Science for our
Nation's
Energy Future

Energy Frontier Research Center

Community Website
Frontiers in
Energy Research
Newsletter
Summer 2019

Spotlight on Collaborating: An Early Career Scientist's View with Aaron Taggart

Collaborative experiences empower graduate students with skills to discover future opportunities

Chiung-Wei Huang

Aaron Taggart’s fascination with chemistry began in high school and continues through graduate school. He’s studying material defects that make it difficult to convert intermittent solar energy into easy-to-store fuels. Image courtesy of Ralph House, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Chemistry is magic. It sparks flaming fires with the most dazzling colors. The colorful flames, part of exotic chemical reactions demonstrated by a high school teacher, started Aaron Taggart’s fascination with chemistry. He is now a graduate student with the Alliance for Molecular PhotoElectrode Design for Solar Fuels (AMPED) Energy Frontier Research Center. At AMPED, researchers are inspired by how plants use sunlight to make energy and leverage the knowledge to store energy as fuels in the form of chemical bonds.

Growing up in Rochester, New York, Aaron dreamed of playing on a soccer pitch. Now he dreams of making a difference in the renewable energy field. Starting as an undergraduate, he studied solar cells that harness the sun’s energy; this research experience brought his attention to sustainable energy development. “I was drawn to the solar energy work going on in the Energy Frontier Research Center. The large scale of collaboration made it seem like the work had a higher likelihood of making an impact,” said Aaron.

Soccer’s teamwork

To maneuver for better energy solutions, it is a team effort from interdisciplinary collaborations that makes the dream work. Aaron now works with AMPED to design electrode materials and explore their interfaces with dye molecules. He particularly focuses on developing approaches to eliminate defects resulting from the imperfect crystallinity in these electrodes.

With a special treatment method, called targeted atomic deposition, Aaron and his colleagues at AMPED selectively fill in a defect known as an atomic cation vacancy, a positively charged vacancy left behind when an atom misses out in the solid crystal. By filling the void with a specifically chosen cation from a chemical reaction, the new approach can improve the quality of an electrode.

To comprehend the impact of targeted atomic deposition on how charges flow, Aaron initiated a collaboration with Lenzi Williams, an AMPED postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to study the way charges move between electrode and dye. Gaining insights from these interdisciplinary collaborations, Aaron can fine tune the procedure to find the niche optimizing the electrode surface. Materials research works best when different areas of expertise are involved in achieving a complete appreciation of the system.

Aaron and his colleagues at AMPED keep looking for better energy solutions to facilitate the full potential of solar cells. Although they identified a promising electrode material, they found it difficult to implement because the existing dyes work poorly with the new material.

Imagine a car with tricycle-sized tires. No matter how powerful the engine is, it would be difficult for the car to race down the road. The molecular dyes are like the wheels; they enable the cell to work when they are physically and energetically matched with the electrode. Collaborating with Linda Nhon, an AMPED graduate student at Georgia Institute of Technology, Aaron and his collaborators are designing new dyes to extend solar light harvesting and charge transfer ability.

A sweet result

Collaborations have become an important part of Aaron’s research. However, communicating across interdisciplinary areas is no breeze. For example, at first Aaron would intuitively talk about Fermi level shifts to describe the electronic structure changes in materials, but he soon realized his colleagues may not appreciate the significance of this topic. He found the best way to enhance two-way communication is to frequently stop and ask if the concepts he is describing are clear. Because every researcher arrives with different professional training, they need to communicate clearly to foster productive conversations.


Aaron examined the surface morphology of the sample with optical microscopy, a routine procedure for preliminary assessments of the quality of the prepared material. Image courtesy of Chiung-Wei Huang, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Aaron also actively leads science outreach. As an Early Career Network representative for the Department of Energy, he said, “I have the opportunity to learn how much time and effort goes into planning outreach events.” He also helps manage research presentations contributed from groups and served as a research team coordinator at AMPED. One of the challenges he has found is to have an appropriate team member to present the recent research findings. “I would encourage people to present who hadn’t presented in a while, which is a step outside of my personality,” said Aaron. Participating in science outreach helps Aaron build communication skills and advance his career trajectory in discovering professional development.

Inspired by his experience in collaborative research and outreach, Aaron has become interested in working with groups of scientists and bridging groups to, as a whole, make an influential impact on the scientific community. Looking ahead, he plans to continue to pursue opportunities to explore and practice collaboration and outreach. “I’m excited to use the skills I’ve been developing in grad school,” said Aaron, “to translate interesting research ideas into technologies that directly improve people’s lives and protect the environment.”

“We’re still growing and learning how to be the best scientists and researchers,” said Aaron, reflecting on his experiences in the collaboration. His advice? “Take mistakes and experiments or presentations that don’t go well as an opportunity to reflect and improve a skill, and don’t be too hard on yourself.”

Acknowledgments

Alliance for Molecular PhotoElectrode Design for Solar Fuels (AMPED) is an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the Department of Energy, Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences.

About the author(s):

  • Chiung-Wei Huang is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a member of the Alliance for Molecular PhotoElectrode Design for Solar Fuels (AMPED) Energy Frontier Research Center. She studies photovoltage and electronic properties at the nanostructured semiconductor-chromophore interface of photoelectrodes for dye-sensitized photoelectrosynthesis cells.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.