Off to a good start: Argonne’s rising stars in battery research shine

July 27, 2012

Looking at Fikile Brushett, a director’s postdoctoral fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, one would hardly guess that he is already two years out of graduate school and about to start a faculty position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As he bounds down the halls of Argonne’s Chemical Sciences and Engineering building, he exudes youthful energy that perhaps comes from his undergraduate days of playing varsity soccer at the University of Pennsylvania.

Brushett is just one of many promising early-career scientists studying batteries at Argonne. Though they come from all over and have taken different paths to get to Argonne, these early-career investigators are now all part of the same dynamic fleet of battery researchers.

Many of these scientists knew from an early age that they wanted to study chemistry. Lynn Trahey, an assistant materials scientist, suggested that since chemistry is a notoriously difficult subject, students who enjoy and excel at it might develop a stronger sense of attachment. “In high school, I felt really connected to chemistry class," she said. "I just had a natural inclination for the material. Realizing that most of my peers were less enthused about the subject, I thought chemistry might be my calling.”

Brushett similarly discovered his love of chemistry in high school. Encouraged by his chemistry teacher, he was even able to do a research internship at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory during his junior year.

For others like Kevin Gallagher, a chemical engineer, and Kate Ryan, a postdoctoral appointee, science has been a life-long pursuit. Gallagher attributes this partially to his upbringing – his father, who was also a chemical engineer, encouraged him to focus on science. Ryan recalls being a curious child, and always wanting to learn the “why” behind things. “Science seemed to be the closest thing to real-life magic,” she said.

During college, Brushett and Trahey started to channel their interest in chemistry towards solving real-world problems. For his senior capstone project, Brushett designed and built a cheap, portable refrigeration unit that could be used in rural areas where electricity is scarce.

Early in her college career, Trahey wanted to solve human health problems. Starting her sophomore year, she did research related to the development of AIDS medicine. She eventually realized, however, that she did not enjoy biochemistry research and turned instead towards her growing interest in solving environmental problems through energy innovations.

Brushett, Trahey and Ryan all went straight from college to graduate school, where they studied energy technologies ranging from fuel cells and hydrogen storage materials to thermoelectric materials that can convert temperature gradients to electric currents.

I have been able to think more broadly at Argonne. Being exposed to areas beyond my chemical engineering background gives me new ideas and ways to approach problems.” – Fikile Brushett

Gallagher, who was uncertain about graduate school, worked as a coatings process engineer for 3M for two years, trying to figure out the cheapest, safest and most efficient ways to make Scotch tape. During that time, he started learning about alternative energy sources and became particularly interested in hydrogen fuel cells. “Once I got out of college," he said, "I started reading more, getting interested in the goings-on of the world and wondering what I could do to help. I found energy to be a critical challenge to society.”

Eventually their interest in addressing global challenges through cutting-edge energy research brought these scientists to Argonne, where they have had the chance to work alongside experts in the field and take advantage of the laboratory’s myriad resources. Brushett, Trahey, Gallagher and Ryan all agree that their experience at Argonne has made them more well-rounded as scientists.

“I have been able to think more broadly at Argonne," said Brushett. "Being exposed to areas beyond my chemical engineering background gives me new ideas and ways to approach problems. If you’re interested in something, there is probably someone on campus who can help you out. It’s difficult to capture that kind of collective knowledge and experience.”

In January 2013, Brushett will head to MIT, where he will continue to study the processes governing the performance, durability and degradation of electrochemical systems. He is also looking forward to teaching. “I want to pass knowledge on to the next generation,” he said. “The U.S. is lacking students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It’s important for us to reach out and pick those numbers up, not only for underrepresented minorities, but in general. I am excited to participate in that.”

Trahey and Ryan are also interested in returning to academia at some point in the future. For Trahey, the plan is to focus on one thing at a time. “Juggling research and teaching has always seemed like a lot for anyone to handle. I thought I would split up that task by focusing on research at a younger age, and then, in the far future, teaching at a place where I could do research on a much smaller scale, like at a liberal arts college. When I was in graduate school, my mentors were always encouraging me to go into academia – but they never left. I want to break the mold and do something different for a substantial amount of time. I need to earn my stripes and make a good contribution to science first.”

Gallagher is keeping an open mind about the future. For now, he is excited about upcoming opportunities to work with other Argonne scientists. “One of the strengths of being in a national lab, and particularly in the battery group at Argonne, is that you’re surrounded by experts,” he said. “I have been able to learn new things and develop new skills through collaborations and interactions with coworkers. Together you’re able to do something much better than what you could do on your own; I want to continue to build those relationships.”

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.