Since I can remember, I have had a natural interest in how things work. I have never been satisfied with the “black box” approach to learning things. I always want to learn everything as comprehensively as possible. This was the driving force for me to enter the STEM field. Like many others, I initially thought that being a doctor or pharmacist was the only way for me to affect the world through science. However, I got the opportunity to do scientific research at Georgia Tech the summer before my senior year of college. This research experience changed my life trajectory. I realized that I could just be… a scientist! As simple as that sounds, it never quite occurred to me while I was growing up. After the Georgia Tech experience, I decided to go to graduate school to earn my PhD in chemistry, and now I am at Argonne, as a postdoc, for the final phase of my scientific training before I become a professor.
The most important piece of advice I can provide to young people is this: Expose yourself to everything. It is vital to get exposure to the many different facets of STEM. Expose yourself to chemistry, physics, computer science, etc. After completing your education, expose yourself to industry and academia. Try to get hands-on experience in a laboratory or clinical setting. You may be surprised to discover that your interests can shift!
Day-to-day Work At Argonne
Why Battery Science Matters
Batteries. We can’t escape them, yet they aren’t as good as they could be. We want ultra-lightweight laptops that last all day and we hate when our cell phone battery runs out.
Lead-acid batteries have been around for more than 100 years. While this has been great for automotive and lead-acid battery infrastructure, it has contributed to the lack of interest in fundamentally improving the core technology. The thinking has been: “It works, so no need to reinvent the wheel.” However, the underlying mechanism that makes a lead-acid battery function is a surface process, and as a result, only the surface layers of lead are utilized. This means that we have very heavy batteries that are poorly utilized at the atomic scale (i.e. low energy density). This presents a huge research opportunity. At Argonne, I am working on a project designed to understand the fundamental aspects of lead-acid electrochemistry with the goal of rationally designing a higher performing system that may ultimately rival the energy density of lithium-ion technology.
Fuel cells. We don’t live with them yet, but when we do, we won’t be able to live without them. A fuel cell is essentially a battery that will run as long as a supply of fuel (hydrogen gas) is maintained. Fuel cell technology combines the best of the battery world and internal combustion world. In addition, it is a clean technology, as its only byproduct is water. In the transportation sector, the fuel cell vehicle offers all the benefits of electric cars, and many that electric vehicles do not, such as quick refueling and longer range. However, one of the biggest issues with current state-of-the-art fuel cell technology is that it requires a platinum-containing catalyst. Platinum costs roughly $1,000/oz. I am working on a project that aims to replace the platinum catalyst with a substantially less expensive catalyst containing iron (~$70/ton). Although the economic value is apparent, this is no trivial task, as platinum has significantly higher performance than iron. When this ambitious research goal is accomplished, I have no doubt that fuel cell vehicle technology will become competitive.