Researchers find new way to convert carbon dioxide into a usable fuel source.
The concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is steadily increasing, and many scientists believe that it is causing impacts in our environment. Recently, scientists have sought ways to recapture some of the carbon in the atmosphere and potentially turn it into usable fuel — which would be a holy grail for sustainable energy production.
In a recent study from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, scientists have used sunlight and a catalyst largely made of copper to transform carbon dioxide to methanol. A liquid fuel, methanol offers the potential for industry to find an additional source to meet America’s energy needs.
“Carbon dioxide is such a stable molecule and it results from the burning of basically everything, so the question is how do we fight nature and go from a really stable end product to something useful and energy rich.” — Argonne Distinguished Fellow Tijana Rajh
The study describes a photocatalyst made of cuprous oxide (Cu2O), a semiconductor that when exposed to light can produce electrons that become available to react with, or reduce, many compounds. After being excited, electrons leave a positive hole in the catalyst’s lower-energy valence band that, in turn, can oxidize water.
“This photocatalyst is particularly exciting because it has one of the most negative conduction bands that we’ve used, which means that the electrons have more potential energy available to do reactions,” said Argonne Distinguished Fellow Tijana Rajh, an author of the study.
Previous attempts to use photocatalysts, such as titanium dioxide, to reduce carbon dioxide tended to produce a whole mish-mash of various products, ranging from aldehydes to methane. The lack of selectivity of these reactions made it difficult to segregate a usable fuel stream, Rajh explained.
“Carbon dioxide is such a stable molecule and it results from the burning of basically everything, so the question is how do we fight nature and go from a really stable end product to something useful and energy rich,” Rajh said.
The idea for transforming carbon dioxide into useful energy comes from the one place in nature where this happens regularly. “We had this idea of copying photosynthesis, which uses carbon dioxide to make food, so why couldn’t we use it to make fuel?” Rajh said. “It turns out to be a complex problem, because to make methanol, you need not just one electron but six.”
By switching from titanium dioxide to cuprous oxide, scientists developed a catalyst that not only had a more negative conduction band but that would also be dramatically more selective in terms of its products. This selectivity results not only from the chemistry of cuprous oxide but from the geometry of the catalyst itself.
“With nanoscience, we start having the ability to meddle with the surfaces to induce certain hotspots or change the surface structure, cause strain or certain surface sites to expose differently than they are in the bulk,” Rajh said.
Because of this “meddling,” Rajh and Argonne postdoctoral researcher Yimin Wu, now an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo, managed to create a catalyst with a bit of a split personality. The cuprous oxide microparticles they developed have different facets, much like a diamond has different facets. Many of the facets of the microparticle are inert, but one is very active in driving the reduction of carbon dioxide to methanol.
According to Rajh, the reason that this facet is so active lies in two unique aspects. First, the carbon dioxide molecule bonds to it in such a way that the structure of the molecule actually bends slightly, diminishing the amount of energy it takes to reduce. Second, water molecules are also absorbed very near to where the carbon dioxide molecules are absorbed.
“In order to make fuel, you not only need to have carbon dioxide to be reduced, you need to have water to be oxidized,” Rajh said. “Also, adsorption conformation in photocatalysis is extremely important — if you have one molecule of carbon dioxide absorbed in one way, it might be completely useless. But if it is in a bent structure, it lowers the energy to be reduced.”
Argonne scientists also used scanning fluorescence X-ray microscopy at Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) and transmission electron microscopy at the Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM) to reveal the nature of the faceted cuprous oxide microparticles. The APS and CNM are both DOE Office of Science User Facilities.
A paper based on the study, “Facet-dependent active sites of a single Cu2O particle photocatalyst for CO2 reduction to methanol,” appeared in the November 4 online edition of Nature Energy. Other contributors to the study include Argonne’s Ian McNulty, Cong Liu, Kah Chun Lau, Paul Paulikas, Cheng-Jun Sun, Zhonghou Chai, Jeff Guest, Yang Ren, Vojislav Stamenkovic, Larry Curtiss and Yuzi Liu. Qi Liu of the City University of Hong Kong also contributed.
The work was funded by an Argonne Laboratory-Directed Research and Development grant and by the DOE’s Office of Science.
About Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials
The Center for Nanoscale Materials is one of the five DOE Nanoscale Science Research Centers, premier national user facilities for interdisciplinary research at the nanoscale supported by the DOE Office of Science. Together the NSRCs comprise a suite of complementary facilities that provide researchers with state-of-the-art capabilities to fabricate, process, characterize and model nanoscale materials, and constitute the largest infrastructure investment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The NSRCs are located at DOE’s Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley, Oak Ridge, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories. For more information about the DOE NSRCs, please visit https://science.osti.gov/User-Facilities/User-Facilities-at-a-Glance.
About the Advanced Photon Source
This research used resources of the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. DOE Office of Science User Facility operated for the DOE Office of Science by Argonne National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC02–06CH11357.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.
In the International Energy Outlook 2019 (IEO2019) Reference case, released at 9:00 a.m. today, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that world energy consumption will grow by nearly 50% between 2018 and 2050. Most of this growth comes from countries that are not in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and this growth is focused in regions where strong economic growth is driving demand, particularly in Asia.
EIA’s IEO2019 assesses long-term world energy markets for 16 regions of the world, divided according to OECD and non-OECD membership. Projections for the United States in IEO2019 are consistent with those released in the Annual Energy Outlook 2019.
The industrial sector, which includes refining, mining, manufacturing, agriculture, and construction, accounts for the largest share of energy consumption of any end-use sector—more than half of end-use energy consumption throughout the projection period. World industrial sector energy use increases by more than 30% between 2018 and 2050 as consumption of goods increases. By 2050, global industrial energy consumption reaches about 315 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu).
Transportation energy consumption increases by nearly 40% between 2018 and 2050. This increase is largely driven by non-OECD countries, where transportation energy consumption increases nearly 80% between 2018 and 2050. Energy consumption for both personal travel and freight movement grows in these countries much more rapidly than in many OECD countries.
Energy consumed in the buildings sector, which includes residential and commercial structures, increases by 65% between 2018 and 2050, from 91 quadrillion to 139 quadrillion Btu. Rising income, urbanization, and increased access to electricity lead to rising demand for energy.
The growth in end-use consumption results in electricity generation increasing 79% between 2018 and 2050. Electricity use grows in the residential sector as rising population and standards of living in non-OECD countries increase the demand for appliances and personal equipment. Electricity use also increases in the transportation sector as plug-in electric vehicles enter the fleet and electricity use for rail expands.
With the rapid growth of electricity generation, renewables—including solar, wind, and hydroelectric power—are the fastest-growing energy source between 2018 and 2050, surpassing petroleum and other liquids to become the most used energy source in the Reference case. Worldwide renewable energy consumption increases by 3.1% per year between 2018 and 2050, compared with 0.6% annual growth in petroleum and other liquids, 0.4% growth in coal, and 1.1% annual growth in natural gas consumption.
Global natural gas consumption increases more than 40% between 2018 and 2050, and total consumption reaches nearly 200 quadrillion Btu by 2050. In addition to the natural gas used in electricity generation, natural gas consumption increases in the industrial sector. Chemical and primary metals manufacturing, as well as oil and natural gas extraction, account for most of the growing industrial demand.
Global liquid fuels consumption increases more than 20% between 2018 and 2050, and total consumption reaches more than 240 quadrillion Btu in 2050. Demand in OECD countries remains relatively stable during the projection period, but non-OECD demand increases by about 45%.
Principal contributor: Ari Kahan
A chemical reaction pathway central to plant biology have been adapted to form the backbone of a new process that converts water into hydrogen fuel using energy from the sun.
In a recent study from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, scientists have combined two membrane-bound protein complexes to perform a complete conversion of water molecules to hydrogen and oxygen.
The work builds on an earlier study that examined one of these protein complexes, called Photosystem I, a membrane protein that can use energy from light to feed electrons to an inorganic catalyst that makes hydrogen. This part of the reaction, however, represents only half of the overall process needed for hydrogen generation.
By using a second protein complex that uses energy from light to split water and take electrons from it, called Photosystem II, Argonne chemist Lisa Utschig and her colleagues were able to take electrons from water and feed them to Photosystem I.
“The beauty of this design is in its simplicity—you can self-assemble the catalyst with the natural membrane to do the chemistry you want”—Lisa Utschig, Argonne chemist
In an earlier experiment, the researchers provided Photosystem I with electrons from a sacrificial electron donor. “The trick was how to get two electrons to the catalyst in fast succession,” Utschig said.
The two protein complexes are embedded in thylakoid membranes, like those found inside the oxygen-creating chloroplasts in higher plants. “The membrane, which we have taken directly from nature, is essential for pairing the two photosystems,” Utschig said. “It structurally supports both of them simultaneously and provides a direct pathway for inter-protein electron transfer, but doesn’t impede catalyst binding to Photosystem I.”
According to Utschig, the Z-scheme—which is the technical name for the light-triggered electron transport chain of natural photosynthesis that occurs in the thylakoid membrane—and the synthetic catalyst come together quite elegantly. “The beauty of this design is in its simplicity—you can self-assemble the catalyst with the natural membrane to do the chemistry you want,” she said.
One additional improvement involved the substitution of cobalt or nickel-containing catalysts for the expensive platinum catalyst that had been used in the earlier study. The new cobalt or nickel catalysts could dramatically reduce potential costs.
The next step for the research, according to Utschig, involves incorporating the membrane-bound Z-scheme into a living system. “Once we have an in vivo system—one in which the process is happening in a living organism—we will really be able to see the rubber hitting the road in terms of hydrogen production,” she said.
More information: Lisa M. Utschig et al, Z-scheme solar water splitting via self-assembly of photosystem I-catalyst hybrids in thylakoid membranes, Chemical Science (2018). DOI: 10.1039/c8sc02841a
Imagine if you could look at a small amount of an unidentified chemical element – less than 100 atoms in size – and know what type of material the element would become in large quantities before you actually saw the larger accumulation.
That thought has long animated the work of Julius Jellinek, senior scientist emeritus in the Chemical Sciences and Engineering division at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. His recent discovery with longtime collaborator Koblar Jackson, a professor in the Department of Physics at Central Michigan University, has the potential to dramatically impact the discipline of nanoscale science.
According to Jellinek, the classification of elements and materials in bulk quantities into different types – metals, semiconductors and insulators – is well established and understood. But the identification of types of materials on the nanoscale is not so straightforward. In fact, even though the term “nanomaterials” is broadly used, nanoscale materials science has yet to be fully developed.
“Elements and compounds in very small quantities, or nano-quantities, behave very differently from their bulk counterparts,” Jellinek explained. For example, small atomic clusters of elements that are metals in bulk quantities only take on metallic characteristics as they grow in size.
This phenomenon is known as size-induced transition to metallicity, and it prompted Jellinek and Jackson to ask: Is it possible to predict what type of material an unidentified element will be in bulk quantities solely based on the properties it exhibits over a limited range of the sub-nano to nano size régime?
The answer turned out to be an emphatic, and somewhat surprising, “yes.”
In their paper, “Universality in size-driven evolution towards bulk polarizability of metals” published as a Communication in the October 7, 2018, issue of Nanoscale, Jellinek and Jackson showed that by using their previously developed atomic-level analysis of polarizability, they could predict whether an unidentified element would be a metal or non-metal in bulk quantities by looking at the polarizability properties of its small clusters. (Polarizability describes how systems and materials respond to an external electric field.)
Another striking discovery reported in the paper is that clusters of all metallic elements evolve to the bulk metallic state in a universal manner, as gauged by a polarizability-based characteristic Jellinek and Jackson call the “degree of metallicity.” Said Jellinek: “We introduced a new universal constant and new universal scaling equations into the physics of metals.”
The new scaling equations make it easy and straightforward for scientists to determine the polarizability of any size cluster of any metallic element based on the element’s corresponding bulk polarizability. In the past, this would have required lengthy – and costly – calculations for each individual case. “What would have taken days, weeks or even months to cover a range of sizes now takes a fraction of a second using these universal equations,” Jellinek said.
Perhaps most significantly, the study represents a major step in building-up the foundations of nanoscale materials science; it makes a fundamental contribution to the understanding of size evolution toward the bulk metallic state. (Jellinek said the study includes a provision for possible exceptions – what he calls “exotic metals” – should they be found in the future.)
For Jellinek personally, after more than 31 years at Argonne and having recently assumed an emeritus position, the discovery was particularly satisfying – and surprising, because originally he and Jackson were expecting to find something else.
“At first we were hoping to establish commonality on a smaller scale within different groups of metallic elements, and we were disappointed the results were not fulfilling that expectation,” he said. “But then we saw that the different groups were behaving in a universal way. In science, when something emerges differently than what you expect that often turns out to be new and interesting. However, it is very rare to discover something that is universal.”
Jellinek called the result one of the finest things he has done in his long and distinguished career, adding: “This is why it’s fun to be a scientist. When you get something fundamental and truly new, it’s a reward that nothing else can replace. The next task is to try to uncover possible commonalities, maybe even universality, in size-evolution to the bulk state for elements that are not metals.”
More information: Julius Jellinek et al. Universality in size-driven evolution towards bulk polarizability of metals, Nanoscale (2018). DOI: 10.1039/C8NR06307A
In a thin film of a solar-energy material, molecules in twin domains (modeled in left and right panels) align in opposing orientations within grain boundaries (shown by scanning electron microscopy in the center panel). Strain can change chemical segregation and may be engineered to tune photovoltaic efficiency. Credit: Stephen Jesse/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy (hi-res image)
OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Sept. 25, 2018—A unique combination of imaging tools and atomic-level simulations has allowed a team led by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to solve a longstanding debate about the properties of a promising material that can harvest energy from light.
The researchers used multimodal imaging to “see” nanoscale interactions within a thin film of hybrid organic–inorganic perovskite, a material useful for solar cells.
They determined that the material is ferroelastic, meaning it can form domains of polarized strain to minimize elastic energy. This finding was contrary to previous assumptions that the material is ferroelectric, meaning it can form domains of polarized electric charge to minimize electric energy.
“We found that people were misguided by the mechanical signal in standard electromechanical measurements, resulting in the misinterpretation of ferroelectricity,” said Yongtao Liu of ORNL, whose contribution to the study became a focus of his PhD thesis at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK).
Olga Ovchinnikova, who directed the experiments at ORNL’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences (CNMS), added, “We used multimodal chemical imaging—scanning probe microscopy combined with mass spectrometry and optical spectroscopy—to show that this material is ferroelastic and how the ferroelasticity drives chemical segregation.”
The findings, reported in Nature Materials, revealed that differential strains cause ionized molecules to migrate and segregate within regions of the film, resulting in local chemistry that may affect the transport of electric charge.
The understanding that this unique suite of imaging tools enables allows researchers to better correlate structure and function and fine-tune energy-harvesting films for improved performance.
“We want to predictively make grains of particular sizes and geometries,” Liu said. “The geometry is going to control the strain, and the strain is going to control the local chemistry.”
For their experiment, the researchers made a thin film by spin-casting a perovskite on an indium tin oxide–coated glass substrate. This process created the conductive, transparent surface a photovoltaic device would need—but also generated strain.
To relieve the strain, tiny ferroelastic domains formed. One type of domain was “grains,” which look like what you might see flying over farmland with patches of different crops skewed in relation to one another. Within grains, sub-domains formed, similar to rows of two plant types alternating in a patch of farmland. These adjacent but opposing rows are “twin domains” of segregated chemicals.
The technique that scientists previously used to claim the material was ferroelectric was piezoresponse force microscopy (“piezo” means “pressure), in which the tip of an atomic force microscope (AFM) measures a mechanical displacement due to its coupling with electric polarization—namely, electromechanical displacement. “But you’re not actually measuring the true displacement of the material,” Ovchinnikova warned. “You’re measuring the deflection of this whole ‘diving board’ of the cantilever.” Therefore, the researchers used a new measurement technique to separate cantilever dynamics from displacement of the material due to piezoresponse—the Interferometric Displacement Sensor (IDS) option for the Cypher AFM, developed by co-author Roger Proksch, CEO of Oxford Instruments Asylum Research.
They found the response in this material is from cantilever dynamics alone and is not a true piezoresponse, proving the material is not ferroelectric.
“Our work shows the effect believed due to ferroelectric polarization can be explained by chemical segregation,” Liu said.
The study’s diverse microscopy and spectroscopy measurements provided experimental data to validate atomic-level simulations. The simulations bring predictive insights that could be used to design future materials.
“We’re able to do this because of the unique environment at CNMS where we have characterization, theory and synthesis all under one roof,” Ovchinnikova said.
“We didn’t just utilize mass spectrometry because [it] gives you information about local chemistry. We also used optical spectroscopy and simulations to look at the orientation of the molecules, which is important for understanding these materials. Such a cohesive chemical imaging capability at ORNL leverages our functional imaging.”
Collaborations with industry allow ORNL to have unique tools available for scientists, including those that settled the debate about the true nature of the light-harvesting material. For example, an instrument that uses helium ion microscopy (HIM) to remove and ionize molecules was coupled with a secondary ion mass spectroscopy (SIMS) to identify molecules based on their weights.
The HIM-SIMS instrument ZEISS ORION NanoFab was made available to ORNL from developer ZEISS for beta testing and is one of only two such instruments in the world. Similarly, the IDS instrument from Asylum Research, which is a laser Doppler vibrometer, was also made available to ORNL for beta testing and is the only one in existence.
“Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers are naturally a good fit for working with industry because they possess unique expertise and are able to first use the tools the way they’re meant to,” said Proksch of Asylum. “ORNL has a facility [CNMS] that makes instruments and expertise available to many scientific users who can test tools on different problems and provide strong feedback during beta testing as vendors develop and improve the tools, in this case our new IDS metrological AFM.”
The title of the paper is “Chemical Nature of Ferroelastic Twin Domains in CH3NH3PbI3 Perovskite.”
The research was supported by ORNL’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development Program and conducted at CNMS, a DOE Office of Science User Facility at ORNL.
UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science. The single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit https://science.energy.gov/.
“We need to get a lot better at bridging that gap between discovery and commercialization”
G. Satell – Inc. Magazine
It seems like every day we see or hear about a breakthrough new discovery that will change everything. Some, like perovskites in solar cells and CRISPR are improvements on existing technologies. Others, like quantum computing and graphene promise to open up new horizons encompassing many applications. Still others promise breakthroughs in Exciting Battery Technology Breakthrough News — Is Any Of It Real? or Beyond lithium — the search for a better battery
Nevertheless, we are still waiting for a true market impact. Quantum computing and graphene have been around for decades and still haven’t hit on their “killer app.” Perovskite solar cells and CRISPR are newer, but haven’t really impacted their industries yet. And those are just the most prominent examples.
The problem isn’t necessarily with the discoveries themselves, many of which are truly path-breaking, but that there’s a fundamental difference between discovering an important new phenomenon in the lab and creating value in the marketplace.
“We need to get a lot better at bridging that gap. To do so, we need to create a new innovation ecosystem for commercializing science.”
The Valley Of Death And The Human Problem
The gap between discovery and commercialization is so notorious and fraught with danger that it’s been unaffectionately called the “Valley of Death.” Part of the problem is that you can’t really commercialize a discovery, you can only commercialize a product and those are two very different things.
The truth is that innovation is never a single event, but a process of discovery, engineering and transformation. After something like graphene is discovered in the lab, it needs to be engineered into a useful product and then it has to gain adoption by winning customers in the marketplace. Those three things almost never happen in the same place.
So to bring an important discovery to market, you first need to identify a real world problem it can solve and connect to engineers who can transform it into a viable product or service. Then you need to find customers who are willing to drop whatever else they’ve been doing and adopt it on a large scale. That takes time, usually about 30 years.
The reason it takes so long is that there is a long list of problems to solve. To create a successful business based on a scientific discovery, you need to get scientists to collaborate effectively with engineers and a host of specialists in other areas, such as manufacturing, distribution and marketing. Those aren’t just technology problems, those are human problems. Being able to collaborate effectively is often the most important competitive advantage.
Wrong Industry, Wrong Application
One of the most effective programs for helping to bring discoveries out of the lab is I-Corps. First established by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help recipients of SBIR grants identify business models for scientific discoveries, it has been such an extraordinary success that the US Congress has mandated its expansion across the federal government.
Based on Steve Blank’s lean startup methodology, the program aims to transform scientists into entrepreneurs. It begins with a presentation session, in which each team explains the nature of their discovery and its commercial potential. It’s exciting stuff, pathbreaking science with real potential to truly change the world.
The thing is, they invariably get it wrong. Despite their years of work to discover something of significance and their further efforts to apply and receive commercialization grants from the federal government, they fail to come up with a viable application in an industry that wants what they have to offer.
Ironically, much of the success of the I-Corps program is due to these early sessions. Once they realize that they are on the wrong track, they embark on a crash course of customer discovery, interviewing dozens — and sometimes hundreds — of customers in search of a business model that actually has a chance of succeeding.
What’s startling about the program is that, without it, scientists with important discoveries often wasted years trying to make a business work that never really had a chance in the first place.
The Silicon Valley Myth
Much of the success of Silicon Valley has been based on venture-funded entrepreneurship. Startups with an idea to change the world create an early stage version of the product they want to launch, show it to investors and get funding to bring it to market. Just about every significant tech company was started this way.
Yet most of the success of Silicon Valley has been based on companies that sell either software or consumer gadgets, which are relatively cheap and easy to rapidly prototype. Many scientific startups, however, do not fit into this category. Often, they need millions of dollars to build a prototype and then have to sell to industrial companies with long lead times.
The myth of Silicon Valley is that venture-funded entrepreneurship is a generalizable model that can be applied to every type of business. It is not. In fact, it is a specific model that was conceived in a specific place at a specific time to fund mature technologies for specific markets. It’s not a solution that fits every problem.
The truth is that venture funds are very adept with assessing market risk, but not so good at taking on technology risk, especially in hard sciences. That simply isn’t what they were set up to do.
We Need A New Innovation Ecosystem For Science Entrepreneurship
In 1945, Vannevar Bush delivered a report, Science, The Endless Frontier, to President Truman, in which he made the persuasive argument that expanding the nation’s scientific capacity will expand its economic capacity and well being. His call led, ultimately, to building America’s scientific infrastructure, including programs like the NSF and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
It was Bush’s vision that made America a technological superpower. Grants from federal agencies to scientists enabled them to discover new knowledge. Then established businesses and, later, venture backed entrepreneurs would then take those discoveries to bring new products and services to market.
Look at any industry today and its most important technologies were largely shaped by investment from the federal government. Today, however, the challenges are evolving. We’re entering a new era of innovation in which technologies like genomics, nanotechnology and robotics are going to reshape traditional industries like energy, healthcare and manufacturing.
That’s exciting, but also poses new challenges, because these technologies are ill-suited to the Silicon Valley model of venture-funded entrepreneurship and need help to them get past the Valley of Death. So we need to build a new innovation ecosystem on top of the scientific architecture Bush created for the post-war world.
Still much more needs to be done, especially at the state and local level to help build regional hubs for specific industries, if we are going to be nearly as successful in the 21st century as were were in the 20th.
Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory are conducting fundamental physics research that will lead to more control over mercurial quantum systems and materials. Their studies will enable advancements in quantum computing, sensing, simulation, and materials development.
The researchers’ experimental results were recently published in Physical Review B Rapid Communication and Optics Letters.
Quantum information is considered fragile because it can be lost when the system in which it is encoded interacts with its environment, a process called dissipation. Scientists with ORNL’s Computing and Computational Sciences and Physical Sciences directorates and Vanderbilt University have collaborated to develop methods that will help them control — or drive — the “leaky,” dissipative behavior inherent in quantum systems.
“Our goal is to develop experimental platforms that allow us to probe and control quantum coherent dynamics in materials,” said Benjamin Lawrie, a research scientist in the Quantum Sensing Team in ORNL’s Quantum Information Science Group. “To do that, you often have to be able to understand what’s going on at the nanoscale.”
Bringing perspectives from quantum information science, nanoscience and electron microscopy, the scientists exploit existing knowledge of matter and the physics of light and sound to examine the quantum nature of nanostructures — structures that measure about one-billionth of a meter.
One project focused on driving nitrogen vacancy center defects in nanodiamonds with plasmons. The naturally occurring defects are created when a nitrogen atom forms in place of the typical carbon atom, adjacent to an atomless vacancy. The defects are being investigated for use in tests of entanglement, a state that will allow substantially more information to be encoded in a quantum system than can be accomplished with classical computing.
Electrons generate an electric field. When an electron beam is applied to a material, the material’s electrons are spurred to motion — a state called excitation — creating a magnetic field that can then be detected as light. Working with plasmons, electron excitations that couple easily with light, allows scientists to examine electromagnetic fields at the nanoscale.
Matthew Feldman, a Vanderbilt University graduate student conducting doctoral research at ORNL through the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship program and a member of the Quantum Sensing Team, used a high-energy electron beam to excite nitrogen vacancy centers in diamond nanoparticles, causing them to emit light. He then used a cathodoluminescence microscope owned by ORNL’s Materials Science and Technology Division, which measures the visible-spectrum luminescence in irradiated materials, to collect the emitted photons and characterize high-speed interactions among nitrogen vacancy centers, plasmons and vibrations within the nanodiamond.
In other research, Jordan Hachtel, a postdoctoral fellow with ORNL’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, used the cathodoluminescence microscope to excite plasmons in gold nanospirals. He explored how the geometry of the spirals could be harnessed to focus energy in nanoscale systems. Andy Lupini served the project as a microscopy consultant, providing expertise regarding equipment optimization and troubleshooting.
Precise control over nanoscale energy transfer is required to enable long-lived entanglement in a model explored by Eugene Dumitrescu, a research scientist in ORNL’s Quantum Information Science Group. Dumitrescu’s research, published in Physical Review A in late 2017, showed that the photon statistics Feldman collected could be used in calculations to show entanglement.
“This work advances our knowledge of how to control light-matter interactions, providing experimental proof of a phenomenon that had previously been described by simulations,” Lawrie said.
Closed systems, in which quantum information can be kept away from its surroundings, theoretically can prevent dissipation, but real-world quantum systems are open to numerous influences that result in information leakage.
“The elephant in the room in discussions of quantum systems is decoherence,” Feldman said. “If we can model an environment to influence how a quantum system works, we can enable entanglement.”
Dumitrescu agreed. “We know quantum systems will be leaky. One remedy is to drive them,” he said. “The driving mechanisms we’re exploring cancel out the effects of dissipation.”
Dumitrescu used the analogy of a musical instrument to explain the researchers’ attempts to control quantum systems. “If you pluck a violin string, you get the sound, but it begins to dissipate through the environment, the air,” he said. “But if you slowly draw the bow across the string, you get a more stable, longer-lasting sound. You’ve brought control to the system.”
Feldman thinks these are fascinating times for quantum physicists because the field of quantum computing is at the same phase classical computing was in the mid-20th century. “What excites me most is how current research could change our understanding of quantum systems and materials,” he said.
- Matthew A. Feldman, Eugene F. Dumitrescu, Denzel Bridges, Matthew F. Chisholm, Roderick B. Davidson, Philip G. Evans, Jordan A. Hachtel, Anming Hu, Raphael C. Pooser, Richard F. Haglund, Benjamin J. Lawrie. Colossal photon bunching in quasiparticle-mediated nanodiamond cathodoluminescence. Physical Review B, 2018; 97 (8) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevB.97.081404
America’s National Laboratories have been changing and improving the lives of millions of people for more than 75 years. Born at a time when the world faced a dire threat, the laboratories came together to advance science, safeguard the nation and protect our freedoms for generations to come. This network of Department of Energy Laboratories has grown into 17 facilities, working together as engines of prosperity and invention. As this list of breakthroughs attests, Laboratory discoveries have spawned industries, saved lives, generated new products, fired the imagination and helped to reveal the secrets of the universe. Rooted in the need to serve the public good and support the global community, the National Laboratories have put an American stamp on the last century of science. With equal ingenuity and tenacity, they are now engaged in innovating the future.
At America’s National Laboratories, we’ve …
The National Labs operate some of the most significant high performance computing resources available, including 32 of the 500 fastest supercomputers in the world. These systems, working at quadrillions of operations per second, model and simulate complex, dynamic systems – such as the nuclear deterrent – that would be too expensive, impractical or impossible to physically demonstrate. Supercomputers are changing the way scientists explore the evolution of our universe, climate change, biological systems, weather forecasting and even renewable energy.
In 1990, the National Labs joined with the National Institutes of Health and other laboratories to kick off the Human Genome Project, an international collaboration to identify and map all of the genes of the human genome.
Brought the web to the United States
National Lab scientists, seeking to share particle physics information, were first to install a web server in North America, kick-starting the development of the worldwide web as we know it.
Put eyes in the sky
Vela satellites, first launched in 1963 to detect potential nuclear detonations, transformed the nascent U.S. space program. The satellites featured optical sensors and data processing, logic and power subsystems designed and created by National Labs.
Revolutionized medical diagnostics and treatment
Researchers at the National Labs helped to develop the field of nuclear medicine, producing radioisotopes to diagnose and treat disease, designing imaging technology to detect cancer and developing software to target tumors while sparing healthy tissue.
Powered NASA spacecraft
The National Labs built the enclosure for the radioisotope thermoelectric generators that fuel crafts such as Cassini and have begun producing plutonium-238 for future NASA missions.
Harnessed the power of the atom
National Lab scientists and engineers have led the world in developing safe, efficient and emissions-free nuclear power. Starting with the first nuclear reactor to generate electricity, National Labs have been the innovation engine behind the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Today’s labs are supporting the next generation of nuclear power that will be available for the nation and world.
Brought safe water to millions
Removing arsenic from drinking water is a global priority. A long-lasting particle engineered at a National Lab can now do exactly that, making contaminated water safe to drink. Another technology developed at a National Lab uses ultraviolet light to kill water-borne bacteria that cause dysentery, thus reducing child mortality in the developing world.
Filled the Protein Data Bank
National Lab X-ray facilities have contributed a large portion of more than 100,000 protein structures in the Protein Data Bank. A protein’s structure reveals how it functions, helping scientists understand how living things work and develop treatments for disease. Almost all new medications that hit the market start with these data bank structures.
Invented new materials
National Labs provide the theory, tools and techniques that offer industry revolutionary materials such as strong, lighter-weight metals and alloys that save fuel and maintenance costs and enable cleaner, more efficient engines.
Found life’s mystery messenger
National Lab scientists discovered how genetic instructions are carried to the cell’s protein manufacturing center, where all of life’s processes begin. Subsequent light source research on the genetic courier, called messenger RNA, has revealed how the information is transcribed and how mistakes can cause cancer and birth defects.
Mapped the universe — and the dark side of the moon
Credit for producing 3D maps of the sky — and 400 million celestial objects — goes to National Lab scientists, who also developed a camera that mapped the entire surface of the moon.
Shed light on photosynthesis
Ever wonder how plants turn sunlight into energy? National Lab scientists determined the path of carbon through photosynthesis, and today use X-ray laser technology to reveal how each step in the process is triggered by a single particle of light. This work helps scientists explore new ways to get sustainable energy from the sun.
Solved cultural mysteries
The works of ancient mathematician Archimedes — written over by medieval monks and lost for millennia — were revealed to modern eyes thanks to the X-ray vision and light-source technology at National Labs. These studies also have revealed secrets of masterpiece paintings, ancient Greek vases and other priceless cultural artifacts.
A National Lab built and operated the first large-scale accelerator based on superconducting radio frequency technology. This more efficient technology now powers research machines for exploring the heart of matter, examining the properties of materials and providing unique information about the building blocks of life.
Revealed the secrets of matter
Protons and neutrons were once thought to be indivisible. National Lab scientists discovered that protons and neutrons were made of even smaller parts, called quarks. Over time, experimenters identified six kinds of quarks, three types of neutrinos and the Higgs particle, changing our view of how the material world works.
Confirmed the Big Bang and discovered dark energy
National Lab detectors aboard a NASA satellite revealed the birth of galaxies in the echoes of the Big Bang. Dark energy — the mysterious something that makes up three-quarters of the universe and causes it to expand at an accelerating rate — also was discovered by National Lab cosmologists.
Discovered 22 elements
The periodic table would be smaller without the National Labs. To date the National Labs have discovered: technetium, promethium, astatine, neptunium, plutonium, americium, curium, berkelium, californium, einsteinium, fermium, mendelevium, nobelium, lawrencium, rutherfordium, dubnium, seaborgium, flerovium, moscovium, livermorium, tennessine and oganesson.
Made refrigerators cool
Next-generation refrigerators will likely put the freeze on harmful chemical coolants in favor of an environmentally friendly alloy, thanks to National Lab scientists.
Got the lead out
Removing hazardous lead-based solders from the environment is a reality thanks to a lead-free alloy of tin-silver-copper developed at a National Lab. The lead-free solder has been licensed by more than 60 companies worldwide.
Invented a magic sponge to clean up oil spills
National Lab scientists used a nano technique to invent a new sponge that can absorb 90 times its own weight in oil from water. It can be wrung out to collect the oil and reused hundreds of times — and it can collect oil that has sunk below the surface, something previous technology couldn’t do.
Added the punch to additive manufacturing
High-pressure gas atomization processing pioneered at a National Lab made possible the production of titanium and other metal-alloy powders used in additive manufacturing and powder metallurgy.
Created inexpensive catalysts
Low-cost catalysts are key to efficient biomass refining. National Lab scientists created catalysts that are inexpensive and stable for biomass conversion.
Created high-tech coatings to reduce friction
National Lab scientists created ways to reduce wear and tear in machines from table fans to car engines all the way up to giant wind turbines, such as a diamond-like film that rebuilds itself as soon as it begins to break down — so that engines last longer and need fewer oil additives.
Put the jolt in the Volt
Chevy’s Volt would not be able to cruise on battery power were it not for the advanced cathode technology that emerged from a National Lab. The same technology is sparking a revival of America’s battery manufacturing industry.
Cemented a new material
National Lab scientists have developed a novel and versatile material that blends properties of ceramic and concrete to form a non-porous product that can do everything from seal oil w ells to insulate walls with extra fire protection. It even sets in cold weather.
Pioneered efficient power lines
New kinds of power lines made from superconductors can carry electric current with no energy loss. Now deployed by National Lab scientists, these prototypes could usher in a new era of ultra-efficient power transmission.
Made early universe quark soup
National Lab scientists used a particle collider to recreate the primordial soup of subatomic building blocks that last existed shortly after the Big Bang. The research is expanding scientists’ understanding of matter at extreme temperatures and densities.
Levitated trains with magnets
Say goodbye to traffic jams. National Lab scientists developed a technology that uses the attractive and repulsive forces of magnets to levitate and propel trains. Maglev trains now ferry commuters in Japan and China and will be operational in other countries soon.
Developed efficient burners
National Lab researchers developed cleaner-combusting oil burners, saving consumers more than $25 billion in fuel costs and keeping more than 160 megatons of carbon dioxide out of Earth’s atmosphere.
Improved automotive steel
A company with National Lab roots is pioneering a metal that weighs significantly less than regular steel, retains steel’s strength and malleability and can be fabricated without major modifications to the automotive manufacturing infrastructure.
Looked inside weapons
National Lab researchers created a device that could identify the contents of suspicious chemical and explosive munitions and containers, while minimizing risk to the people involved. The technology, which quickly identifies the chemical makeup of weapons, has been used to verify treaties around the world.
Pioneered nuclear safety modeling
National Lab scientists began developing the Reactor Excursion and Leak Analysis Program (RELAP) to model nuclear reactor coolant and core behavior. Today, RELAP is used throughout the world and has been licensed for both nuclear and non-nuclear applications, including modeling of jet aircraft engines and fossil-fuel power plant components.
Identified good and bad cholesterol
The battle against heart disease received a boost in the 1960s when National Lab research unveiled the good and bad sides of cholesterol. Today, diagnostic tests that detect both types of cholesterol save lives.
Unmasked a dinosaur killer
Natural history’s greatest whodunit was solved in 1980 when a team of National Lab scientists pinned the dinosaurs’ abrupt extinction on an asteroid collision with Earth. Case closed.
Pitted cool roofs against carbon dioxide
National Lab researchers and policy experts led the way in analyzing and implementing cool roofing materials, which reflect sunlight, lower surface temperature and slash cooling costs.
Squeezed fuel from microbes
In a milestone that brings advanced biofuels one step closer to America’s gas tanks, National Lab scientists helped develop a microbe that can produce fuel directly from biomass.
Tamed hydrogen with nanoparticles
To replace gasoline, hydrogen must be safely stored and easy to use, which has proven elusive. National Lab researchers have now designed a new pliable material using nanoparticles that can rapidly absorb and release hydrogen without ill effects, a major step in making fuel-cell powered cars a commercial reality.
Exposed the risk
You can sleep easier thanks to National Lab research that quantified the health risk posed by radon gas in parts of the country. Subsequent EPA standards, coupled with radon detection and mitigation measures pioneered by a National Lab research team, prevent the naturally occurring gas from seeping into basements, saving thousands of lives every year.
Created a pocket-sized DNA sampler
A tool that identifies the microbes in air, water and soil samples is fast becoming a workhorse in public health, medical and environmental cleanup projects. Developed by National Lab scientists, the credit-card-sized device pinpoints diseases that kill coral reefs and catalogs airborne bacteria over U.S. cities. It also was used to quickly categorize the oil-eating bacteria in the plumes of the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Fabricated the smallest machines
The world’s smallest synthetic motors — as well as radios, scales and switches that are 100,000 times finer than a human hair — were engineered at a National Lab. These and other forays into nanotechnology could lead to life-saving pharmaceuticals and more powerful computers.
Preserved the sounds of yesteryear
National Lab scientists engineered a high-tech way to digitally reconstruct aging
sound recordings that are too fragile to play, such as Edison wax cylinders from the late 1800s. Archivists estimate that many of the millions of recordings in the world’s sound archives, including the U.S. Library of Congress, could benefit from the technology.
A credit-card sized detector developed by National Lab scientists can screen for more than 30 kinds of explosives in just minutes. The detector, called ELITE, requires no po wer and is widely used by the military, law enforcement and security personnel.
A National Lab and industry technique for strengthening metal by bombarding it with laser pulses has saved the aircraft industry hundreds of millions of dollars in engine and aircraft maintenance expenses.
Trains, planes and automobiles — and thousands of other objects — are safer, stronger and better-designed thanks to computer simulation software, DYNA 3D, developed by National Lab researchers.
Detected the neutrino
Starting with the Nobel-Prize winning discovery of the neutrino in 1956 by Fred Reines and Clyde Cowan Jr., National Lab researchers have made numerous contributions to neutrino physics and astrophysics.
Discovered gamma ray bursts
Sensors developed at the National Labs and placed aboard Vela satellites were used in the discovery of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) in 1973. GRBs are extremely energetic explosions from distant galaxies. Scientists believe that most of these bursts consist of a narrow beam of intense radiation released when a rapidly rotating, high-mass star collapses to form a neutron star, a quark star or a black hole.
Created the first 100-Tesla magnetic field
National Lab scientists achieved a 100.75-Tesla magnetic pulse in March 2012, setting a world record. The pulse was nearly 2 million times more powerful than Earth’s magnetic field. The 100-Tesla multi-shot magnet can be used over and over again without being destroyed by the force of the field it creates, and produces the most powerful non-destructive magnetic field in the world.
Froze smoke for hot uses
National Labs researchers perfected aerogels, known as frozen smoke. They are one of the lightest solids ever made and have the highest heat resistance of any material tested. They also are fireproof and extraordinarily strong — able to support more than a thousand times their own weight. As a result of their heat resistance, aerogels are outstanding candidates for insulation in buildings, vehicles, filters and appliances.
Invented the cell sorter
During the 1960s, a National Lab physicist invented a “cell sorter” — a novel device that works much like an ink jet printer, guiding a tiny flow of cell-containing droplets so cells of interest can be deflected for counting and study. Cell sorters are a vital tool for studying the biochemistry behind many diseases, including cancer and AIDS.
Ushered a domestic energy renaissance
National Lab research jump-started the shale gas revolution by pointing the way to key technologies and methodologies for cost efficient extraction. An estimated $220 million in research and development expenditures on unconventional gas R&D from 1976 to 1992 have resulted in an estimated $100 billion in annual economic activity from shale gas production alone.
Enabled space exploration
National Labs invented Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS), the backbone of the device that allowed the Curiosity Rover to analyze material from Mars. Lab researchers also found the right combination of materials to make high-efficiency solar cells for spacecraft.
Sharply curtailed power plant air emissions
National Lab scientists introduced some 20 innovative technologies — such as low nitrogen oxide (NOx) burners, flue gas desulfurization (scrubbers) and fluidized bed combustion — through the Clean Coal Technology Development Program that have deeply penetrated the marketplace, substantially controlled harmful power plant emissions and benefited energy production and air quality.
Made wind power mainstream
Increasing wind turbine efficiency with high efficiency airfoils has reduced the cost of wind power by more than 80 percent over the last 30 years. Now deployed in wind farms nationwide, these turbines owe their existence to National Lab research.
Engineered smart windows
National Lab scientists have created highly insulated windows that change color to modulate interior temperatures and lighting. If broadly installed, they could save about 5 percent of the nation’s total energy budget.
Delivered troops safely
National Lab researchers have developed computer models that effectively manage the complex logistical tasks of deploying troops and equipment to distant destinations.
Channeled chips and hips
Integrated circuits and artificial hips owe their success to a National Lab discovery that revealed how to change a material by injecting it with charged atoms, called ions. Ion channeling is now standard practice in industry and science.
Made 3D printing bigger and better
A large-scale additive manufacturing platform developed by a National Lab and an industry partner printed 3D components 10 times larger and 200 times faster than previous processes. So far, the system has produced a 3D-printed sports car, SUV, house, excavator and aviation components.
National Lab researchers adapted nuclear separations technology to develop a zonal centrifuge used to purify vaccines, which reduces or eliminates unwanted side effects. Commercial centrifuges based on the invention produce vaccines for millions of people.
Built a better building
A National Lab has built one of the world’s most energy efficient office buildings. The facility, operating as a living laboratory at a lab site, uses 50 percent less energy than required by commercial codes and only consumes energy produced by renewable power on or near the building.
Improved airport security
Weapons, explosives, plastic devices and other concealed tools of terrorists are easier to detect thanks to technology developed at a National Lab and now installed in airports worldwide.
Improved grid resiliency
A National Lab created an advanced battery that can store large amounts of energy from intermittent renewable sources — such as wind and solar — onto the power grid, while also smoothing over temporary disruptions to the grid. Several companies have licensed the technology and offer it as a commercial product.
Solved a diesel dilemma
A National Lab insight into how catalysts behave paved the way for a new, “lean-burn” diesel engine that met emissions standards and improved fuel efficiency by 25 percent over conventional engines.
Harvested energy from air
A miniature device — commercialized by private industry after a National Lab breakthrough — generates enough power from small temperature changes to power wireless sensors or radio frequency transmitters at remote sites, such as dams, bridges and pipelines.
Gone grid friendly
Regulating the energy use of household appliances — especially at peak times — could slash energy demand and avoid blackouts. A National Lab appliance-control device senses grid stress and responds instantly to turn off machines and reduce end-use demand, balancing the system so that the power stays on.
Put the digital in DVDs
The optical digital recording technology behind music, video and data storage originated at a National Lab nearly 40 years ago.
Locked nuclear waste in glass
Disposal of U.S. Cold War waste is safer thanks to National Lab scientists who developed and deployed a process to lock it into glass to keep it from leaching into the environment.
Cleaned up anthrax
Scientists at a National Lab developed a non-toxic foam that neutralizes chemical and biological agents. This foam was used to clean up congressional office buildings and mail rooms exposed to anthrax in 2001.
Removed radiation from Fukushima seawater
After a tsunami damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011, massive amounts of seawater cooled the reactor. A molecular sieve engineered by National Lab scientists was used to extract radioactive cesium from tens of millions of gallons of seawater.11
Sped up Ebola detection
In 2014, researchers from a National Lab modeled the Liberian blood sample transport system and made recommendations to diagnose patients quicker. This minimized the amount of time people were waiting together, reducing the spread of Ebola.
Prevented unauthorized use of a nuclear weapon
In 1960, National Lab scientists invented coded electromechanical locks for all U.S. nuclear weapons. The switch blocks the arming signal until it receives the proper presidential authorization code.
Launched the LED lighting revolution
In the 1990s, scientists at a National Lab saw the need for energy-efficient solid-state lighting and worked with industry to develop white LEDs. Today, white LEDs are about 30 percent efficient, with the potential to reach 70 percent to 80 percent efficiency. Fluorescent lighting is about 20 percent efficient and incandescent bulbs are 5 percent.
Mastered the art of artificial photosynthesis
National Lab scientists engineered and synthesized multi-layer semiconductor structures in devices that directly convert sunlight to chemical energy in hydrogen by splitting water at efficiencies greater than 15 percent. This direct conversion of sunlight to fuels paves the way for use of solar energy in applications beyond the electrical grid.
Advanced fusion technology
From the first fusion test reactor to briefly produce power at the megawatt scale, and the world’s largest and most energetic laser creating extreme conditions mimicking the Big Bang, the interiors of planets and stars and thermonuclear weapons, to the international experiment to generate industrial levels of fusion energy from burning plasmas, fusion science and applications are advancing because of the National Labs.
Made the first molecular movie
National Lab scientists have used ultrafast X-rays to capture the first molecular movies in quadrillionths-of-a-second frames. These movies detail the intricate structural dances of molecules as they undergo chemical reactions.
The National Laboratory System: Protecting America Through Science and Technology
For more than 75 years, the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories have solved important problems in science, energy and national security. This expertise keeps our nation at the forefront of science and technology in a rapidly changing world. Partnering with industry and academia, the laboratories also drive innovation to advance economic competitiveness and ensure our nation’s future prosperity.