SIMES & The Department of Energy

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The Challenges that Inspire and Compel Our Work

In December 2007, the Grand Challenges subcommittee of the Department of Energy’s Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC) published a report, “Directing Matter and Energy: Five Challenges for Science and the Imagination.” The subcommittee identified 5 “Grand Challenges”. We have reproduced the challenges as quoted from the report’s Executive Summary.

Because these challenges inspire and compel our work, we feel they are important to share with you on our web site:

1. How do we control material processes at the level of electrons?

Electrons are the negatively charged subatomic particles whose dynamics determine materials properties and direct chemical, electrical, magnetic and physical processes. If we can learn to direct and control material processes at the level of electrons, where the strange laws of quantum mechanics rule, it should pave the way for artificial photosynthesis and other highly efficient energy technologies, and could revolutionize computer technologies.

2. How do we design and perfect atom — and energy — efficient synthesis of revolutionary new forms of matter with tailored properties?

Humans, through trial and error experiments or through lucky accidents, have been able to make only a tiny fraction of all the materials that are theoretically possible. If we can learn to design and create new materials with tailored properties, it could lead to low-cost photovoltaics, self-repairing and self-regulating devices, integrated photonic (light-based) technologies and nano-sized electronic and mechanical devices.

3. How do remarkable properties of matter emerge from complex correlations of the atomic or electronic constituents, and how can we control these properties?

Emergent phenomena, in which a complex outcome emerges from the correlated interactions of many simple constituents, can be widely seen in nature, as in the interactions of neurons in the human brain that result in the mind, the freezing of water or the giant magneto-resistance behavior that powers disk drives. If we can learn the fundamental rules of correlations and emergence and then learn how to control them, we could produce, among many possibilities, an entirely new generation of materials that supersede present-day semiconductors and superconductors.

4. How can we master energy and information on the nanoscale to create new technologies with capabilities rivaling those of living things?

Biology is nature’s version of nanotechnology, though the capabilities of biological systems can exceed those of human technologies by a vast margin. If we can understand biological functions and harness nanotechnologies with capabilities as effective as those of biological systems, it should clear the way towards profound advances in a great many scientific fields, including energy and information technologies.

5. How do we characterize and control matter away — especially very far away — from equilibrium?

All natural and most human-induced phenomena occur in systems that are away from the equilibrium in which the system would not change with time. If we can understand system effects that take place away — especially very far away — from equilibrium and learn to control them, it could yield dramatic new energy-capture and energy storage technologies, greatly improve our predictions for molecular-level electronics and enable new mitigation strategies for environmental damage.