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Frontiers in
Energy Research
January 2012

An Interview with Dr. Héctor Abruña

A glimpse at the Energy Materials Center at Cornell

Ralph L. House

Dr. Héctor Abruña

“Virtually all energy-related systems involve electrochemical interfaces,” says Héctor D. Abruña, Director of the Energy Materials Center at Cornell. Broadly defined, electrochemistry is the study of chemical reactions at the interface between a solution and an electrode. The chemical reactions are driven by an applied voltage, which places electrochemistry at the heart of many of the proposed solutions to the energy problem, whether that’s fuel cells to drive our cars, dye-sensitized solar cells to harvest the sun’s energy, or batteries for solar farms, storing energy from intermittent sources.

Ten years ago, Abruña, along with long-time collaborator Frank DiSalvo, began researching fuel cells, searching for catalysts that could efficiently oxidize small carbon-based molecules, such as formic acid and methanol, as potential fuels for the cells. Their breakthrough came with the discovery that ordered intermetallics, the atomic ordering of two elemental atoms, such as PtBi (platinum bismuth), accomplish this job with great efficiency.

“Frank and I submitted a small DOE grant to use these materials. That led to the establishment of the Cornell Fuel Cell Institute, which, in turn, became the Energy Materials Center at Cornell; emc2.”

The Energy Materials Center at Cornell is focused on the design and discovery of materials that will lead to better performing batteries and fuel cells. “We do this by a combination of various aspects. At the most fundamental level, we need to understand how interfaces work at the nanoscale and we place a lot of emphasis on that aspect,” says Abruña. To tackle this problem, the Center brings together expertise in theory, synthesis and characterization, all of which are based under the same roof at Cornell. In particular, the Center has positioned itself as a leader for in situ characterization.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is make our center the place to go for in situ measurements,” says Abruña. “We have in situ x-rays, in situ FTIR (Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy), in situmass spectrometry, in situ TEM (transmission electron microscopy)… a wide range of techniques that enable us to study systems during operation, not just before and after.”

Such techniques are a major contribution to the field because they give researchers a window into the reactions in real-time and under operating conditions, providing critical information that would otherwise be difficult, if at all possible, to obtain.

People are just as important to Abruña as the science, and he takes their training very seriously. “If you take the average graduate student, he or she is about 22 years old and when they join a graduate program they’re basically saying ‘here is five years of my life.’ You should respond in kind. I discuss things with them one-on-one every week. In the beginning I provide more input, by the second year they’re informing me about what they’re doing . . . reaching that sense of scientific maturity.” When asked what accomplishments he is most proud of: “The people in my group, without a doubt.”

Abruña was initially inspired to pursue a career in chemistry by his high school chemistry teacher and later by his graduate advisors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill, Royce Murray and Thomas Meyer, as well as his postdoctoral advisor, Allen Bard at the University of Texas at Austin. Because chemical interfaces and electrochemistry are a major component of many of our renewable energy alternatives, it is surprising to find that such a rigorous training in physical electrochemistry is still rare to find, as Abruña points out: “One of the problems is that very few places in this country train people in physical electrochemistry, that’s a real issue.”

Through the Center, Abruña is directing a center that not only conducts cutting-edge battery and fuel cell research with state-of-the-art instrumentation, but is also providing rigorous training that will produce the future generation of scientists who will go on to solve many of our difficult problems. “You have to keep a sustained effort over the long run,” says Abruña, “The EFRCs are a great program because, in my view, loosely speaking, the DOE called our bluff: ‘Here’s the money, let’s see what you can do.’ You need to sustain that, because it’s from those types of programs that the future solutions and the next generation of researchers will come out.”

About the author(s):

  • A member of the Solar Fuels Energy Frontier Research Center, Ralph is a Research Associate specializing in the use of multiple spectroscopic techniques to analyze the steps leading to the generation of solar fuels. Ralph is also involved with coordinating projects leading to the fabrication of a prototype solar fuels device and is the UNC-EFRC Liaison for External Outreach and Collaboration.

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.