UD awarded multi-million grant to establish DOE Energy Frontier Research Center
Among those involved with the new Energy Frontier Research Center at the University of Delaware are, from left, Kelvin Lee, Jingguang Chen, Douglas Buttrey, Dion Vlachos, Jochen Lauterbach and Raul Lobo. Also involved but not pictured are Mark Barteau, Stanley Sandler and Douglas Doren.
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8:15 a.m., May 4, 2009----The University of Delaware will be home to a new Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) focusing on the development of innovative catalytic technologies for the efficient conversion of biomass such as trees and grasses into chemicals, electricity, and fuels.

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The UD EFRC, which the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) plans to fund at a level of $17.5 million over five years, will be led by Dion Vlachos, Elisabeth Inez Kelley Professor of Chemical Engineering and director of the Center for Catalytic Science & Technology (CCST). The program will also have two co-directors: Jingguang Chen, Claire D. LeClaire Professor of Chemical Engineering and interim director of the University of Delaware Energy Institute (UDEI), and Raul Lobo, professor of chemical engineering.

The DOE Office of Science plans to invest $777 million in EFRCs over the next five years.

The grants were announced by the White House in conjunction with a speech delivered by President Barack Obama at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, April 27.

“This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history,” Obama said. “In no area will innovation be more important than in the development of new technologies to produce, use, and save energy.”

“This award is an outstanding recognition of the ability and vision of our faculty in CCST and UDEI,” said Mark Barteau, senior vice provost for research and strategic initiatives at UD. “It is important to realize that beyond establishing world-class research programs on campus and partnerships with top researchers in other universities and national labs, our faculty have been actively involved in building the foundation for energy and catalysis research in the U.S.”

“Over the past decade,” Barteau continued, “UD faculty have been active contributors and leaders of workshops and reports for DOE and the National Science Foundation on research needs and opportunities and on U.S. competitiveness in these fields. Those efforts have been crucial to the establishment of new research initiatives, and we are thrilled to be a part of one of the newest and largest of these, the EFRCs.”

According to Vlachos, the center's mission is to develop the science base that will enable the operation of future biorefineries and prepare the workforce for such jobs. “We are very excited about the opportunity to tackle some grand challenges in the utilization of renewables that can impact the state of Delaware and U.S. energy independence,” he said.

The team plans collaborations with scientists at Lehigh University, California Institute of Technology, and the universities of Massachusetts, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Southern California, and Stony Brook. It will also utilize the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Laboratory and several Office of Science computational facilities.

“We have assembled an excellent team of faculty across the country to develop the science leading to new technologies,” said Chen, who is already leading a group of researchers funded by DOE to conduct catalysis research using the facilities at Brookhaven. The facility's synchrotron source enables research on catalysis to be carried out under in-situ conditions.

Outreach and education are also major cornerstones of the EFRC, according to Lobo, who will lead these efforts. “We plan to provide an environment that will foster students' ability to integrate knowledge from various disciplines and to work in teams within a multidisciplinary framework,” Lobo said. “This experience will be made unique through the integration of technical knowledge and up-to-date concepts in sustainability and energy policy.”

Education and outreach opportunities will be provided through short courses, webinars, and seminars that will be open to graduate and undergraduate students as well as to industry and government employees. The EFRC will also offer undergraduate students from across the country the chance to participate in research projects.

Another outreach component will be the involvement of high school teachers and other education professionals in the center's activities to raise awareness about the importance of biomass as a source of sustainable energy for the future.

“This is very exciting news for our College of Engineering,” said Dean Michael Chajes. “Energy is one of the core interdisciplinary research areas we have identified in our strategic plan, and the effort is also congruent with UD's Path to Prominence, especially its Initiative for the Planet. UD has made a serious commitment to reducing its own carbon footprint as well as to supporting research focused on developing alternative energy solutions.”

In addition to Vlachos, Chen, and Lobo, the UD team includes five other faculty in the Department of Chemical Engineering -- Barteau, who is also Robert L. Pigford Professor; Kelvin Lee, Gore Professor; Stanley Sandler, Henry Belin du Pont Chair; and professors Douglas Buttrey and Jochen Lauterbach -- as well as Douglas Doren, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

In all, 46 EFRCs were selected from a pool of some 260 applications received in response to a solicitation issued by the DOE Office of Science in 2008. The UD EFRC was one of 16 selected to receive funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, where the primary criterion was job creation.

“These centers will mobilize the enormous talents and skills of our nation's scientific workforce in pursuit of the breakthroughs that are essential to make alternative and renewable energy truly viable as large-scale replacements for fossil fuels,” said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. “Meeting this challenge will require significant scientific advances.”

Article by Diane Kukich
Photo by Ambre Alexander