The Department of Energy's Office of Science has put forward an FY 2009 initiative offering a new funding opportunity for researchers that also responds to sentiment in Congress favoring more support for research addressing the nation's energy needs.
DOE announced its intention to establish "Energy Frontier Research Centers" in its FY 2009 budget submission sent to Congress in February. In mid-March, Under Secretary for Science Raymond Orbach described this initiative to the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee:
"We are introducing the concept of Energy Frontier Research Centers to accelerate scientific breakthroughs and innovations essential to the development of advanced energy technologies in the 21st century. . . . We seek to engage the Nation’s finest intellectual and creative talent to tackle the scientific grand challenges associated with how nature works, to direct and control matter at the quantum, atomic, and molecular levels, and to harness this new knowledge and capability for some of our most critical energy challenges."
The proposal received favorable comment at this hearing, with Chairman Peter Visclosky (D-IN) stating that he "really appreciates this initiative." In early April, at a Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Ranking Member Pete Domenici (R-NM) expressed interest in the proposal, although he did not directly comment on it.
Earlier this month, the Office of Science issued a Funding Opportunity Announcement for the Energy Frontier Research Centers. As described in an accompanying brochure, "Energy Frontier Research Centers, Tackling our Energy Challenges in a New Era of Science," the Office of Science envisions providing $2 to $5 million annual awards for an initial five-year period to universities, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses acting singly or in partnerships. There will not be a matching requirement. It is anticipated that the Office of Science will fund 20-30 of these centers. Additional centers could be established in future years.
While this Initiative is well-timed to respond to current thinking on Capitol Hill, it follows years of discussion within the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC) and subsequent workshops drawing on the expertise of more than 1,500 participants. A report issued by a BESAC subcommittee last December describes five Grand Challenges that will, the recently published brochure states, provide "a path forward to the transition from observation to control of matter." The subcommittee's report describes these challenges, such as "How do we control material processes at the level of electrons?" and "How do remarkable properties of matter emerge from complex correlations of atomic or electronic constituents and how can we control these properties?" Examples of research focus areas include the "direct conversion of solar energy to electricity and chemical fuels;" "understanding how biological feedstocks are converted into portable fuels;" new radiation-tolerant materials; geological carbon sequestration; and energy storage, utilization and transmission.
Information on this Funding Opportunity Announcement is available here. As is true for all Office of Science programs, funding for this Initiative is contingent on the FY 2009 appropriations' outcome.