MSU-led team receives $10 million to pursue innovative research in energy

Montana State University is the lead institution on a new $10 million, four-year project to form a research center focused on innovative energy research.
The Biological Electron Transfer and Catalysis (BETCy) Energy Frontiers Research Center (EFRC) will be based at MSU.  Participants from seven institutions will form an integrated team to conduct basic research, looking for scientific breakthroughs to help build a new energy economy in the United States. The project is funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences.
“It’s a great opportunity for Montana to have one of these federal centers,” said John Peters, who is the lead principal investigator on the proposal and will direct the center based in Bozeman. Peters is a professor in MSU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

The BETCy EFRC was one of only 10 new centers funded in the latest round of grants, which totaled $100 million and drew more than 200 proposals. Another 22 recipients received renewed grants based both on their achievements since the first round five years ago and the quality of their proposals for future research.

Centers selected in the second round are charged with laying the scientific groundwork for fundamental advances in solar energy, electrical energy storage, carbon capture and sequestration, materials and chemistry by design, biosciences, and extreme environments, said U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz when he announced the latest recipients on June 18.

“Today, we are mobilizing some of our most talented scientists to join forces and pursue the discoveries and breakthroughs that will lay the foundation for our nation’s energy future,” Moniz said. “The funding we’re announcing today will help fuel scientific and technological innovation.”

Peters said a main focus of the BETCy EFRC research is to figure out how electron flow is controlled as it pertains to the production of biofuels. Biofuels are produced in microbes as part of their metabolism. Knowing how electrons are trafficked around cells during metabolism could provide the basis for directing more of a microbe’s cell energy toward the production of biofuels.
“This is something that’s really unique and innovative in the area of basic energy science. It could lead to some big advances in bioenergy,” Peters said.
In addition to Peters, the BETCy EFRC involves three other MSU professors: Brian Bothner, also in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Eric Boyd in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and Ross Carlson in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, as well as researchers at Arizona State University, the University of Georgia, the University of Kentucky, Utah State University, the University of Washington, and the Colorado-based National Renewable Energy Lab. 

These particular institutions decided to work together because the researchers involved are leaders in the field and have a combination of complementary expertise necessary to accomplish the ambitious goals of the center’s research, Peters said.

Utah State University professor Lance Seefeldt said the BETCy EFRC includes some of the nation’s most respected researchers in basic energy science.
“That includes small molecules research aimed at tapping energy from such renewable sources as hydrogen, carbon dioxide, waste products and nitrogen,” he said.
He added that the BETCy EFRC opens the door to once-in-a-lifetime research opportunities for students. He noted that the purpose of the Energy Frontier Research Center program is to seed large projects aimed at pulling researchers together to solve fundamental energy problems.
“This is the pinnacle of U.S. energy research, and we get to be part of it,” Seefeldt commented.
Forty-five grants were awarded in the first round when the Energy Frontier Research Center program was established. The centers created by those grants produced 5,400 peer-reviewed scientific publications and hundreds of patent applications.