The University will receive $20 million over the next five years to start a new Energy Frontier Research Center staffed by a team of 15 researchers, including four University professors.
The center will be one of 46 institutions to benefit from $777 million of funding made available by the Department of Energy. Thirty of the centers, not including Princeton's, will be funded through President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The funding guaranteed by the federal initiative will permit the researchers to work toward their objective of developing “a predictive model for the description of the combustion processes of realistic next-generation fuels in advanced combustion engines,” said mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Chung Law, who will serve as director of the center.
To accomplish that goal, the researchers will “study the whole spectrum of combustion phenomenon … from the smallest scale of the electrons to those of the reacting molecules, and eventually to the largest scales of the turbulent flames that power the engines,” Law explained.
Law noted that the center will focus mainly on computation and “bench-type experiments” rather than work with internal combustion engines. Still, the researchers will study “very realistic combustion situations” like combustion in the high-pressure environment typically found in engines, Law said. “We have, of course, relations with engine companies and oil companies where real testing [on engines] would be done,” he added.
Mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Emily Carter, who will also work at and co-direct the center, explained that it is important to study combustion of fuels in engines because combustion engines are necessary for many kinds of transportation.
“I’ve no doubt we’ll routinely have electric cars and trucks … [but] it’s hard to ever imagine a plug-in airplane,” she said.
Carter’s research at the center will focus on studying the energy content and combustion chemistry of clean, sustainable alternative fuels, such as biodiesel fuels, an area ripe for quantitative exploration, she said.
Carter added that graduate students in her lab have achieved “a breakthrough” in the development of a computer algorithm based on quantum meechanics that enables scientists to accurately compute the thermochemistry of molecules of unprecedented size, such as those found in biofuels.
Law said his work at the center will “dabble in flames,” explaining that through the study of fire, “one can understand how the fuel is being converted into energy and combustion products.”
The research in the center will span several disciplines and will also feature a “roving postdoc” program in which post doctoral students can “spend time with different investigators,” Law said.
The reviewers of the University’s proposal found the roving postdoc program, along with the idea of studying combustion at all levels, “very innovative,” Law added.
Based on the reviewers’ comments, Law said he believed the University received the funding because of these innovative ideas as well as the strong reputations of the researchers involved.
Carter explained that obtaining the federal funding was an “extremely competitive” process, since only 31 universities were chosen from 261 proposals submitted by organizations from around the country. Fifteen additional centers will be based at national laboratories or corporate organizations.
“The funding for our combustion center is at the high end of the range of funding for these centers across the nation,” added Carter, who will also conduct research led by another center at the University of South Carolina.
The University has agreed to contribute substantial matching funds to support the center in terms of experimental equipments and computational facilities, Law said, adding that Princeton has also provided space in the E-Quad for the center.
“We feel very responsible to use this wonderful opportunity to do something for humanity,” Law said, adding that, when it comes to alternative fuels, “we cannot wait anymore. It’s about time, and we’re all ready to go.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated all 46 centers were funded through the American Recovery Reinvestment Act. In fact, only 30 are.