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NSF: Exploring Sustainability For Energy And Buildings

October 20, 2010

Engineering awards aim to advance energy storage and invigorate green building design

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) has announced 14 grants for fiscal year (FY) 2010, awarding nearly $28 million to 62 investigators at 24 institutions.

Over the next four years, teams of researchers will pursue transformative, fundamental research in two areas of great national need: storing energy from renewable sources; and engineering sustainable buildings.

Energy generated from renewable sources has long promised to satisfy demands for more and cleaner electricity. Because renewable sources, such as sunlight and wind, can produce greatly fluctuating amounts of energy, they are most effectual when excess energy can be stored until it’s needed.

EFRI research teams will pursue creative new approaches to making large-scale energy storage efficient and economical. They aim to construct capacitors and regenerative fuel cells with unprecedented capabilities to harness the sun’s thermal energy, to produce chemical fuel on demand, and to trap off-shore wind as compressed air.

“These four projects take radically different approaches to storing excess energy from intermittent sources,” said Geoffrey Prentice, lead EFRI program officer, “and success in any one of them could guide the development of new processes for large-scale energy storage.”

A second set of EFRI research teams will investigate the critical flows and fluxes of buildings–power, heat, light, water, air and occupants–to create new paradigms for the design, construction, and operation of our homes and workplaces.

These researchers aim to improve the ability to predict and control building energy performance and environmental impacts, and to design systems that respond intelligently, in real-time, to changing conditions and to occupant input and needs. The investigations will pursue methods for reducing water consumption; for distributed, integrated approaches to renewable energy production, storage, and use; and for moderating temperature shifts through passive building technologies and systems.

“These awards are significant in the extent to which the research teams are multidisciplinary,” said lead EFRI program officer Richard Fragaszy. Engineers, architects, and physical and social scientists are pooling their expertise to conduct the basic research needed to design and construct future homes and offices that will greatly reduce reliance on fossil fuels and demand for potable water, while improving the health and productivity of their occupants.”

“These researchers are undertaking bold investigations in order to achieve major leaps in knowledge,” said Sohi Rastegar, director of EFRI. “If they are successful, their findings have the potential to significantly impact global warming and promote U.S. energy independence.”

The FY 2010 EFRI topics were developed in close collaboration with the NSF Directorates for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE), Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS), and Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE), as well as with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA). DOE and EPA also contributed financial support to the EFRI SEED projects.

EFRI, established by the NSF Directorate for Engineering in 2007, seeks high-risk interdisciplinary research that has the potential to transform engineering and other fields.  The grants demonstrate the EFRI goal to inspire and enable researchers to expand the limits of our knowledge.

Image Caption: Sossina Haile (left) and graduate student William Chueh (right) of CalTech stand next to thermochemical reactor for water and carbon dioxide dissociation. An oxide of a variable valent metal (e.g., ceria) is placed in the reactor. On heating to a high temperature, the oxide releases oxygen (as a result of thermodynamic driving forces). The oxide is then rapidly cooled and exposed to an atmosphere containing H2O or CO2. The gas re-oxidizes the oxide, releasing H2  or CO, respectively. The rapid response IR imaging furnace makes these experiments possible because rapid cooling is required to prevent reoxidation by residual oxygen. Materials showing good hydrogen or syngas production in this surrogate reactor will ultimately, through collaborations with University of Minnesota and with ETH Zurich, be utilized in a solar furnace in which the thermal energy is derived from solar concentration. Through collaborations with UCLA, structures with optimal pore structures will be fabricated of the most promising materials. Credit: Sossina M. Haile, California Institute of Technology

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