Solar Is the ANSER at Northwestern

Charged with exploring the basic science of solar energy, the Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research Center is one of 46 Department of Energy–funded Energy Frontier Research Centers nationwide. The EFRCs involve universities, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations and for-profit firms and are funded at up to $5 million per year for a five-year initial award period. They were developed to engage the nation’s researchers in the creation of advanced energy technologies.

The basic science discoveries at the EFRCs are passed on to two national Energy Innovation Hubs, currently focused on developing solutions for batteries and energy storage and solar fuels.

ANSER, founded in 2007 and named an EFRC in 2009, is funded through 2014, with the possibility of renewal then. Built on the idea that science can advance more quickly if top people in related fields collaborate, the center brings together stars from chemistry, materials science, engineering and nanotechnology from Northwestern and Argonne National Laboratory — as well as Yale University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Chicago — in the hope that collaboration can push the science forward.

“It’s part of our culture at Northwestern to work together in this team science concept,” says Northwestern chemistry professor Michael Wasielewski, a senior scientist at Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials and the self-described “conductor of the orchestra” at ANSER. The collaboration includes 25 principal investigators, including 13 Northwestern faculty members, and approximately 50 postdoctoral and graduate students.

The partnership between Northwestern and Argonne builds on the strengths of both institutions.

“It’s crucial to team on problems that are this broad and this complex,” says ANSER deputy director Michael Pellin (WCAS74), an Argonne Distinguished Fellow who holds a joint appointment in Northwestern’s chemistry department. “There’s no one institution that could provide the breadth of understanding that is necessary to move this forward.”

The Argonne National Laboratory, one of 16 national labs across the country, is located in Chicago’s southwest suburbs. It has facilities — including the Advanced Photon Source and the Center for Nanoscale Materials — that complement Northwestern’s research endeavors. The APS — two-thirds of a mile around — generates extremely bright, high-energy x-rays that help scientists understand molecular activity. It allows researchers to separate electrons and track their movement, increasing understanding of how charges migrate through the materials.

“These facilities at Argonne are first rate,” says ANSER director of operations Torsten Fiebig. “They are absolutely superb.” — S.H.