KNOXVILLE – Faculty and graduate students from Tennessee Tech University, King University, Vanderbilt University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, all working together as a single group on organic photovoltaics. Undergraduate students working on energy-related summer research projects away from their home institutions.
These are just some of the examples of the unprecedented collaboration and cooperation built over the past five years between public and private university faculty and students to increase energy research capacity in Tennessee. Their combined success has raised the research profile of the state and created a model platform for the sharing of knowledge, expertise and resources across Tennessee.
All of this is made possible by a five-year, $20 million National Science Foundation (NSF) cooperative agreement Tennessee won in 2010 for its proposal called TN-SCORE (Tennessee Solar Conversion and Storage using Outreach, Research and Education). TN-SCORE will celebrate outcomes and accomplishments of the program with partners at its annual conference June 18-19 in Nashville.
The project, with 11 primary partner research institutions focused on improving research infrastructure and capacity, has resulted in 239 new research publications, $19.7 million in new research funding and the creation of two start-up companies. TN-SCORE researchers have used their collaborations to create innovative ideas for large-scale energy storage, nano-catalysts for economical chemical production, thermionic energy conversion and efficient white light LEDs. In addition, more than 93,000 K-12 students have been engaged in hands-on learning activities through TN-SCORE outreach programs.
Tennessee was declared eligible for the NSF’s EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) program to increase statewide research infrastructure in 2002. TN-SCORE’s success has been a contributor to the state’s graduation from EPSCoR eligibility status, as NSF funding to Tennessee has increased from $35.1 million in 2009 to $51.4 million in 2014, well above the 2014 eligibility threshold of $42 million.
“Tennessee is better because of TN-SCORE and its intent to build collaboration and links between researchers and resources. Our state has been successful in securing more NSF funding by working together, and I look forward to seeing more research success in the future that will improve lives and boost our state’s global profile,” said UT President Joe DiPietro.
Through the collaboration, researchers, who previously had not worked together, were able to combine their knowledge and more effectively leverage high-tech resources and equipment at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, UT Knoxville and Vanderbilt University.
“These are state-of-the-art research facilities that typically smaller schools don’t have. And we provide access. …Students and faculty can come in and use this equipment and get the expertise and guidance that they wouldn’t have at their home institutions,” said Barry Bruce, UT Knoxville professor in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology and a leader in bio-based photoconversion research.
Enabled by TN-SCORE collaborations, undergraduate students involved in energy research have continued their education as graduate students in Tennessee. Zach Siebers, a native of Shelbyville, attended Tennessee Tech University and was introduced to organic photovoltaics by chemical engineering associate professor Holly Stretz, a TN-SCORE collaborator. After graduating, he then was accepted to the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education at UT Knoxville to continue his research and pursue a Ph.D.
“I never thought that I would ever be doing the type of research and the type of work that I am today. I have TN-SCORE to thank for that because they created opportunities for me to meet people who not only now serve as role models and guides during the course of my research, but also just opened me up to the possibility of doing graduate-level research,” Siebers said.
TN-SCORE has helped encourage more underrepresented students to participate in STEM education and research. The Tennessee Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, an NSF-sponsored program at six Tennessee colleges and universities led by Tennessee State University, received support from TN-SCORE for programs and conferences to reach more than 300 undergraduate students, a number of whom have been recruited into research internships and graduate school.
“Due to this generous collaboration we have been able to impact more undergraduate students doing research in the fields of energy and science,” said Travis Griffin, director of Engineering Diversity Programs at UT Knoxville.
According to Sandra Rosenthal, Jack and Pamela Egan Professor of Chemistry at Vanderbilt University and director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Nanoscale Science and Engineering (VINSE), “TN-SCORE has strengthened research capacity at Vanderbilt and in Middle Tennessee through addition of specialized equipment in VINSE, strategic new faculty hires and support of collaborative research in the synthesis, analysis, and application of nanomaterials.”
These research collaborations have contributed to the development and maturation of technologies with potential for commercial application. Nashville start-up company IOP Technologies, a spin-out from research at Vanderbilt University, participated in LaunchTN entrepreneurship support programs and won a $150,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant from NSF to support its product development.
Knoxville company Peroxygen Systems is based on electrochemical catalyst research developed by a team in the lab of Tom Zawodzinski, UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair for Electrical Energy Conversion, and founded by UT Knoxville post-doc Ming QI and Zawodzinski.
“TN-SCORE is working because of its people. It’s because the people in the teams want to make things happen in Tennessee. And so, a great example was one of my students who made a very fundamental discovery, chased it down and turned it into a device that’s going to become a company. That’s how this should work,” Zawodzinski said.
Other results of the TN-SCORE program that help comprise this new connected network of resources include: new instrumentation and facilities for synthesis and testing of novel materials across the state, new computational biology and bioinformatics programs at Tennessee State University and new NSF CAREER awards for faculty pursuing energy research at the University of Memphis and Vanderbilt University. The increased research capacity that this network provides will continue to deliver innovation and education benefits for Tennessee into the future.
For more information about TN-SCORE, visit www.tnepscor.org/.
TN-SCORE university and industry partners and participants include:
- Austin Peay State University
- Bethel University
- Belmont University
- Carson Newman University
- Chattanooga State Community College
- East Tennessee State University
- Fisk University
- King University
- LeMoyne-Owen College
- Lincoln Memorial University
- Lipscomb University
- Maryville College
- Middle Tennessee State University
- Tennessee Tech University
- Tennessee State University
- Union University
- University of Memphis
- University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
- University of Tennessee, Knoxville
- University of Tennessee at Martin
- University of Tennessee Space Institute
- Vanderbilt University
- Oak Ridge National Laboratory
- Tennessee Valley Authority
- Eastman Chemical Company
- Hemlock Semiconductor
- The Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council