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Blinded By Science

It’s virtually impossible (for me, at least) to understand or keep track of the organization of the U.S. Department of Energy.  And so, when I encountered the booth at the recent Energy Innovation Summit (as reported last week) for the generic-sounding DOE group called “Office of Science”, I had to stop and ask to find out more.

How can there be an office for something so broad as “science”? 

Well, it probably could be better termed as “Office of Research”, though I’m sure DOE leadership explicitly rejected that name as sounding way too academic and hence divorced from the commercial marketplace (i.e., private sector).

It’s true that the DOE Office of Science, the largest sponsor of basic research in the physical sciences in the U.S., is oriented to the needs of universities and research centers.  Notably, the Office of Science recently created 46 Energy Research Frontier Centers (ERFCs) spanning the U.S. to address some highly-specialized technical fields of relevance to energy requiring world-class capabilities.

To illustrate, there’s the Center for Atomic-Level Catalyst Design (CALCD), led by Louisiana State University.  Not to mention the Fluid Interface Reactions, Structures and Transport (FIRST) Center, led by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  Plus 44 other similar networks of scientific exploration.

While it’s true that this work is largely conducted by the ivory-tower, these ERFCs represent a very compelling resource for cleantech companies – large and small alike – facing particular technical challenges in developing new products and services for the energy sector.  When tackling especially thorny problems, it may be worth running the risk of getting blinded by science and peering into the bright shining light of a possibly-relevant EFRC.