NSF and DOE Support Research Priorities With Spate of New Center Awards

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Publication date: 
16 September 2020

The Department of Energy and National Science Foundation are investing over $1 billion in dozens of new research centers designed to foster collaborative research aligned with top U.S. R&D priorities.


The dilution refrigerator of a quantum computer.

The dilution refrigerator of a quantum computer.

(Image credit – Thor Swift / Berkeley Lab)

Over the summer, the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy announced funding for dozens of new research centers, with awards ranging from around $10 million to more than $100 million spanning over four to six years. The agencies fund such efforts to build up multi-institutional collaborations and support specialized research infrastructure that is not feasible under smaller, single-investigator grants.

Some of the centers are the first to be launched through new programs dedicated to quantum information science (QIS) and artificial intelligence, reflecting congressional and Trump administration research priorities. Both NSF and DOE also made new awards under existing center programs focused on physics, engineering, materials research, and energy innovation.

More than $1 billion planned for QIS and AI centers

The National Quantum Initiative Act of 2018 requires NSF and DOE to each fund up to five QIS research centers. In July, NSF announced it will evenly divide $75 million over five years among its first three centers, called Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes, which together will support partnerships between 16 core academic institutions, 22 companies, and eight national labs: 

NSF is currently soliciting proposals for additional centers.

DOE announced its five QIS research centers in August, each receiving $115 million over five years, with commitments for additional funding from dozens of universities and companies totaling $340 million altogether. Each center will be managed by a DOE national lab:

  • Q-NEXT led by Argonne National Lab will build quantum sensor networks, secure quantum communication links, and two “national foundries” for standardized quantum materials and devices.
  • The Superconducting Quantum Materials and Systems Center led by Fermilab will work to lengthen the lifetime of quantum states, known as the coherence time, in order to develop next-generation quantum computers and sensors.
  • The Co-design Center for Quantum Advantage led by Brookhaven National Lab will design software and components for quantum computers.
  • The Quantum Systems Accelerator led by Berkeley Lab will develop new ways to control quantum computing platforms and design algorithms that are tailored to solving scientific problems.
  • The Quantum Science Center led by Oak Ridge National Lab will explore the use of topological materials in quantum computers, test algorithms for quantum computers, and develop sensors for discovery science applications.

Legislation is now pending in Congress that would establish an initiative for AI similar to the National Quantum Initiative, charging NSF with establishing a national network of research centers. NSF has already moved in that direction, announcing in August it is funding five new institutes at $20 million each over five years:

NSF plans to establish around eight more institutes funded at $160 million overall, this time with support from corporate partners including Accenture, Amazon, Google, and Intel. It is also working to build a broader network of AI research and education centers with participation from the Departments of Agriculture, Homeland Security, and Transportation. The Department of Agriculture announced its first two centers in August, focused on next-generation food systems and sustainability.

Longstanding NSF programs refresh center networks

NSF also issued awards over the summer through its established center programs.

In August, NSF announced four new awards under its Engineering Research Centers program, which has funded 75 centers since its inception in 1985. The new centers will together receive $104 million over five years:

NSF also awarded two new Physics Frontier Centers in August:

  • The Center for Matter at Atomic Pressures led by the University of Rochester will receive $13 million over five years to explore the properties of matter at extreme pressures using high-power lasers, pulsed power, and advanced X-ray technology. It is billed as NSF’s first major initiative in high energy density science.

The agency has supported 17 Physics Frontier Centers since 2001, of which 11 are currently active.

In July, NSF announced three new Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs), each funded at $18 million over six years:

The MRSEC program was founded in 1994 and now supports 19 centers in all.

DOE updates flagship energy research hubs

DOE announced in July it will provide $200 million to establish new Energy Innovation Hubs and Energy Frontier Research Centers (ERFCs), its two primary mechanisms for supporting extramural research collaborations in basic energy sciences.

The Fuels From Sunlight Energy Innovation Hub created at Caltech in 2010 to advance research in artificial photosynthesis is now sunsetting, making way for two new hubs:

  • $60 million will go to the Liquid Sunlight Alliance, a partnership between Caltech and three national labs that will use computational modeling and advanced imaging techniques such as ultrafast X-rays to identify simpler ways to convert sunlight into fuel.
  • $40 million will go to a new Center for Hybrid Approaches in Solar Energy to Liquid Fuels led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which will develop hybrid photoelectrodes that combine semiconductors with molecular catalysts to absorb light and convert it to fuel.

DOE also announced it is awarding $100 million over four years to a cohort of 10 EFRCs, including six new centers:

Since DOE launched the program in 2009, it has supported 82 EFRCs.

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