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By Abigail Dove
Given the urgency of the climate crisis, the development of technologies to support renewable and sustainable energy is one of society’s most pressing scientific challenges. The Topical Group on Energy Research and Applications (GERA) is a home for researchers interested in using the principles of physics to develop new ways to generate, transmit, store, and efficiently use energy with as minimal an impact as possible on the Earth’s environment.
Broadly, current energy science and technology research has four main areas of focus: (1) energy sources, including but not limited to solar energy, wind energy, geothermal energy, electro- and photo-catalysis, biofuels, hydrogen energy, and energy harvesting devices; (2) energy storage, which encompasses everything from batteries to fuel cells to supercapacitors to carbon capture and storage; (3) energy utilization, including energy conversion technologies, energy transport, energy transmission grids, and increasing the scalability of such technologies; and (4) sustainability, which covers topics ranging from atmospheric and climate science to increasing the energy efficiency of buildings, transportation, and industrial processes.
As the range of these topics might suggest, GERA’s membership—now over 700 people—constitutes a highly interdisciplinary group. Energy research engages not only physicists but also chemists, engineers, and materials scientists, making GERA an important entry-point to APS for researchers with an academic home outside of physics. Furthermore, within physics, energy research draws upon several areas of the field, including condensed matter physics, materials physics, polymer physics, nuclear physics, and computational physics. Within APS, GERA cooperates most closely with the Divisions of Condensed Matter Physics (DCMP; see APS News April 2019) and Polymer Physics (DPOLY).
Beyond different academic specialties, GERA encompasses an impressive diversity of sectors where energy researchers work. “Energy research is very multidisciplinary as a portfolio, and GERA attracts researchers from academia, national labs, and industry. We have fundamental science up through applied research represented,” explained GERA chair Marina Leite (University of California, Davis). To this end, GERA has also forged a close relationship with the Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics (FIAP; see APS News February 2020), both to build connections with energy researchers working in industry and to expose students and early career scientists to the wealth of career options available in the clean energy arena.
Mirroring the rapid development of the energy research field, GERA is a fast-growing unit, with membership rising almost 50% in the past two years. Notably, almost 60% of the group’s members are students or early career scientists, signifying the vibrance of this field at a time when innovation in clean energy is more crucial than ever. Additionally, GERA is composed of over 20% women, placing it among the top APS units for gender diversity, but still with ample room for growth.
GERA is well-represented at the annual APS March Meeting. At this year’s hybrid meeting in Chicago, GERA hosted three invited sessions and one focus session covering topics such as advances in thermal energy conversion, the interface between renewable energy and data science, computational modeling of materials for energy applications, and the future of energy—including discussions of fuel-agnostic engines for a decarbonized future, updates on fusion energy development, and nanotechnology-enabled energy storage paradigms.
A particular point of pride for GERA is its annual March Meeting Energy Research Workshop, which takes place the day before the main conference agenda begins. With around 100 participants from the United States and abroad, the workshop is an all-day event featuring presentations on hot topics in the field, round-table discussions, and plenty of networking opportunities. “We aim for a balance of senior researchers and upcoming new names in order to promote everyone in our field doing great work,” noted Leite. The meeting is unique in that it brings together people from all areas of clean energy research, rather than just those working on one specific problem.
For APS members interested in learning more about energy research and applications outside of APS Meetings, the Physical Review journal PRX Energy promises to be an excellent resource. The new fully open access and highly selective APS journal will waive all publication fees until 2023 in order to encourage researchers to publish their work there. On a symbolic level, the introduction of a dedicated energy research journal provides important recognition of clean energy research as a major subfield of physics. It also provides a hub for cutting-edge clean energy research in all its diversity, which may otherwise have been dispersed across multiple journals focused on particular subfields of physics.
While GERA and PRX Energy are not formally affiliated, some members of PRX Energy’s editorial staff contributed to this year’s March Meeting Energy Research Workshop. “The Physical Review journals have such a well-established reputation. Having a high-quality journal dedicated to clean energy research is excellent development,” said Leite.
Looking forward, the GERA executive committee’s principal goal for the group is to enliven participation beyond the March Meeting, particularly among younger researchers. The executive committee is currently exploring the possibility of a quarterly webinar series that keeps the broad, interdisciplinary conversations about clean energy research running year-round, particularly for those who cannot attend the March Meeting. “Young researchers can benefit a lot from having a survey of the larger field presented. It is a good way to give students and international researchers access to talks from prominent voices in the field,” Leite noted.
Leite summarized the benefits of GERA membership as gaining access to a platform to seek recognition for one’s work and network with experts in the field. “There is such a pressing need for clean energy technologies. Being able to showcase your results to an expert audience can help you advance in the field,” she explained.
Overall, GERA stands out as a group with a bright future, promoting research and exchange of ideas at the forefront of one of the most buzzing and interdisciplinary areas of physics, at a time when our planet needs it most. More information can be found at the GERA website.
The author is a freelance writer in Stockholm, Sweden.
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