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US government to invest US$366m in Energy Innovation Hubs

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has issued an announcement of funding opportunity for research that will produce fuels directly from sunlight.

Funding of US$366m will establish and operate three new ‘Energy Innovation Hubs’ that will focus on accelerating research and development in three key energy areas.  Each Hub will receive US$122m over five years and will involve a multidisciplinary team of researchers who will speed research and shorten the traditional timelag from scientific discovery to technological development and commercial deployment of promising energy-related technologies.

The three Hubs will focus on production of fuels directly from sunlight; improving energy-efficient building systems design; and computer modelling and simulation for the development of advanced nuclear reactors.

“Given the urgency of our challenges in both energy and climate, we need to do everything we can to mobilize our nation’s scientific and technological talent to accelerate the pace of innovation,” says energy secretary Steven Chu.  “The DOE Energy Innovation Hubs represent a new, more proactive approach to managing and conducting research.”

Universities, national laboratories, non-profit organizations and private firms are eligible to compete for funding to establish and operate a Hub, and are encouraged to form partnerships. Awards will be based on evaluation by scientific peer review and will be announced by summer, with work expected to be fully operational by 2011.

The Hubs are part of a broad-based clean energy research strategy by the Obama Administration which includes the ‘Energy Frontier Research Centers’ launched by DOE to support multi-year, multi-investigator scientific collaborations and the ‘Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’ which uses a funding model to support energy innovators in high-risk, high-reward transformative technologies that are too risky for industry to fund.

This third funding model, Energy Innovation Hubs, will establish “larger, highly integrated teams ideally working under one roof, conducting high-risk, high-reward research and working to solve priority technology challenges that span work from basic research to engineering development to commercialization readiness.”

The ‘Fuels from Sunlight Energy Innovation Hub’ will accelerate development of a sustainable commercial process for the conversion of sunlight directly into energy-rich chemical fuels, using mechanisms based on photosynthesis. It will provide researchers with resources to accelerate basic and applied research in the drive toward a transformative new energy technology, as achievement of an “efficient, cost-effective means to convert solar energy directly to fuel could have significant impact on U.S. energy security and on energy production globally.”

A funding opportunity announcement (FOA) inviting proposals for this Hub has been issued, with a deadline for proposals of 29 March.  FOAs for the other two Hubs are expected to be issued early in 2010.

The ‘Energy Efficient Building Systems Design Energy Innovation Hub’ will develop efficient buildings components, systems and models that will reduce energy for indoor space conditioning. Solutions could have a “major impact” on energy consumption as buildings in the USA consume 70% of all electricity.

The ‘Modelling & Simulation for Nuclear Reactors Energy Innovation Hub’ will produce a computational environment to create improved understanding of issues with nuclear energy technologies.

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