Science and Technology News

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Finding New Paths Forward for Sustainable Energy

NSF announces first round of awards for novel energy research program

In 2011, the National Science Foundation (NSF) created the Sustainable Energy Pathways (SEP) program to spark innovative energy solutions that meet societal needs without creating burdens for future generations.

NSF envisions such solutions being domestically generated, at a reasonable cost, and not dependent on rare resources--while avoiding adverse environmental or societal consequences, not contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and preserving essential ecosystems.

Following a peer review evaluation process, NSF has now selected 20 multi-disciplinary SEP teams that will carry out highly integrated basic science and engineering research to introduce new and sustainable energy solutions.

"SEP is the first NSF program to generate basic scientific research and innovation on sustainable energy in the context of environmental, economic and societal acceptance," says SEP co-Chair George Maracas. "This life cycle, or systems, approach is implemented by forming research teams with expertise in several disciplines that collaborate on a plan for sustainable energy.

"Critically, the basic science is coupled to knowledge of how the innovations can be developed, adopted, and possibly scaled up to be incorporated into society."

The SEP award portfolio is highly diverse. Its projects include: development of novel solar cells, such as those that replace rare earth elements with earth abundant elements; energy storage solutions including innovative battery technology; novel catalysis approaches to generate renewable fuels; wind turbine, wave and geothermal energy conversion technologies; and new approaches to building design and human behavior studies that will allow designers to maximize energy efficiency without significantly affecting comfort level.

Each of the SEP projects addresses three fundamental considerations: fundamental scientific knowledge; social, economic and environmental factors; and education and workforce development.

"The SEP program is unique in how it broadly crosses disciplines to find sustainable energy solutions," says Zeev Rosenzweig, SEP co-chair. "The projects bring together mathematicians; chemists and materials scientists; geoscientists; computer scientists; chemical, electrical, mechanical and bioengineers; and social, behavioral and economics scientists in unique combinations.

"Because of the program's emphasis on integrating the social sciences and education components, we are able to support teams that tackle not just scientific and technological challenges, but also address societal, economic, behavioral, and environmental factors. The SEP teams will also introduce novel public outreach approaches to inform the public why sustainable energy pathways are needed and train a new generation of students that will be better equipped to handle the complexity of sustainable energy systems."

The SEP teams are led by a diverse group of experienced and beginning investigators who are inspired by both the challenges of sustainable energy and the broadly cross-disciplinary approaches that those challenges require.

Reflecting the multidisciplinary nature of the effort, the grantees are supported by 17 NSF divisions, part of a broader portfolio of cross-cutting programs within the agency's Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES) initiative.

The grants collectively address several core goals: 

•Create fundamental knowledge to characterize and understand existing energy systems and their limitations and form a basis to imagine, invent and deploy novel energy systems;
•Explore alternative energy sources, technologies and systems that can sustain a high quality of life for Earth's inhabitants;
•Investigate novel pathways for human energy futures built on a comprehensive understanding of risks and stressors associated with environmental, biospheric and societal responses associated with new energy pathways;
•Develop human capital to address the trans-disciplinary challenge of building a sustainable energy future;
•Foster the critically important public understanding of sustainable energy.

"We are proud to offer our strong support for the launch of the SEP program, which epitomizes both NSF's commitment to funding transformative fundamental research and to meeting the global challenges of the 21st century," says Celeste Rohlfing, acting assistant director for NSF's Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate. "The program's strong educational component will ensure that the next generation of the scientific workforce is prepared to continue the work of building a sustainable energy future."

The projects each receive up to four years of NSF funding at a rate of up to $500,000 per year, for a total program allocation of $37,000,000.

- NSF -

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