Mikhail Solovyev in Life Sciences II building
Toggle caption Photo by Nora Luongo

Chemist Wins Department of Energy Student Award to Conduct Critically Important Research

Mikhail Solovyev, who is working toward a Ph.D. in chemistry at Rutgers-University Newark, will be spending the next year at the Argonne National Lab working on a first of its kind analysis that may help develop the next generation of materials used for energy production and storage.

He earned this rare opportunity as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Science Graduate Student Research award. The program provides students access to the expertise, resources, and capabilities available at the DOE laboratories and facilities while working on their doctoral thesis.

While there, Solovyev will study electrocatalysts. Specifically, he will be looking at Hydrogen Evolution Reactions and CO2 reduction reactions. Hydrogen gas is considered a great energy source because it is clean - burning it produces water vapor - while producing a large amount of energy through combustion. CO2 reduction involves converting CO2 gas to longer carbon chains that can be used elsewhere, while removing it from the atmosphere, or sequestering it before it enters the biosphere after being produced.

“There are a number of materials that are known to be electrocatalytic, but it is still relatively unknown as to what is happening on a molecular level during the catalytic process,” Solovyev explains. "This gap in knowledge hampers further development of the materials.”

“Think of hydrogen gas as an example,” he says. “It’s easy to make, but the process is very energy inefficient. With some of these materials, if you run power through them with some hydrogen ions around (basically acid) you can generate hydrogen gas much more efficiently.”

“The goal of our studies is to better understand the fundamental mechanisms of the process – how and why this happens – so better and more efficient materials can be made in the future.”

Normally, the process of applying for access to the capabilities of the DOE labs is a lengthy one, with limited time granted on the equipment. “Without access to this fellowship, as well as the facilities alongside with it, the research I want to pursue would not be possible,” said Solovyev.

The goal of our studies is to better understand the fundamental mechanisms of the process – how and why this happens – so better and more efficient materials can be made in the future.

“A year-long fellowship can give us plenty of space for designing the setup and troubleshooting any issues that may come up.”

Solovyev will be working on the development of new X-ray emission spectrometer and sample cell design for in-situ spectroscopy studies of porous hybrid material electrocatalysts.  “These fundamental studies can provide great deal of electronic and molecular information about the process if the experiment is set up right,” says Solovyev. This type of analysis has never been done due to logistical issues of getting access to the equipment and developing an experimental setup that would work at the facility. Working on site simplifies all of that, and makes it much easier to troubleshoot problems as they arise.

“Setting up this kind of experiment is not a trivial matter, so there are a lot of challenges in the background before anything of scientific significance can be run. The challenge is a combination of engineering, physics as well as chemistry.”

The DOE program provides supplemental awards for outstanding U.S. graduate students to spend 3 to 12 consecutive months at a DOE national laboratory facility conducting graduate thesis research in a priority research area in collaboration with a DOE laboratory scientist. The research project must be conducted in an area that addresses scientific challenges central to the Office of Science mission and aligned with one or more of the SCGSR Priority Research Areas. Awardees receive support for inbound and outbound travel to the laboratory, and a monthly stipend of up to $3,000 for general living expenses while at the host DOE laboratory during the award period.

Solovyev’s faculty advisor, Jenny Lockard, an associate professor in the Chemistry department, says the outcome of this project will not only directly benefit his thesis work but will also be widely useful to the general scientific community pursuing similar studies. “While significant advancements have been made in the design and fabrication of these materials, the same cannot often be said regarding the knowledge of the molecular level host-guest interactions behind their utility. Mikhail’s research on these materials aims to elucidate this behavior,” Lockard says.

Solovyev is one of 70 awardees at 52 universities from across the U.S.