Energy Frontier Research Centers strive to address major problems in society through scientific research, but how do they start?
Timothy Goetjen

The biggest challenges in the scientific community may seem daunting to tackle, but as The Beatles famously said, “I get by with a little help from my friends!” When scientists see immense challenges, they do not attempt to solve them alone. Like climbing Mt. Everest, most scientific problems are best addressed with a team of experts who know what they are doing. Enter, the Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) program, sponsored by the United States Department of Energy’s (DOE) Basic Energy Sciences division. EFRCs have overarching goals to address large scientific problems with teams of talented researchers at the helm. While there are multiple EFRCs, each of which has unique scientific goals and cohort of scientists, this article features the Inorganometallic Catalyst Design Center (ICDC). Insights from its Director, Professor Laura Gagliardi of the University of Chicago, provide a glimpse of how an EFRC such as ICDC made its start.

Scientific challenges can be likened to climbing a mountain. With the right tools, and the right people, the summit can be reached.

Having been involved in two other centers previously, Gagliardi knew that given the right opportunity, she wanted the unique leadership experience that comes with being director of an EFRC. The next steps were finding such an opportunity with a major scientific challenge to address and dedicated scientists to take up the charge. From her own group’s research, Gagliardi knew that metal–organic frameworks (MOFs), a class of porous hybrid organic–inorganic nanomaterials, would be a unique platform to study more fundamental catalytic reactions. Behind a great deal of industrial processes are catalyst materials, serving to make the processes more efficient, thereby making certain goods and services more cost effective to the general public. The shale gas boom in the United States has shifted focus away from processing of crude oil and towards the production of fine chemicals from natural gas as a feedstock. For this reason, the specific catalytic reactions of interest within ICDC involve the conversion of shale gas components to higher value products that can serve as feedstocks for chemical processes.

The ultimate goal for ICDC, according to Gagliardi, became wanting to “understand and discover superior catalysts by integrating computational modeling with experiments.” Already having existing collaborations with prominent members in the MOF community, and therefore having a core group of a few people who had experience working together, the gathering of the group of great minds that would form ICDC came about easily. The center wanted to put theory up front, with Gagliardi posing the questions, “Can theory eventually guide experiments? Can theory try to reproduce experimental values, experimental notions, and then from there be predictive and create a self-sustaining loop?” This self-sustaining loop would not only include theorists and experimentalists, but would contain subgroups focusing on theory, materials synthesis, materials characterization, and the catalysis itself, “four thrusts that we thought would be indispensable to be successful in this field,” according to Gagliardi.

A visual representation of the “self-sustaining loop” mentioned by Gagliardi, showing the four main thrusts used in the ICDC to further scientific discovery

Just because an EFRC is established does not mean it cannot adapt to changes in society or new technologies. There was a first cycle of ICDC (2014–2018) before its current form, during which time science was continuously evolving, and machine learning became a strong field that showed significant potential to further the goal of theory guiding experiments. Therefore, when ICDC was renewed for a second cycle (2018–2022), machine learning was added to the thrusts, and experts in that field were recruited to join the group. It is this adaptability of the EFRC cycle system that allows the centers to adjust as science evolves. Commenting on how unique of an opportunity the EFRCs are, Gagliardi discussed that while collaborating with other individuals and individual research groups is valuable, collaboration within the EFRC is different. She elaborated, saying “The advancement of the knowledge that one achieves within the EFRC is larger than the sum of the advancements that arise from individual collaborations and the quality of the discoveries is higher and more meaningful.” Science, when properly disseminated, has the capability to benefit the world in amazing ways, and it is collaborative efforts such as ICDC that truly lead to the advancement and spread of that knowledge, with members from all over the United States, from coast to coast. Ultimately, when asked about how ICDC has and will contribute to society, Gagliardi said “If we complete our mission with success, we will accelerate the development of supported cluster catalysts with specific characteristics.” She said the results would not be obvious to the public, but would provide benefits, nonetheless. For instance, one of the main challenges for the efficient use of plentiful natural gas is the storage and transportation of excess quantities. Direct conversion of methane to methanol (gas to liquid) would enable the natural gas to be more easily stored and transported in the liquid state. The development of supported cluster catalysts that can achieve this transformation more efficiently and selectively would thus eliminate the unnecessary flaring of the excess natural gas, which contributes ~1% of global CO2 emissions. A result such as this may not be obvious to the public, but the advances of the EFRC system and its impact are ever present.

Gagliardi discussed how working within the EFRC system has changed her approach to science and managing research groups, and the main idea behind all of this is collaboration. Being director of a center like ICDC means trying to understand all aspects of science within the EFRC, not just your personal background. Gagliardi said, “In my case…it changes the approach to science, in the sense that the science, the research, is not about you, it is about reaching this goal together,” and “I think we really work all on the same topic almost in an obsessive way.” Teamwork and the opportunities for it that the EFRC system provides enables the development of the next generation of scientists too, including junior researchers in the centers. 

The collaborative group of talented scientists that make up the Inorganometallic Catalyst Design Center, at the All-Hands Meeting in 2019 (pre-COVID).

To end on a hopeful thought for the future, Gagliardi praised the center’s inclusion of junior researchers, saying “The EFRC really gives a unique opportunity to the next generation, because they don’t work just within the group with their advisor, but they work as part of the center. They talk to other groups, other students…they see how other experts within the field approach the problem.” At the heart of these collaborative teams are support systems for junior researchers to develop and thrive, gaining more experience than they would simply working with scientists within their own institution. This teamwork is one of the many aspects of EFRC work that enables the climb to reach the summit of scientific challenges.

About the author(s):

Timothy A. Goetjen holds a B.A. in both Chemistry and Computer Science from Rutgers University – New Brunswick and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University, in both the Farha and Hupp research groups in the Chemistry Department. His research projects involve the development of new metal–organic framework materials for energy relevant gas-phase catalysis and the subsequent study of structure-activity relationships within those reactions. He is a junior member of the Inorganometallic Catalyst Design Center (ICDC) EFRC, and serves as a DOE Basic Energy Sciences (BES) Early Career Network Representative, where he helps organize cross-BES Center activities for early career scientists. Within his own department at Northwestern, Tim is passionate about giving back to his graduate student community. He is active in Chemistry Department graduate student organizations, serving as treasurer for the Phi Lambda Upsilon (PLU) honors society and secretary for the Graduate Liaison Committee (GLC).

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