Science & Technology

New Ways to Store Energy: Electrochemical Technologies Can Help Reduce Reliance on Fossil Fuels

Fikile Brushett, an MIT affiliate professor of chemical engineering, leads a bunch devoted to growing extra environment friendly methods to retailer vitality, together with batteries that might be used to retailer the vitality generated by wind and solar energy. Credit score: Jared Charney

Fikile Brushett, an MIT affiliate professor of chemical engineering, had an uncommon supply of inspiration for his profession within the chemical sciences: the character performed by Nicolas Cage within the 1996 film “The Rock.” Within the movie, Cage portrays an FBI chemist who hunts down a bunch of rogue U.S. troopers who’ve commandeered chemical weapons and brought over the island of Alcatraz.

“For a very very long time, I actually needed to be a chemist and work for the FBI with chemical warfare brokers. That was the purpose: to be Nick Cage,” recollects Brushett, who first noticed the film as a highschool pupil dwelling in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington.

Although he didn’t find yourself becoming a member of the FBI or working with chemical weapons — which he says might be for the very best — Brushett did pursue his love of chemistry. In his lab at MIT, Brushett leads a bunch devoted to growing extra environment friendly and sustainable methods to retailer vitality, together with batteries that might be used to retailer the electrical energy generated by wind and solar energy. He’s additionally exploring new methods to convert carbon dioxide to helpful fuels.

“The spine of our international vitality economic system relies upon liquid fossil fuels proper now, and vitality demand is rising,” he says. “The problem we’re going through is that carbon emissions are tied very tightly to this rising vitality demand, and carbon emissions are linked to local weather volatility, in addition to air pollution and well being results. To me, that is an extremely pressing, vital, and provoking downside to go after.”

Brushett’s dad and mom immigrated to america within the early Eighties, earlier than he was born. His mom, an English as a second language trainer, is from South Africa, and his father, an economist, is from the UK. Brushett grew up largely within the Washington space, except for 4 years spent dwelling in Zimbabwe, due to his father’s work on the World Financial institution.

Brushett remembers this as an idyllic time, saying, “Faculty ended at 1 p.m., so that you nearly had the entire afternoon to do sports activities in school, or you may go residence and simply play within the backyard.”

His household returned to the Washington space whereas he was in sixth grade, and in highschool, he began to get focused on chemistry, in addition to different scientific topics and math.

On the College of Pennsylvania, he determined to main in chemical engineering as a result of somebody had suggested him that if he preferred chemistry and math, chemical engineering could be a great match. Whereas he loved a few of his chemical engineering lessons, he struggled with others at first.

“I keep in mind actually having a tough time with chemE for some time, and I used to be lucky sufficient to have a very good tutorial advisor who stated, ‘Hear, chemE is difficult for some individuals. Some individuals get it instantly, for some individuals it takes a short time for it to sink in,’” he says. Round his junior 12 months, ideas began to fall into place, he recollects. “Fairly than taking a look at programs as self-contained items, the items began coming collectively and flowing right into a physique of information. I used to be ready to see the interconnections between programs.”

Whereas he was initially most focused on molecular biotechnology — the sphere of engineering proteins and different organic molecules — he ended up working in a response engineering lab together with his tutorial advisor, John Vohs. There, he studied how catalytic surfaces affect chemical reactions. At Vohs’ suggestion, he utilized to the College of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for graduate college, the place he labored on electrochemistry tasks. Along with his PhD advisor, Paul Kenis, he developed microfluidic gas cells that might run on quite a lot of completely different fuels as transportable energy sources.

Throughout his third 12 months of graduate college, he started making use of for college positions and was supplied a job at MIT, which he accepted however deferred for 2 years so he may do a postdoc at Argonne Nationwide Laboratory. There, he labored with scientists and engineers doing a variety of analysis on electrochemical vitality storage, and have become focused on move batteries, which is now one of many main focus areas of his lab at MIT.

In contrast to the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that energy our cell telephones and laptops, move batteries use massive tanks of liquid to retailer vitality. Such batteries have historically been prohibitively costly as a result of they rely on dear electroactive steel salts. Brushett is working on various approaches that use inexpensive electroactive supplies derived from natural compounds.

Such batteries might be used to retailer the ability intermittently produced by wind generators and photo voltaic panels, making them a extra dependable, environment friendly, and cost-effective supply of vitality. His lab additionally works on new processes for changing carbon dioxide, a waste product and greenhouse gasoline, into helpful fuels.

In a associated space of analysis, Brushett’s lab performs “techno-economic” modeling of potential new applied sciences, to assist them assess what features of the know-how want essentially the most enchancment to make them economically possible.

“With techno-economic modeling, we will devise targets for fundamental science,” he says. “We’re all the time in search of the rate-limiting step. What’s it that’s stopping us from shifting ahead? In some instances it might be a catalyst, in different instances it might be a membrane. In different instances it might be the structure for the gadget.”

As soon as these targets are recognized, researchers working in these areas have a greater concept of what they want to focus on to make a selected know-how work, Brushett says.

“That’s the factor I’ve been most happy with from our analysis — hopefully opening up or demystifying the sphere and permitting a extra numerous set of researchers to enter and to add worth, which I feel is vital by way of rising the science and growing new concepts,” he says.

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