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Three PNNL scientists receive DOE Early Career Research awards

May 04, 2016

RICHLAND, Wash. - Three scientists at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have been selected to receive 2016 Early Career Research Program research grants from the Department of Energy.

The three are among 49 recipients nationwide -- including 22 at national laboratories -- to receive the annual research awards, and were selected from approximately 600 applicants.

PNNL scientists Yingge Du, Kirsten Hofmockel and James Moran will receive funding to further their studies in climate science, energy storage, and other areas important to the nation. Each will receive at least $2.5 million toward their research over the next five years.

The Early Career Research Program, now in its seventh year, is managed by DOE's Office of Science and awards research grants to young scientists and engineers at U.S. universities and national laboratories. The grants are designed to bolster the nation's scientific workforce by providing support to exceptional researchers during the crucial early years of their careers.

"We invest in promising young researchers early in their careers to support lifelong discovery science to fuel the nation's innovation system," said Cherry Murray, director of DOE's Office of Science. "We are proud of the accomplishments these young scientists already have made, and look forward to following their achievements in years to come."

Steven Ashby, director of PNNL, added: "Scientists recognized with this early career award represent some of the brightest minds in the nation. We are fortunate to have Yingge, Kirsten and Jim on our team. Their hard work and creativity exemplify PNNL's commitment to scientific excellence and the programs of the Office of Science."

This year's PNNL grant winners are:

Yingge Du, a scientist in the Materials Sciences research group. Du is studying the fundamental properties of some of the most carefully constructed materials ever created -- very thin films of materials known as transition metal oxides, which are built by scientists like Du just one atomic layer at a time. Scientists are exploring the materials and their properties that can give rise to a range of applications, including energy capture, storage and conversion, as well as "atomically precise" devices where the position of every atom is crucial. The materials are more environmentally friendly and easier to work with than many current electronic materials. But first, scientists must work out some of the basic properties of the sophisticated materials; when a device is built literally a few atoms at a time, a single atom can affect the device's physical properties in unexpected ways. PNNL scientists have been at the forefront of learning about some of the unexpected challenges, and Du and colleagues are exploring ways to exploit some of the findings to harness these materials more completely than is possible today. Just last year, another scientist in the Materials Sciences group, Dongsheng Li, also received an early-career award from DOE.

Kirsten Hofmockel, lead scientist for integrative research at EMSL, the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a DOE Office of Science User Facility at PNNL. Hofmockel will study the science around bioenergy crops -- crops like switchgrass and corn that are grown as a potential source of energy. She will do experiments both in her laboratory and in experimental plots at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center looking at microbial activity in the soil in which bioenergy crops are grown. Her project will look at how crop selection and soil properties influence soil micro-organisms, which play a huge role in the fate of carbon in soil. Hofmockel will study what those microbes are doing to transform carbon and other compounds in the soil, the potential of soil to hold vast amounts of carbon, what happens to the microbes once they die, and the effects of growing bioenergy crops on soil and its microbes. Hofmockel has a joint appointment at Iowa State University.

James Moran, a scientist in PNNL's Chemical and Biological Signature Science group. Moran will put under scrutiny a community of microbes in a place known as the "rhizosphere," the area surroundings the roots of a plant. It's the physical space where plants, soil and vital microbes connect. Understanding activity in the rhizosphere is vital for scientists to understand how plants draw nutrients and also how soils and their microbial communities can remain healthy. Moran has developed sophisticated imaging techniques to track different forms of elements such as carbon and nitrogen from the soil into the rhizosphere, then into a plant's roots and into the plant. Understanding the rhizosphere more fully will help scientists learn more about important bioenergy crops, like switchgrass, which will offer an alternative to fossil fuels. The work will also help scientists understand more about how agricultural crops draw nutrients from the soil and how to keep the rhizosphere a healthy region that can help protect crops against pathogens and drought.
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This year's awards bring to 13 the number won by PNNL staff since the program's inception in 2010. More information on the program can be found at DOE's Early Career Research Program website.

DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

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