Вадим Дудченко
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The Department of Energy (DOE) will soon wipe away a legacy of Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist who served as secretary of energy from 2009 to 2013 under former President Barack Obama. According to the department’s budget request for next year, DOE intends to wind down most of its Energy Innovation Hubs, multidisciplinary, multi-institutional centers that Chu devised to solve crucial energy-related problems and invigorate the sclerotic department.

Chu compared the hubs to the Manhattan Project, the World War II scramble to make an atomic bomb, and like the bomb project, they were meant to be ad hoc, temporary efforts. Some DOE bureaucrats disliked the way the hubs crossed organizational boundaries, but observers say they succeeded in making DOE’s research more responsive and relevant. “The vision for the hub was, and still is, a great one,” says Eric Isaacs, president of the Carnegie Institution for Science and former director of DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory. In fact, DOE appears to have embraced the once-controversial model and has started several new projects that hew to it. “They look like a hub, and they walk like a hub, but they don’t have this unfortunate malodorous name,” says Alex King, a materials scientist retired from DOE’s Ames Laboratory.

Chu, a former president of AAAS, which publishes Science, borrowed the basic parameters for the hubs from three bioenergy research centers started by DOE under former President George W. Bush. Each hub would receive $25 million a year for 5 years, with the possibility of a renewal. Instead of focusing on a research topic, each would strive to develop a practical solution for a single big problem, Chu said, uniting “under one roof” everybody from scientists doing basic research to engineers developing a prototype. By 2013, DOE had initiated five hubs focused on challenges ranging from converting sunlight to fuel to modeling nuclear reactors to improve their performance.

The whole point of the hubs was to breach a long-standing boundary within DOE, says Cherry Murray, a physicist at the University of Arizona and director of DOE’s Office of Science from 2013 to 2015. DOE’s basic and applied research are disconnected because they’re funded out of different congressional budget lines. The two rub elbows at DOE’s 17 national laboratories, but “the interface isn’t perfect,” Murray says. “So the hubs are just trying to bring that [connection] into a funding mechanism” to drive the innovation of new technologies.

Each hub was managed by either the Office of Science or an applied office, and each was encouraged to have industrial collaborators who could make sure what scientists were doing was relevant, says Bill Madia, vice president emeritus at Stanford University. “That was a little bit outrageous,” he says. “You will never see the Office of Science put out a solicitation [for an ordinary grant] saying, ‘You better bring in GE for a cost-sharing arrangement.’”

One hub quickly crashed and burned. The Energy Efficient Buildings Hub in Philadelphia shut down in 2013 when Congress pulled the plug, citing management issues. Another nailed its goals. The Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL), based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, produced high-resolution, physics-based software that industry has used to simulate new and existing reactors.

The Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) at Argonne set out to increase the energy density of batteries by a factor of five, compared with the lithiumion battery that powered the 2012 Nissan Leaf, at one-fifth the cost. “Spoiler alert, we got three times the energy density at a fifth the cost” in four novel batteries, says George Crabtree, a materials scientist at Argonne and director of JCESR. The hub also spun out multiple startups, he says, including one that is building an iron-based grid storage battery for an electric utility in Minnesota.

The most ambitious of the hubs illustrated the key challenge: to keep a hub from losing sight of its goal and morphing into just another research center. The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), based at both the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, aimed to make a self-contained photocell that would harness sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into fuels with an efficiency of 10%, 10 times that of natural photosynthesis.

JCAP researchers surpassed that goal with a prototype that converts water to hydrogen gas, ultimately reaching an efficiency of 19.3%, says Harry Atwater, an applied physicist at Caltech and JCAP director. But the cell wasn’t durable enough to be practical, Atwater says, and JCAP turned to the harder problem of transforming carbon dioxide into specific hydrocarbons such as ethylene, which it has not yet solved. “JCAP was too aspirational and too science-y,” Murray says.

External pressures can also alter a hub’s character. The Critical Materials Institute (CMI) at Ames Laboratory aimed to find replacements for certain materials, mostly rare earth elements, or new sources of them. “Right out of the gate, we had a really good run of successes in developing technologies and transferring them to industry,” says King, who directed CMI from 2013 to 2018. For example, he says, CMI developed a red phosphor for fluorescent lighting that does not require rare europium.

In 2015, however, Republicans took control of the Senate, and discouraged DOE from doing research they thought industry should do for itself. Industrial partners also became reluctant to work openly with CMI, King says, explaining they feared a public relations problem. “If you’re working with [CMI], it must mean you have a supply chain problem,” he says, “and that’s going to affect your stock.” As a result, CMI began to lose its focus and to resemble a more typical research center, King says.

Now, DOE is winding down Chu’s hubs. CASL closed down last year, and JCAP and CMI are wrapping up. JCESR with receive its last funding next year, according to the DOE budget request. (Crabtree says his understanding is that JCESR will be funded into 2023.)

Yet DOE is hardly abandoning the hub concept. Last year, the department kicked off the National Alliance for Water Innovation, which aims to develop “technology that enables 90% of [waste] waters to be reused,” says Meagan Mauter, a chemical and environmental engineer at Stanford and the alliance’s research director. DOE has also started the hublike Liquid Sunlight Alliance at Caltech and the Center for Hybrid Approaches in Solar Energy to Liquid Fuels at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, to follow on JCAP’s work.

DOE has even extended the hubs concept beyond energy research. Last year, the department initiated five quantum information science centers, each funded for $25 million a year for 5 years and aimed at developing a particular quantum technology, such as a quantum internet. “We took [the hubs concept] and turbocharged it” by encouraging even closer ties with industry, says Paul Dabbar, who helped launch the quantum centers when he was DOE’s undersecretary for science from 2017 to 2021 under former President Donald Trump.

Whether the Biden administration will be as enthusiastic for hubs remains to be seen, as the Senate has yet to confirm the White House’s nominees for director of the Office of Science and undersecretary of energy. But, for now, even as the hubs’ name dies, the concept has found new life.

 



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