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About Kavli ENSI

“If we can understand the principles of energy conversion at this very small scale, we can come up with new energy technologies that may look very different from the ones we have now. “
-Kavli ENSI Co-Director Paul Alivisatos

We know a lot of about how to harness energy from oil, wind, and the motion of water through a dam, and energy has become central to our modern civilizations. Our current energy-generation schemes, however, seem crude in comparison to the elegant systems nature has evolved over millions of years. Those natural systems serve as inspiration for researchers at the Kavli Energy NanoScience Instituted (ENSI), who aim to be part of creating powerful new approaches to energy conversion, utilization and efficiency.

The importance of energy

Kavli ENSI co-director and UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Research Paul Alivisatos (left) in his laboratory.

Kavli ENSI co-director and UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Research Paul Alivisatos (left) in his laboratory. Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt, LBNL

Societies need access to clean, affordable energy in order to raise and maintain their standards of living. The Kavli ENSI’s focus on both short- and long-term thinking couldn’t have arrived at more opportune time. The world’s demand for energy has been steadily increasing. The Kavli ENSI, founded in 2013, entered the scene just after new technologies and computing power enabled researchers to investigate questions that were previously out of bounds.

Kavli ENSI researchers are exploring fundamental issues in energy science, using cutting-edge tools and techniques developed specifically to study and manipulate nanomaterials – stuff with dimensions the size of molecules, about 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. The physical world seems to deal with energy differently at this scale. Kavli ENSI researchers believe that understanding these phenomena will open door to new approaches to energy.

The Kavli ENSI’s research is focused around six themes:

  • Nanoscale Motors 
    Devised manmade tiny motors that can mimic that efficiency of molecular motors found in nature

Energy at the nanometer scale

ENSI Co-Director Paul Alivisatos explains that much of today’s energy research focuses on improving well-known technologies, such as batteries, liquid fuels, solar cells and wind generators. On the nanoscale, however, energy is captured, channeled and stored in totally different ways dictated by the quantum mechanical nature of small-scale interactions. Scientist have yet to unravel the foundational issues of how energy is converted to work on that scale.

ENSI researchers are moving toward that goal. Work by UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab chemist Graham Fleming has shown, for example, that when leaf pigments capture light in the form of photons, electrons are excited and interact in a coherent way not seen at larger scales. This quantum coherence could potentially be incorporated into nanoscale artificial systems to produce energy from sunlight more efficiently.

Carlos Bustamante

Biophysicist Carlos Bustamante with the optical tweezers setup used to measure nanomotors strength. (Credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Lab - Roy Kaltschmidt, photographer)

While studying nanoscale motors inside cells, UC Berkeley physicist Carlos Bustamante and Berkeley Lab theorist Gavin Crooks discovered that energy flow does not always follow the standard rules of macroscopic systems. Nanomotors can sometimes move backward, for example, akin to a ball rolling uphill briefly. Such quantum weirdness confers some real benefits to biological motors, and these benefits might be replicated to create more efficient nanomachines or self-regulating nanoscale energy circuits.

Other Kavli ENSI scientists plan to investigate how heat flows in nanomaterials and whether the vibrational energy, or phonons, can be channeled to make thermal rectifiers, diodes or transistors analogous to electronic switches in use today; develop novel materials, ranging from polymers to cage structures and nanowires, with unusual nanoscale properties; or design materials that could sort, count and channel molecules along prescribed paths and over diverse energy landscapes to carry out complex chemical conversions.


Kavli Foundation support for nanoscience

The Kavli ENSI was established by the Kavli Foundation, which sponsors an international program of research institutes dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity. Kavli has 17 institutes around the globe, and the foundation funds an international program that includes research institutes, professorships, symposia and other initiatives in four fields – astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics. The Kavli ENSI is the fifth nanoscience institute worldwide established by The Kavli Foundation, joining Kavli Institutes at the California Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and Harvard University.

The Kavli foundation views nanoscale science as a field that, with the necessary basic research, stands to lay the foundation for many positive changes worldwide. Because energy is so central of modern civilization, in the words of Fred Kavli, Founder and Chairman of the Kavli Foundation, “Kavli ENSI is positioned to revolutionize our thinking about the science of energy, and is positioned to do the kind of basic research that will ultimately make this a better world for all of us.”


At ENSI’s helm are three co-directors, each bringing his own achievements and expertise. All three are ranked among the top 10 most influential chemists in the world, measured by how often their work is cited by others. 

Paul Alivisatos

Paul Alivisatos


Paul Alivisatos is Vice Chancellor for Research and the Samsung Distinguished Chair in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology in UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry. Prof. Alivisatos’ groundbreaking contributions to the fundamental physical chemistry of nanocrystals are the hallmarks of his distinguished career. His research breakthroughs include the synthesis of size- and shape-controlled nanoscrystals, and forefront studies of nanocrystal properties, including optical, electrical, structural and thermodynamic. In his research, he has demonstrated key applications of nanocrystals in biological imaging and renewable energy. 

Omar Yaghi

Omar Yaghi


Omar Yaghi is the James and Neeltje Tretter Chair and professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley and a Berkeley Lab researcher. He is well known for his work with metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) and covalent organic frameworks (COFs), which can be used to store gases such as hydrogen and methane for transport. MOFs and COFs may also have applications for clean water and artificial photosynthesis, as well as thermal batteries. Prof. Yaghi and his team specialize in the stitching molecules and molecular-level structures together to create new materials.

Peidong Yang

Peidong Yang


Peidong Yang is Director, California Research Alliance by BASF; Professor in Department of Chemistry, Materials Science and Engineering and S. K. and Angela Chan Distinguished Chair Professor in Energy. His main research interest is in the area of one dimensional semiconductor nanostructures, and he is the most cited researcher in the world in the field of materials science. His group at Berkeley is doing revolutionary research in the use of nanowires in artificial photosynthesis and solar cells.

Another 14 faculty from physics, engineering, materials science and engineering round out ENSI’s research staff. Together, they aim for two complementary goals that inform and build on each other: 1) gain a deeper understanding of how biological molecules capture and convert energy, and 2) engineer nanodevices that mimic and improve on nature’s tricks, using materials ranging from graphene and metal oxide frameworks to nanowires and nanolasers.

Many Kavli ENSI members have worked on nanoscience projects as varied as photosynthesis, nanomachine-enabled virus reproduction, nanotube motors and devices, engineered nanostructures, and ways to manipulate the movement of heat. They often collaborate with their peers, and sometimes with researchers in other disciples. Yet their collaborations tend to focus on the same types of problems. Someone working on nanotubes will collaborate with someone else working on nanotubes.

Felix Fischer

At Kavli ENSI, that nanotube researcher has the opportunity to interact with researchers who work on biological nanomachine motors. Researchers who want to control the flow of heat in nanoscopic devices get to talk with scientists who have faced similar challenges building devices to control the flow of light and electrical charges.


This kind of collaboration is vital to making real change in the way deal with energy. “We’re like a team here,” says Felix Fisher, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and an ENSI researcher. “You take inspiration from people working in other areas, and get expertise from many brilliant minds. Only a group of people working together like this can actually address the bigger picture of energy.”

Funded for a long-term perspective

The Kavli Foundation is much respected for fostering a long-term perspective in science. It recognizes the importance of basic research in providing foundational knowledge on which scientists of all stripes can build.

To this end, the institute is supported by a $20 million endowment, with The Kavli Foundation providing $10 million and UC Berkeley raising equivalent matching funds. The Kavli Foundation also provides additional start-up funds for the institute. Kavli ENSI has received matching fund gifts from the Heising-Simons Foundation, establishing a Heising-Simons Junior Fellowship Program, and a donation from the Philomathia Foundation, establishing the Philomathia Graduate Student Fellowship Program.

The Philomathia Discovery Fund operating within the Kavli ENSI supports research projects that have exceptional promise to deliver fundamental conceptual and technical breakthroughs. This Discovery Fund is made possible by a matching gift from the Philomathia Foundation, which was founded to promote human values and science through education and research.

The Heising-Simons Energy Nanoscience Fellows Program has established a named fellowship to provide support for outstanding graduate students, postdocs or early-career faculty who are performing research affiliated with the Kavli Institute. This fellowship is made possible by a matching gift from the Heising-Simons Foundation, which supports efforts in education, environment, science and public policy.

All these efforts extend the Kavli Foundation’s mission of advancing science for the benefit of humanity, promoting public understanding of scientific research and supporting scientists and their work. In doing so, the institute also provides researchers with resources to tackle scientific challenges they wouldn’t have been able to take on alone.


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