Thursday March 24, 2016 0 comments
GOLDEN -- The Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is preparing to foster a new wave of creativity as a panel decides which ideas will be accepted into its Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program.
The program promotes innovations in science and technology. NREL and other Energy Department laboratories each have their own LDRD funds, but share common objectives including serving as a proving ground for new concepts.
For NREL's scientists chosen to receive LDRD money, it's a badge of honor.
"One of the first projects I worked on was someone else's LDRD," said Annabelle Pratt, a principal engineer who joined NREL in February 2014. "It took me a little while to understand why people were so excited to get it because it's like a vote of confidence in what you're proposing."
NREL is in the process of determining which proposals will be selected for LDRD funds to start in fiscal 2017. Scientists must submit a three-page pre-proposal describing their idea. The researchers whose pre-proposals are chosen are asked to submit full proposals, and later will go before a panel to discuss their ideas further. Panelists then rank the proposals.
The proposals must fit into one of three categories:
- Transformational — To establish or reposition a unique institutional capability that will create NREL roles in new programs or initiatives.
- Sustaining — To position the laboratory for continued leadership or participation in existing Energy Department programs.
- Seed — To provide initial data or proof-of-concept on ideas.
NREL said there's also a new program called the Director's Postdoctoral Fellowships that receives funding through the LDRD.
"It's an opportunity for researchers to push the boundaries of research, as well as an excellent tool for professional development," said Eric Manuel, director of NREL's Office of Planning and Performance Management, which manages the LDRD program. "NREL's LDRD program enables scientists and researchers to do the kind of high-risk science that may lead to quantum improvements in how we fulfill future mission needs."
The LDRD program was critical in starting NREL's now very active research into a hybrid inorganic/organic perovskite material for solar cells, said Associate Lab Director Bill Tumas, who's closely involved in the selection process. "We had a lot of expertise related to this area but we weren't working with these materials directly, so we funded an LDRD project a couple of years ago.
“The goal was to have some of our really good people with device, spectroscopy, and materials science experience in related systems such as dye cells and solution-processed solar cells to build a capability at NREL to study perovskites. NREL is now the top-cited U.S. institution in this area. We're very proud we were able to start with some small LDRD investments that led to significant results in applied and fundamental core program work."
Researchers at NREL and elsewhere have found perovskite solar cells to be highly efficient at converting sunlight into electrical energy. Ongoing work at NREL involves increasing the stability of these types of solar cells as well as further understanding their fundamental aspects.
The LDRD program also financed Jianping Yu's early efforts at NREL to produce ethylene from cyanobacteriumrather than from petroleum and natural gas. Yu, a research scientist in the Photobiology Group who in November won a coveted R&D 100 award for his cyanobacterium work, said the LDRD program was "a critical funding source."
His initial success in the field enabled Yu to secure additional research funds from the Energy Department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Office of Science.
"I certainly owe my success to LDRD support," Yu said.
The Energy Department authorizes each laboratory to use as much as 6 percent of its total operating and capital budget to fund the LDRD program. The Department created the program in 1985 as a way to give the Office of Science laboratories the means to support innovative ideas developed by researchers but that do not qualify for the usual program funding.
NREL's LDRD program evolved from what was known as the Director's Discretionary Research and Development (DDRD) program. The final DDRD portfolio, in fiscal year 2006, consisted of 16 projects that represented a total of $3 million. In fiscal year 2015, NREL awarded $11.8 million to fund 59 LDRD projects. Across the Energy Department's national laboratories, $542 million was invested in 1,741 LDRD projects during that same year.
While most LDRD projects last two to three years, those in the "seed" category are limited to a single fiscal year and intended to provide a path to a new innovation, NREL said.