PNNL to keep DOE research center for 4 more years

By The Tri-City HeraldJune 19, 2014 

Morris Bullock

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will continue to be home to an Energy Frontier Research Center for the Department of Energy for another four years.

DOE announced Wednesday that the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis at the national lab in Richland had been renewed as a frontier research center and will receive $3.5 million a year.

DOE received 200 proposals for 32 projects picked for $100 million in funding to accelerate the scientific breakthroughs needed to build the 21st century energy economy. It was the second round of funding for the center and fewer than half the proposals approved five years ago were renewed.

The Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis is poised to take on new scientific challenges exploring chemical reactions at the core of technologies such as those for solar energy and fuel cells, according to an announcement by PNNL.

The PNNL center studies molecules called catalysts that convert electrical energy into chemical bonds and back again. Reactions that involve hydrogen, oxygen or nitrogen are at the core of many technologies.

Morris Bullock, a PNNL chemist who directs the center, and his team have made "remarkable advances understanding the complex chemical reactions at the heart of converting between electricity and chemical bonds," said Doug Ray, associate laboratory director of fundamental and computational sciences.

Since 2009, PNNL researchers have improved their understanding of details of catalytic reactions. Researchers have designed exceptionally fast catalysts that produce molecular hydrogen and others that split it. They also have designed inexpensive metal-based catalysts that split molecular oxygen to make water and found new ways to split molecular nitrogen.

In the next four years, the center's team will build on that research.

They will work to make the hydrogen reactions faster and more efficient and to discover more selective catalysts to split molecular oxygen. They also will work to improve aspects of molecular nitrogen catalysts.

"Their work will surely contribute to inexpensive catalysts that will enable more effective energy storage in the future," Ray said.

The Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis includes not only researchers at PNNL, but researchers from the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin and Yale University.

PNNL also is a partner on two other Energy Frontier Research Centers that were announced Wednesday.

Johannes Lercher, director of PNNL's Institute for Integrated Catalysis, and other PNNL researchers will contribute to the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation led by the University of Delaware and the Inorganometallic Catalyst Design Center led by the University of Minnesota.

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