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Winter 2020

Tackling Energy Challenges

An inside look at the approaches of two EFRCs

Catherine F. Wise

Established in 2009 by Basic Energy Sciences at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) have taken innovative approaches to addressing challenges in energy conversion. With a focus on performing fundamental science, each center strives to tackle at least one of the “Grand Challenges” set forth by DOE, which range from manipulating the movement of individual atoms and electrons to understanding the properties and interactions of complex, multi-scale materials.

Given the diversity of these aims, EFRCs take vastly different approaches to solving complex research questions. However, in all cases, the collaborative environments, access to state-of-the-art instrumentation, and multidisciplinary research strategies result in scientific advances that would not be possible for an individual laboratory to achieve.

Brandi Cossairt (back row, 3rd from left) and her research group take a break from lab work during a visit to a corn maze this fall. Image courtesy of Brandi Cossairt.

The potential of EFRCs to enable and inspire scientific research is especially evident through the work of Brandi Cossairt, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Washington. Cossairt belongs to two EFRCs, the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis (CME) and the Center for the Science of Synthesis Across Scales (CSSAS).

On the surface, these two centers may appear to be completely disconnected. CME studies the movement of protons and electrons in molecules and materials, aiming to develop more efficient methods of interconverting chemical and electrical energies. CSSAS investigates the formation of highly structured materials from disparate molecular building blocks, aspiring to understand how these materials respond to environmental factors and develop predictive models for designing materials with specific properties. Despite these seemingly disconnected goals, Cossairt can link both to her personal research interests.

“The bridge is really colloidal materials and the surface chemistry of colloidal materials,” she said.

Studies of colloidal materials (depicted as an aggregate of blue and yellow spheres) are a common theme in CSSAS and CME, despite the diverse research aims of the two centers. Scientists at CSSAS investigate how colloidal materials assemble and interact with their environment, while scientists at CME examine the interfacial reactivity of these materials with hydrogen atom equivalents. Image courtesy of Nathan Johnson, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Involvement with EFRCs has allowed Cossairt to apply her expertise in colloidal materials — nanoparticles that can be dispersed in solution—to diverse sets of research problems. In fact, her interest in this class of materials was inspired, in part, by her experience as a postdoctoral researcher in a former EFRC called Re-Defining Photovoltaic Efficiency Through Molecular Scale Control (RPEMSC). She remembers her time in RPEMSC fondly. “I just enjoyed going to really cool meetings and being exposed for the first time to multidisciplinary, collaborative science,” said Cossairt.

Thus, when the opportunity arose for her to join two EFRCs as a professor, she eagerly accepted.

CME wanted to expand its focus from studying solely molecular electrocatalysis to investigating electrochemical reactivity at material-solution interfaces, with a goal of gaining fundamental insight into reactions relevant to fuel cells and other technologies. The existing team of researchers sought new collaborators, like Cossairt, with expertise in the synthesis and analysis of colloidal materials.

Cossairt’s expertise in these areas also attracted the attention of a group of chemical and bio-engineers at the University of Washington and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who were developing a proposal for what would become CSSAS. These scientists wanted to apply concepts of bio-organization—how organic building blocks, like proteins, self-assemble into complex molecules—to inorganic compounds and polymers. They approached Cossairt about joining their team because they knew that her background in inorganic and materials synthesis would be a valuable asset.

These different circumstances in which Cossairt became involved with CME and CSSAS have allowed her to expand the research directions within her own group in different ways, both extending an already existing investigation and initiating an entirely new project.

In joining CME, Cossairt entered into a center with a well-defined vision and organizational structure and engaged with a research team that had been collaborating for years. Although integrating into this framework and learning the center’s approach to analyzing scientific problems has been challenging, she emphasizes the openness and welcoming nature of everyone in the center.

Her CME-funded research investigates how hydrogen atom equivalents (protons and electrons) react at the interface of colloidal materials and solutions, a key process in fuel cell technologies. Specifically, Cossairt’s team examines how different interfacial properties of transition metal phosphide and dichalcogenide nanomaterials affect their performance as electrocatalysts. This project was already ongoing when she joined the center, and she believes that the combined expertise of her group and other CME scientists will be instrumental in moving the studies forward in new and interesting directions. Most importantly, she notes, the clear goals of the studies have allowed her to maintain an independent research identity while still feeling part of a collaborative team.

On the other hand, as a founding member of CSSAS, Cossairt was more involved in creating the overall vision for the center. As a result, she had the opportunity to design an entirely new project for her research lab—attempting to connect the concept of self-assembly, which is well-studied for biomaterials, to the synthesis of inorganic nanomaterials. Having less familiarity with the biological side of the center has forced her to learn and embrace a new perspective on energy research.

As with any new project, there are experimental challenges. For example, biomolecules are typically synthesized and analyzed in water, but many inorganic nanomaterials are not soluble or stable under those conditions, limiting the ability to directly compare the systems. Pending workarounds to these experimental difficulties, the long-term results of these studies will establish innovative connections between disparate fields that likely would have gone unnoticed without the framework of the CSSAS.

The organizational differences between the two centers demonstrate various strategies for conducting successful scientific research. CME is very diffuse, with involvement from institutions across the United States; however, many of the scientists use similar tools to analyze research problems and thus have greater familiarity with each other’s work.

In contrast, the research in CSSAS is more varied, ranging from materials synthesis to spectroscopic analysis to computational simulations. Nevertheless, the geographic proximity of the researchers in CSSAS, the majority of whom are located in Washington state, keeps everyone motivated and working towards the same goals. Close proximity also enables graduate students to work jointly with multiple CSSAS faculty, which fosters research collaborations and facilitates the exchange of ideas among scientists with diverse expertise.

Overall, Cossairt describes her involvement in both CME and CSSAS as “an enormously positive experience.” Her enthusiasm speaks to the bountiful opportunities that EFRCs can provide to expand research programs and bridge scientific fields. Being associated with the two centers provides her access to collaborators with wide-ranging expertise and diverse approaches to analyzing scientific problems. More broadly, the unique perspective she has gained through these experiences suggests that more cross-talk between EFRCs could be valuable and lead to even further advancements in energy research. 

About the author(s):

  • Catherine F. Wise is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Yale University, and a member of the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis Energy Frontier Research Center. Her research in Prof. James Mayer’s lab involves the study of proton-coupled electron transfer processes in electrochemical systems.

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.