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Berkeley Lab, UC Berkeley Dedicate New Energy Nanosciences Institute

The Kavli Foundation has endowed a new institute at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) to explore the basic science of how to capture and channel energy on the molecular or nanoscale and use this information to discover new ways of generating energy for human use.

Kavli ENSI director Paul Alivisatos (left) in his laboratory. (Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt, LBNL.)

The Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute (Kavli ENSI) announced today (Thursday, Oct. 3) will be supported by a $20 million endowment, with The Kavli Foundation providing $10 million and UC Berkeley raising equivalent matching funds. The Kavli Foundation also will provide additional start-up funds for the institute. The new institute will explore fundamental issues in energy science, using cutting-edge tools and techniques developed to study and manipulate nanomaterials – stuff with dimensions 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair – to understand how solar, heat and vibrational energy are captured and converted into useful work by plants and animals or novel materials.

It has already received matching fund gifts from the Heising-Simons Foundation, establishing a Heising-Simons Energy Nanoscience Fellows program, and a donation from the Philomathia Foundation, establishing the Philomathia Discovery Fund.

“The field of nanoscience is poised to change the very foundations of how we should think about future energy conversion systems,” said Kavli ENSI Director Paul Alivisatos, who is also director of Berkeley Lab and the Samsung Distinguished Chair in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology in UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry. “UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab stand out worldwide for their strong efforts in nanoscience and their research activities related to energy, so energy nanoscience is a particular strength for us.”

“I am delighted to welcome the Kavli ENSI into the community of Kavli institutes,” said Fred Kavli, Founder and Chairman of The Kavli Foundation. “By exploring the basic science of energy conversion in biological systems, as well as building entirely new hybrid and perhaps even completely artificial systems, the Kavli ENSI is positioned to revolutionize our thinking about the science of energy, and is positioned to do the kind of basic research that will ultimately make this a better world for all of us.”

“This new partnership with the Kavli Foundation and Berkeley Lab is significant and exciting,” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. “The Kavli Institute will expand our portfolio of research endeavors focused on alternative sources of energy, one of the planet’s most pressing and complicated challenges. Progress in the realm of energy nanosciences will be contingent on successful collaboration across conventional scientific boundaries – the very approach that has made Berkeley a global leader in alternative energy research.”

“There is simply no better time, given the issues surrounding energy worldwide, to announce an institute dedicated to the basic science of energy. This new Kavli Institute will have superb leadership and a large number of extraordinary faculty affiliated with it,” said Robert W. Conn, President of The Kavli Foundation. “I’d like as well to thank both the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Philomathia Foundation for their confidence in Berkeley and in this new Kavli Institute. Their matching gifts will help the Kavli ENSI at Berkeley get off to a very strong start.” He added, “There is also no more important time than now to invest in basic scientific research. History has shown that discoveries in basic science have a profound impact on the economy of nations, on the health of people, and on the well-being of societies.”

Nexus of nanoscience and biology

The Kavli ENSI will be the fifth nanoscience institute worldwide established by The Kavli Foundation, joining Kavli Institutes at the California Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and Harvard University. The foundation funds an international program that includes research institutes, professorships, symposia and other initiatives in four fields – astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics. It is also a founder of the Kavli Prizes, which recognize scientists for their seminal advances in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience.

With the announcement of the Kavli ENSI, The Kavli Foundation has established 17 institutes worldwide – 11 in the United States, three in Europe and three in Asia.

Scientists at the Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute will look beyond today’s energy conversion approaches to explore unusual avenues found in biological systems and to build entirely new hybrid or completely artificial systems. For example, Kavli ENSI scientists plan to explore how plant pigments capture energy from the sun and transport it for chemical storage, and how the body’s molecular motors convert chemical energy into motion inside a cell. Meanwhile, other scientists and engineers plan to build nanodevices that mimic and improve on nature’s tricks, using materials ranging from graphene and metal oxide frameworks to nanowires and nanolasers.

UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab boast a long history of nanoscience innovation, starting with Alivisatos’ work in the science of nanocrystals that includes studies of their physical properties and synthesis and applications in biological imaging and renewable energy. Together, the campus and Berkeley Lab have nearly 100 research labs devoted to aspects of nanoscience and nanoengineering.

“The new Kavli ENSI institute is intended to allow us to explore the principles of energy systems on small scales and is not focused on any particular area of application,” Alivisatos emphasized. “Fred Kavli’s vision is to support curiosity-driven science. This institute will help to foster a long-term perspective.”

“Of course, we have all learned that innovative solutions to pressing problems can often start in the basic sciences,” said institute co-director Omar Yaghi, the James and Neeltje Tretter Chair and professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley and a Berkeley Lab researcher. Yaghi’s work on the nanoscale properties of metal organic frameworks – porous crystals of metal ions and organic links – proved to have wide application in natural gas and hydrogen storage and carbon capture.

Energy at the nanometer scale

Alivisatos said that much of today’s energy research focuses on improving well-known technologies, such as batteries, liquid fuels, solar cells and wind generators. On the nanoscale, however, energy is captured, channeled and stored in totally different ways dictated by the quantum mechanical nature of small-scale interactions.

“We don’t fully understand some foundational issues about how energy is converted to work on really short length scales,” he said.

Research by UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab chemist Graham Fleming has shown, for example, that when leaf pigments capture light in the form of photons, electrons are excited and interact in a coherent way not seen at larger scales. This quantum coherence could potentially be incorporated into nanoscale artificial systems to produce energy on a commercial scale.

While studying nanoscale motors inside cells, UC Berkeley physicist Carlos Bustamante and Berkeley Lab theorist Gavin Crooks discovered that energy flow does not always follow the standard rules of macroscopic systems. Nanomotors can sometimes move backward, for example, akin to a ball rolling uphill. Such quantum weirdness might be replicated to create more efficient nanomachines or self-regulating nanoscale energy circuits.

Other Kavli ENSI scientists plan to investigate how heat flows in nanomaterials and whether the vibrational energy, or phonons, can be channeled to make thermal rectifiers, diodes or transistors analogous to electronic switches in use today; develop novel materials, ranging from polymers to cage structures and nanowires, with unusual nanoscale properties; or design materials that could sort, count and channel molecules along prescribed paths and over diverse energy landscapes to carry out complex chemical conversions.

“I think that by bringing together people who make new forms of matter, others who know how to manipulate matter on a fine scale, and those who try to understand how electrons or light propagate through these materials, we will get the kind of out-of-the-box thinking from which whole new areas of research emerge,” Yaghi said.

The new institute’s co-director, Peidong Yang, who is the S.K. and Angela Chan Distinguished Professor of Energy in the College of Chemistry, said that Kavli ENSI’s multidisciplinary, intellectually stimulating environment will be ideal for learning “how to program the assembly of nanoscopic building blocks to create the necessary interfaces so that energy flow, molecular and charge-charge transport can be controlled in a cooperative manner.”

While the institute will not have separate lab space, its administrative offices will be housed in two new buildings expected to be completed next year: Campbell Hall on the UC Berkeley campus and the Solar Energy Research Center at Berkeley Lab.

The Philomathia Discovery Fund operating within the Kavli ENSI will support research projects that have exceptional promise to deliver fundamental conceptual and technical breakthroughs. This Discovery Fund is made possible by a matching gift from the Philomathia Foundation, which was founded to promote human values and science through education and research.

The Heising-Simons Energy Nanoscience Fellows Program will establish a named fellowship to provide support for outstanding graduate students, postdocs or early-career faculty who are performing research affiliated with the Kavli Institute. This fellowship is being made possible by a matching gift from the Heising-Simons Foundation, which supports efforts in education, environment, science and public policy.

The Kavli Foundation, dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity, promoting public understanding of scientific research and supporting scientists and their work, was founded in 2000 by physicist Fred Kavli, the founder, former chairman and former chief executive officer of Kavlico Corp. in Moorpark, Calif., a supplier of sensors for aeronautics, automotive and industrial applications.



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