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Innovation Hubs Off the Starting Block

With first-year funding approved, Energy Secretary Chu’s flagship program is getting underway.
December 23, 2009

A key part of Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s plan to revamp the U.S. Department of Energy and push forward new clean energy technologies is the “Energy Innovation Hub,” a research center modeled on the legendary Bell Labs, which generated many key advances for computers and the Internet. But his plans ran into trouble earlier this year, as Congress proved reluctant to fund the eight hubs he had in mind. At one point it looked as if none would be funded, but in the end, three were, at $22 million each. On Tuesday the DOE announced details about the three hubs.

The first three hubs will focus on these problems: making fuels from sunlight, designing energy efficient buildings, and using computer modeling and simulation to develop better materials for nuclear reactors. More details are available for the sunlight to fuels program than the others–the department has issued a formal funding opportunity announcement to get proposals. The nuclear hub seems to be the next in line–DOE already had a workshop on the subject in early December. Details about all three can be found here.

In their announcement this week, the department put the hubs in context. One of the main congressional objections was that the hubs seemed to duplicate other new programs at DOE. A new set of Energy Frontier Research Centers and a new agency called the Advanced Research Projects Agency -Energy (ARPA-E) both fund research that could transform energy technologies. The frontier research centers are meant to tackle specific, basic science questions–the kind of basic research that most economists say the government should be funding, because industry won’t. ARPA-E is also for funding risky research, but the focus here isn’t on basic science. Rather it’s on research that could lead to very big changes in energy, but that involves technology so different from existing technology that industry isn’t likely to fund it, even if it doesn’t require fundamental science breakthroughs. Early projects being funded here include a liquid battery that’s quite different from today’s batteries, which use either solid electrodes or electrolytes.

The key idea behind the innovation hubs is to bring together a larger group of researchers, “ideally under one roof,” according to the announcement. The idea is that if you get enough brilliant people together from different disciplines, they’re going to generate a lot of ideas really quickly, and just as quickly weed through them to keep from working on dead ends. The idea is to eliminate the problem, sometimes seen today in battery research for example, where isolated researchers work diligently to solve problems that other researchers have already solved, or perhaps more importantly, that other researchers have shown face insurmountable obstacles and so should be abandoned in favor of other approaches. As Chu has put it when describing Bell Labs, if you have an idea , chances are you’ll find world experts in the relevant subjects down the hall, who you can run it by. This is key because energy-related problems tend to transcend scientific and engineering disciplines, requiring, for example, the collaboration often of physicists, materials scientists, mechanical engineers and microbiologists.

Of course a lot will depend on attracting the right people, which can be difficult these days with venture capitalists waiting to lure the best researchers to lucrative jobs in the private sector. That challenge will be made more difficult by the fact that each of the hubs was funded at $22 million for the first year, not the $35 million requested.

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