Seed Fund Program

Materials for Enhancing Energy and Environmental Stewardship

In support of the university strategic plan thematic priority on “Stewarding Our Planet’s Resources” (, the IEE (Institutes of Energy and Environment) and MRI (Materials Research Institute) are partnering in a seed fund program that challenges the Penn State research community to address the following themes:

  • Smart and Adaptive Energy Systems. The rapid evolution of the internet of things (IoT), advances in fundamental materials science, and innovative energy harvesting strategies are driving development of distributed sensor or communication networks and autonomous devices, including living, adaptive and energy-autonomous material systems1, providing valued data and control in different environments, and instrument/machinery control. The electrical powering of these nodes will best be served with circuitry that uses local energy harvesting or storage, as opposed to fossil-fuel provided electrical power. New methods to link up systems, use locally stored energy, or interact more dynamically with small scale stored energy systems (such as electric or hydrogen vehicles), are needed as they could greatly impact energy consumption dynamics and overall energy efficiencies.

1Penn State teams working on Living Materials concepts will be eligible to apply for additional funds to develop international collaborations with the University of Freiburg Centre of Excellence on Living Materials. These additional funds will be the subject of a subsequent RFP to be announced in the next few months. See .

  • Hybrid Inorganic-Organic Crystal Structures from Mid-IR and/or Microwave Photo-Voltaic (PV)-Cells. Materials with the perovskite crystal structure have multiple electrical and chemical variance. When the hybrid organic-inorganic perovskite (methylammonium lead halide) was discovered, it was found to have high performance optoelectronic properties and could be readily built into solar cells that are both cheap and easily manufactured on flexible substrates. The solar efficiency has rapidly increased in the perovskite cells to over 20% in six years, a remarkable advance, and furthermore, these materials can be integrated onto flexible substrates with pilot scale production. Earlier this summer, new organic-inorganic perovskite chemistries were introduced and demonstrated high quality ferroelectric and piezoelectric properties2. Collectively, these discoveries point to a broad design space for organic-inorganic crystal structures.  We are, therefore, challenging the Pennsylvania State University community to suggest and discover new chemistries that would enable PV-cells to be sensitive to other parts of the electromagnetic spectra, that is developing semiconductors that could operate in the mid-IR and/or microwave regimes.

2H.Y. Ye, Y.Y. Tang, P.F. Li, W.Q. Liao, J.-X Gao, X.N. Hua, H. Cai, P.P. Shi, Y.M. You, and R.G. Xiang, “Metal-Free Three-Dimensional Perovskite Ferroelectrics,” Science 361 151 (2018).

  • Biological Processes Enabling Low CO2 Production of Infrastructural Materials such as Bricks and Concrete. With a world population heading to over 9 billion in the next 30-40 years, and most of that growth in urban areas, the requirements for building materials will be equal to those proposed over the last 10,000 years. Given the high energy requirements and associated CO2 emissions that are associated with present concrete and steel production strategies, there must be a radical change to the production of building materials. Concepts around biomineralization for cement and concrete are one important strategy to address a sustainable manufacturing approach for building materials; plant-based biocomposites and fiber reinforcing represent another. We are encouraging proposals that cross the disciplines, including, but not limited to, biology; chemistry; geochemistry; mining, environmental, civil, and architectural engineering; architecture and design; and economics, to produce materials that can become competitive strategies for large scale production, with physical properties comparable to or better than present day building materials.
  • Low Cost Environmental and Food Sensors for Real-time Seasonal Field Monitoring and Food Storage. There are two target applications we are considering for novel low cost, precise environmental chemical and biochemical sensor technologies for small molecules. The first is for sensors that can be used in field studies to monitor critical gas and solute concentrations, namely nitrogen compounds and carbon dioxide in and above the soil – plant interface. There is a need to monitor these gases to track seasonal variance in forest and agricultural ecosystems. The second case considers monitoring of food under large scale storage. Over 20% of all harvested foods are spoiled in storage; there are chemical indicators as food undergoes decomposition, and these are in the form of small molecules known as volatile organic molecules (VOC’s). One important VOC that needs precise detection is ethylene, which is to be considered for large rice and grain storage.
  • Novel Concepts and Materials in Energy Conversion. There are emerging methods for energy conversion that could provide new methods for localized power generation, such as harvesting low temperature heat sources where Carnot efficiencies can be low, capturing river or tidal energy where biofouling is a challenge, or entropic energy from natural or engineered salt differences where membranes can limit performances. Materials are needed to reduce costs or increase system operating times, for example by using lower cost or more efficient ion exchange or selective membranes, developing stable electrodes at required applied potentials, or corrosion resistant materials for harsh environments. New approaches for both energy conversion and materials development are needed for these alternative technologies, providing a natural basis for interdisciplinary collaboration.  
  • Advancing Energy Storage. Solar and wind can provide an intermittent and inexpensive source of electrons, but storing this energy is challenging. Batteries are effective for small energy storage, but they can be expensive or use precious metals and rare earth elements. The most common method of large energy storage globally is pumped water storage or pressurized air, due to their high energy recovery efficiencies, but current approaches are limited to certain terrains. Novel energy storage methods, including flow batteries, novel water or air storage systems, reversible chemical systems (such as fuel cells), or heat storage systems could impact the stability of energy use and storage systems.

At least $500,000 of funding is available through this seed grant solicitation for 2019. To encourage establishment of new collaborations and enhancement of networks, larger grants will require innovative partnerships of investigators from multiple colleges and/or campus locations. Funds up to $15,000 can be awarded for a single investigator project; up to $25,000 for two or more faculty from the same college (University Park) or Commonwealth Campus; and up to $40,000 for multi-college (across University Park) and multi campus (between campuses) collaborative grants. The goal of this call is to embrace and support high risk concepts and engage our faculty in new directions.

Submission Instructions

Each pre-proposal is limited to a two-page project description and additional pages for an appendix.

The two-page project description must include the following:

  • Title of project
  • List of PI and collaborators, including college, department and/or campus
  • Short description of the project (understandable by an interdisciplinary audience)
  • Short description of how this project will leverage seed funding
  • Nature of collaboration (new/existing; mentorship opportunities)
  • Total funding to be requested, including short description of anticipated expenditures

The appendix will include a list of all collaborators, their colleges and/or departments, and 1-page resumes for the PI and all co-PIs.

Important Dates

DEADLINE: 5:00 pm on Friday February 22, 2019.  Submit through InfoReady at:

Accepted white papers will be invited to submit full proposals by April 11, 2019.

We hope to have determined through the review committees the successful proposals for funding by mid-May 2019, and funding will be available from June 2019 through August 2020, by which we expect all funds to be spent.

Preferred activities for funding under the Seed Grant Program

  • Development of new interdisciplinary research teams to position them for substantial external funding success;
  • Novel research, high-risk, proof of concept projects; and
  • Collaboration between junior and senior faculty to promote research development, mentorship.