Efficient Energy Conversion will research and characterize materials at the nanoscale—anything smaller than about 100 nanometers, or one-thousandth the diameter of a human hair—with the aim of advancing basic design principles for next-generation batteries, capacitors, fuel cells and solar cells. SLAC physicist David Goldhaber-Gordon, also an associate professor of physics at Stanford, is involved in this project.

"My role is to bring a physicist's perspective, to complement the engineers' perspective," Goldhaber-Gordon said. "I can give a sense of what new things can happen when you design things on the nanoscale."

As an example, Goldhaber-Gordon cited the pros and cons of extremely narrow electrical wires. Such nanostructures are great conductors, if they're perfect. Anything short of perfection, however, presents a problem: even a tiny flaw can cause electrons to bounce and stray, greatly reducing efficiency.

If such issues are taken into account, nanomaterials hold great energy promise. This is partly because engineers have an incredible amount of control over their manufacture; they can draw up and tweak designs at tiny scales, maximizing efficiency. But many questions remain unanswered about nanostructures. Individual carbon nanotubes, for instance, conduct electricity very well. But how they might work in concert—as part of a solar cell or fuel cell, say—remains to be seen.

"What if two nanotubes cross?" Goldhaber-Gordon asked. "How easily can an electron get from one tube to another? And how does that impact conductivity?"

Stanford's EFRC may look into such questions, tapping the expertise Goldhaber-Gordon brings. He and some of his colleagues at the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Science—a joint SLAC-Stanford research center—have been thinking about these things for years.

At the moment, Goldhaber-Gordon is the only SLAC investigator working on the EFRC project. But that could change.

"My guess is that, over time, more bridges will be built between SLAC and Stanford through joint institutes like SIMES," he said. "I suspect there's going to be substantial use of SLAC facilities and personnel."

Fritz Prinz, co-director of the Stanford EFRC, left the door open to more SLAC participation down the road. And he pointed out that SLAC's contributions have already been substantial.

"SLAC has been very cooperative and very helpful," said Prinz, who also chairs Stanford's mechanical engineering department. "SLAC is providing significant machining capabilities and building a lot of the equipment and scientific instruments for this EFRC."

Stay tuned for more updates about SLAC participation in Energy Frontier Research Center work. For more details, see the synopses of all 46 EFRCs.

—Michael Wall
SLAC Today, May 18, 2009