When Congress passed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) last spring, it earmarked $21.5 billion for scientific research, equipment, and construction projects. Because it didn’t require that the money fund new initiatives, ARRA mostly worked out as a kind of “bonus round” for researchers already tapped into the federal funding stream.

The U-M landed more than $1 billion in research funding last year. As of the end of February, U-M scholars had won an additional $267 million in stimulus grants.

The medical school alone will get nearly $50 million for around 200 research projects, and the Institute for Social Research is getting $48.3 million. Hundreds of smaller grants include $379,620 to anthropology professor Kelly Askew to study “transformations in property rights and poverty in rural Tanzania,” and $265,001 to paleontology prof Philip Gingerich to continue his research on prehistoric whales.

ARRA wasn’t all bonus money, though: the single biggest grant–$19.5 million over five years–will support a new energy research center.

The Center for Solar & Thermal Energy Conversion will study ways of using nanoscience to increase the efficiency of alternative energy. Peter Green, chair of the Materials Science and Engineering Department, says the money will support “use-inspired” basic science by twenty-eight faculty members and twice that many students.

There’s plenty of solar power to run the world’s economy, Green notes–if it can be captured efficiently. The big stumbling block is finding the right materials to use in the multistage conversion process. It turns out that extremely tiny and very complex materials produce better results, but scientists are still learning how to handle them. Recent technology enables researchers to understand and “tailor” the movement of atoms, photons, phonons, and other particles moving at blazing speeds–“a trillionth as fast as the blink of the eye,” explains Green.

Green says he expects local start-ups, spin-offs, and existing solar energy concerns (he’s already talking to some, but won’t say which ones) to take his team’s findings and put them to quick use.