Electrochemical Technology Can Help Reduce Reliance on Fossil Fuel

Fikile Brushett, associate professor of chemical engineering at MIT, led a group created to develop more efficient ways to store energy, including batteries that can be used to store energy generated by wind and solar energy. Credit: Jared Charney

Fikile Brushett, a with Associate professor of chemical engineering, found an unusual source of inspiration for his career in chemistry: a character played by Nicolas Cage in the movie “The Rock” in 1996. In the film, Cage depicts an FBI chemist hunting a group of evil U.S. soldiers who has fought chemical weapons and taken over the island of Alcatraz.

“For a long time, I really wanted to be a chemist and work for the FBI and chemical warfare agents. That was the goal: to be Nick Cage,” recalls Brushett, who first saw the film as a high school student living in Silver Spring, Maryland. the outskirts of Washington.

Although he did not end up joining the FBI or working with chemical weapons – which he said seemed to be the best – Brushett pursued his chemical love. In his laboratory at MIT, Brushett led a group created to develop efficient and sustainable ways to store energy, including batteries that can be used to store electricity generated by wind and solar energy. He also explored new ways to convert carbon dioxide into a useful fuel.

“The backbone of our global energy economy is based on current liquid fossil fuels, with increasing energy demand,” he said. “The challenge we face is that carbon emissions are closely linked to the increase in energy demand, and that carbon emissions are related to climate volatility, as well as pollution and health effects. To me, this is a very important, important, and inspiring issue to continue.”

“The body of knowledge”

Brushett’s parents immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s, before he was born. His mother, English as a second language teacher, was from South Africa, and his father, an economist, was originally from England. Brushett grew up in the Washington area, having spent four years living in Zimbabwe, because of his father’s employment at the World Bank.

Brushett remembers this as a good time, saying, “School ends at 1 in the evening, so you can do almost all of the afternoon sports at school, or you can go home and just play in the garden.”

His family returned to the Washington area when he was in sixth grade, and in high school, he became interested in chemistry, as well as other scientific and mathematics subjects.

At the University of Pennsylvania, he decided to major in chemical engineering because someone suggested to him that if he liked chemistry and math, chemical engineering would fit. When he liked some of his chemical engineering classes, he struggled with others first.

“I really remember having a hard time with chemE for a while, and I was lucky enough to be a good academic advisor after, ‘Listen, chemE is difficult for some people. Some people immediately let it go, for some people it takes a while to drown, ” said. Around the junior year, the concept began to fall, he remembers. “Instead of seeing the course as an independent unit, the unit begins to merge and move into the body of knowledge. I can see the relationship between the courses.”

When he became interested in molecular biotechnology – engineering proteins and other biological molecules – he eventually worked in a reaction engineering laboratory with his academic advisor, John Vohs. There, he studied how catalytic surfaces affect chemical reactions. On Vohs’ recommendation, he applied to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for a graduate school, where he worked on an electrochemical project. With his PhD advisor, Paul Kenis, he developed microfluidic fuel cells that can run on a variety of fuels as a portable power source.

During his third year of graduate school, he began applying for a faculty position and was offered a job at MIT, which he accepted but was suspended for two years so he could make a postdoc at the Argonne National Laboratory. There, he worked with scientists and engineers to conduct various research on the storage of electrochemical energy, and became interested in flow batteries, which are now one of the main focus areas of his laboratory at MIT.

New technology models

Unlike rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power cell phones and laptops, flow batteries use a large liquid tank to store energy. Such batteries are traditionally very expensive because they rely on expensive electroactive metal salts. Brushett is working on an alternative approach that uses cheaper electroactive materials derived from organic compounds.

Such batteries can be used to store less energy generated by wind turbines and solar panels, making them a more reliable, efficient, and cost-effective source of energy. His laboratory is also working on a new process to convert carbon dioxide, waste products and greenhouse gases, into useful fuels.

In research-related areas, Brushett’s lab implements a “technology-economic” model of potential new technologies, to help them analyze what aspects of technology need to be most advanced to make economics possible.

“With technology-economic modeling, we can set targets for basic science,” he said. “We are constantly looking for steps that limit the speed. What prevents us from moving forward? In some cases it can be a catalyst, in others it can be a membrane. In other cases it can be the architecture for the device. “

Once those targets are identified, researchers working in the area have better ideas about what they need to focus on to create specific technologies, Brushett said.

“That’s something I’m most proud of our research – hopefully open or negative field and allow more diverse researchers to submit and add value, which I think is important in terms of developing science and developing new ideas,” he said.

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