For the last five years, scientists and engineers at Vanderbilt University have been collaborating closely with colleagues at other public and private universities and research centers throughout Tennessee in an effort to increase the state’s energy research capacity.
This collaboration was made possible by a five-year, $20 million National Science Foundation (NSF) cooperative agreement Tennessee won in 2010 for a proposal called TN-SCORE (Tennessee Solar Conversion and Storage using Outreach, Research and Education).
The project, which has focused on improving the state’s research infrastructure and capacity, has resulted in 239 new research publications, an additional $19.7 million in new research funding and the creation of two start-up companies. Not only has it raised the research profile of the state, but it has also created a model platform for the sharing of knowledge, expertise and resources across Tennessee.
The program showcased its accomplishments at its annual conference June 18-19 in Nashville.
TN-SCORE researchers have used their collaborations to create innovative ideas for large-scale energy storage, nano-catalysts for economical chemical production, thermionic energy conversion and efficient white light LEDs.
The program has also assisted research facilities in upgrading their capabilities. According to Sandra Rosenthal, Jack and Pamela Egan Professor of Chemistry at Vanderbilt and director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Nanoscale Science and Engineering (VINSE), “TN-SCORE has strengthened research capacity at Vanderbilt and in Middle Tennessee through addition of specialized equipment in VINSE, strategic new faculty hires and support of collaborative research in the synthesis, analysis and application of nanomaterials.”
In addition, more than 93,000 K-12 students have been engaged in hands-on learning activities through TN-SCORE outreach programs.
TN-SCORE is part of NSF’s EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) program. EPSCoR’s mission is “to strengthen research and education in science and engineering throughout the United States and to avoid undue concentration of such research and education.” Tennessee was declared eligible for the program in 2002.
Since TN-SCORE began, NSF funding to Tennessee has increased to $52.4 million in 2014 from $35.1 million in 2009. That is well above the 2014 EPSCoR program’s eligibility threshold of $42 million. As a result, Tennessee has “graduated” from the federal program.
Through the collaboration, researchers, who previously had not worked together, were able to combine their knowledge and more effectively leverage high-tech resources and equipment at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, UT Knoxville and Vanderbilt University.
“These are state-of-the-art research facilities that typically smaller schools don’t have. And we provide access. …Students and faculty can come in and use this equipment and get the expertise and guidance that they wouldn’t have at their home institutions,” said Barry Bruce, UT Knoxville professor in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology and a leader in bio-based photoconversion research.
The research collaborations TN-SCORE supported have contributed to the development and maturation of technologies with potential for commercial application:
- Nashville start-up company IOP Technologies, a spin-off from research at Vanderbilt University which is developing an innovative method for directly converting heat into electricity, participated in LaunchTN entrepreneurship support programs and won a $150,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant from NSF to support its product development.
- Knoxville company Peroxygen Systems is based on electrochemical catalyst research developed by a team in the lab of Tom Zawodzinski, UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair for Electrical Energy Conversion.
“TN-SCORE is working because of its people. It’s because the people in the teams want to make things happen in Tennessee. And so, a great example was one of my students who made a very fundamental discovery, chased it down and turned it into a device that’s going to become a company. That’s how this should work,” Zawodzinski said.
TN-SCORE has helped encourage more underrepresented students to participate in STEM education and research. The Tennessee Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, or TLSAMP, an NSF-sponsored program at 10 Tennessee colleges and universities led by Tennessee State University and including Vanderbilt, received support from TN-SCORE for programs and conferences to reach more than 300 undergraduate students, a number of whom have been recruited into research internships and graduate school.
Other results of the TN-SCORE program that help comprise this new connected network of resources include: new NSF CAREER awards for faculty pursuing energy research at Vanderbilt and the University of Memphis, new instrumentation and facilities for synthesis and testing of novel materials across the state and new computational biology and bioinformatics programs at Tennessee State University. The increased research capacity that this network provides will continue to deliver innovation and education benefits for Tennessee into the future.