PARC wins renewed funding for photosynthetic research

Department of Energy awards Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center $14.4 million to continue research on natural and bio-inspired systems for harvesting sun’s energy

Bob Blankenship, PhD, director of PARC and the Lucille P. Markey Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, announcing at an all-hands meeting June 18 that the center had just received funding for the next four years. (Credit: Sid Hastings/WUSTL Photos)

When Robert Blankenship, PhD, stood up during the annual all-hands meeting of the Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center (PARC) at Washington University in St. Louis, he immediately had the attention of everyone in the room.

A decision about renewal funding was overdue, rumors had been flying and Blankenship, PARC’s director, wasn’t on the June 18 meeting agenda for that time slot.

He said quite simply that he had just received an email from the Department of Energy (DOE) saying that the agency was pleased to inform him that PARC’s proposal for a second round of funding as an Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) had been successful.

After the roar of applause had died down, he added that the award was for $3.6 million for a period of four years, for a total of $14.4 million.

Everyone in the room knew that PARC was well regarded in the scientific community, but they also knew in most federal agencies the funding rates were around 10 or 15 percent. The competition for this round of funding was very stiff.

In 2009, the DOE had funded the creation of 46 EFRCs to lay the scientific groundwork necessary to meet the global need for abundant, clean and economical energy.

Only about half of the 46 centers were funded in the second round, although 10 new ones were added for a total of 32 awards. Those 32 projects were selected from more than 200 proposals.

“I want to personally thank everybody in this room because all of you contributed to making this a success. We couldn’t have gotten the renewal without a tremendous amount of hard work and fantastic science from all of you,” said Blankenship, who is a professor of chemistry and of biology.

Capturing the sun’s energy output

The centers selected for the second round of funding will help lay 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.

PARC’s goals are to understand the basic scientific principles that govern solar energy collection by photosynthetic organisms and to use this knowledge to fabricate more efficient biohybrid and bio-inspired systems to drive chemical processes or generate photocurrent.

Natural photosynthetic systems consist of two parts: antennas that collect solar photons and reaction centers that transform the easily dissipated light energy into the more durable form of charge separation that can then be used to do work.

The scientists are broadening their goals for PARC 2. PARC 1’s goal was to increase the efficiency of light harvesting antennas. In PARC 2, the scientists will continue their work on the antennas but will also start looking at energy delivery at the reaction center interface and reaction center design.

“It’s really gratifying to see the high level of support that DOE has provided for solar-related research,” said Jonathan Lindsey, a PARC principal investigator from North Carolina State University.

“Young students coming into my laboratory are very excited and motivated by the chance to make a real contribution to something that they see as being a very important part of their lives and their own children’s lives,” said Christopher Moser, a PARC principal investigator from the University of Pennsylvania.

‘Biggest legacy will be cadre of scientists’

It was just by coincidence that the funding announcement coincided with the PARC all-hands meeting, which had been planned for almost a year. But as one of the participants said, to have the renewal announced when everyone was together was a thrill.

Despite the high level of excitement at the announcement, it was remarkable how often the conversation among the older scientists turned to the younger scientists, the graduate students and the postdoctoral fellows.

“In the end, one of the outcomes that will be most important is to give our graduate students and postdocs an opportunity to work in a collaborative center where they can do things that they would normally never be able to do on individual research grants,” said Dewey Holten, PhD, associate director of PARC and a professor of chemistry at WUSTL.

“Perhaps our biggest legacy will be this cadre of scientists that we will have trained here at PARC who will go on and solve these pressing problems. We probably won’t solve all those pressing problems in four more years (laughter), but we will make progress,” Blankenship said.

Richard Cogdell, a PARC principal investigator from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, agreed, and added, “But we will have built a community that will solve them over the next 10 to 20 years.”

Washington University is the host and administrative center for PARC, whose partners include investigators from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, North Carolina State University, Northwestern University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, University of California-Riverside, University of Glasgow, University of New Mexico, University of Pennsylvania, University of Sheffield in England, Princeton University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Penn State.