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Northwestern receives $10 million for new national energy research center

Research will focus on hydrogen and its role in sustainable energy and information science

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University has received $10.35 million over four years from the Department of Energy (DOE) to lead an Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) focused on developing hydrogen-based energy technologies, an increasingly important need in the face of climate change.

The Hydrogen in Energy and Information Sciences (HEISs) EFRC is one of 43 EFRC awards announced today (Aug. 25) that bring together teams of scientists to perform basic research in the energy sciences with a scope and complexity beyond what is possible for individuals or small groups. The Northwestern-led research team will work to provide a scientific foundation for practical developments in carbon-neutral energy (including nitrogen and carbon dioxide reduction) and materials for brain-inspired computing.

Northwestern materials scientist Sossina M. Haile is principal investigator of the new center. Five other Northwestern faculty members, as well as six researchers from an additional five universities, are co-principal investigators.

“It is now almost trite to acknowledge that climate change is an existential crisis — but the urgency of the situation can’t be repeated enough,” said Haile, a fuel cell pioneer whose work centers on sustainability and social good on a global scale. 

“Our center focuses on the science of hydrogen in materials, as a foundational step towards creating a sustainable energy solution,” she said. “Beyond that, we will exploit the unique influence of hydrogen on material properties to create new ways of computing for information sciences. We have put together a spectacular team of both experimentalists and computationalists, and I am absolutely thrilled to lead this effort.”

Haile is the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering. The EFRC grant flows through the University’s Materials Research Center, where Haile contributes as a faculty principal investigator in the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center.

In addition to Haile, the HEISs team includes Northwestern professors Michael Bedzyk, Lin Chen, Vinayak Dravid, James Rondinelli and Chris Wolverton and scientists and engineers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Florida State University, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Colorado School of Mines and University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

“Finding sustainable energy is one of our greatest challenges, and it will require the exploration of many different possibilities,” said Julio M. Ottino, dean of McCormick. “I am delighted that Sossina has brought together this interdisciplinary team to explore the role that hydrogen-based solutions can play as we seek to develop energy solutions that do not further degrade our environment.”

Haile noted that the center’s acronym, HEISs, means “hot” in German, a nod to her two years conducting research in Germany and recognition that hydrogen has become a hot topic again.

Beyond its special place in physical chemistry, hydrogen is of tremendous societal importance in energy technologies and of growing importance in energy-efficient computing. In both arenas, the relevant devices are limited by hydrogen kinetics, whether it be electrochemical reaction at an interface or diffusion through the bulk, and whether the material be an electrolyte, a semiconductor or a metal.

The Hydrogen in Energy and Information Sciences EFRC will establish the governing mechanisms and physical descriptors of the transport and interfacial incorporation mechanisms needed to achieve precision-guided discovery and design across these classes of materials. The research team will focus on use-inspired, ambient-to-intermediate temperatures to advance the center’s goals. This includes controlling electrochemical transformations critical for carbon-neutral energy and for modulating electron transport in computing materials.

Haile also holds appointments in the program in applied physics and the department of chemistry and is a faculty affiliate of the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) and of the Buffett Institute for Global Affairs.

The EFRC program was established in 2009 and is funded by the DOE Office of Science Basic Energy Sciences Program. The current 51 EFRCs represent funding in 35 states plus Washington, D.C. (including lead and partner institutions).