The climate crisis is one of the biggest and most challenging obstacles humans have ever faced. People from all walks of life will need to come together to help the world overcome this global emergency. Here at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, scientists and support staff are tirelessly striving for a more sustainable and environmentally friendly world. It would be impossible to chase down all the incredible stories taking place at Argonne, but we’ve done our best to collect thoughts from some of the best and brightest minds currently working on solutions to the climate crisis.
Jessica Durham Macholz is a materials scientist in the Applied Materials Division at Argonne. She is a lead investigator in DOE’s ReCell Center for advanced battery recycling, where she investigates safe and cost-effective recycling processes for lithium-ion batteries.
Macholz has always been interested in making materials, but it wasn’t until grad school that she truly became interested in batteries.
“Batteries are a way to store energy chemically,” said Macholz. “My goal in recycling batteries is to recapture critical materials from batteries instead of having to generate more through activities like energy-intensive, destructive mining.”
Something that truly grabs Macholz’s attention are the batteries required to power electric vehicles (EVs). These vehicles could significantly reduce the transportation sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, and Macholz is very excited about how the technology has grown.
“Seeing how the EV landscape has changed so greatly over time is encouraging to me. From the time I started driving to now, there are many more EVs on the road. Being a part of that is really inspiring and encouraging,” she said.
Like many of us, Macholz sometimes reflects on the climate crisis. Thankfully, she’s filled with optimism for the future.
“When I get down, it helps to think about how fast I’ve seen the energy storage landscape change in my lifetime,” said Macholz. “Even in the past 10–15 years there’s been a huge evolution in how batteries are used and where we’re using them. Knowing the next 5–10 years could look different from today encourages me.”
Armani Allen Hrobowski is an advanced mobility education and outreach specialist at Argonne. A project he’s proud to be working on right now is the new EcoCAR EV Challenge competition. There will be a large diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) component to this challenge, and it’s Hrobowski’s responsibility to ensure that DEI initiatives are implemented effectively and responsibly on each team.
One of the many reasons he chose to take on this new role, Hrobowski said, is waking up every morning knowing that he can influence a generation of students. “I’m only one person, but the students in the EcoCAR program will be the future leaders of the auto industry that build a cleaner and more equitable future,” he added.
Hrobowski is also involved with the Clean Cities Energy and Environmental Justice Initiative, where he and the team are focusing on the inequities within mobility and transportation.
Hrobowski has a nuanced and optimistic view of where we are as a society in terms of the climate crisis.
“In our current climate crisis, there is a lot to be worried about, but when I see young, passionate climate activists like Greta Thunberg, manufacturers transitioning to electric vehicles, and major investment from the presidential administration, I’m hopeful that we are at a turning point and moving in the right direction,” he said.
Carrie Siu is a researcher at Argonne who is working on synthesizing and characterizing new cathode materials for batteries that will make them more efficient and effective.
“I feel that lithium-ion batteries hold the most promise [because they are already on their way to replacing fossil fuels in all vehicles] and reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Siu. “I am enthusiastic about my research at Argonne because I know that I am contributing towards a future that will be less dependent on [fossil fuels …] We are making advancements to increase the energy of lithium-ion batteries [and find better] ways to recycle them!”
Clearly, Siu is a deeply motivated person when it comes to the climate crisis. In fact, she states that recent extreme weather events, such as wildfires, flooding and droughts, have sparked her desire to address the threat of climate change. Outside of her research, Siu said she finds comfort in being mindful about her purchases when it comes to one-use plastics, reducing water or eating less meat.
What’s more, Siu is even able to find inspiration when times get tough for her.
“At times when I feel down about the current situation or news on the climate, I think about being out in nature,” said Siu. “I think about the native flora and fauna and how important it is to preserve the nature we have left.”
Akintomide Afolayan Akinsanola is a postdoc in the Climate and Earth System Science department, within the Environmental Science division at Argonne. He’s interested in regional-scale climate modeling, weather extremes, monsoon systems, hydrological modeling and climate dynamics.
Akinsanola appreciates the way Argonne enables collaborations between experts in different scientific areas.
“I need supercomputing facilities like those at Argonne to run the simulations I use in my research,” said Akinsanola. “The [time range of our] simulations can run from the start of the 19th century to the end of the 21st century, so they’re covering a large period and require a lot of computing power. I also get to collaborate with other scientists outside of climate science — like energy systems engineers — to talk about my future climate projections and potential implications for energy systems.”
Akinsanola sees a lot of value in people getting involved with their communities at both local and global levels.
“In 2016, I moved from Nigeria to Hong Kong to pursue my Ph.D. at the City University of Hong Kong,” said Akinsanola. “Understanding the variability and changes in West African monsoon precipitation was my focus. I was president of an organization that spreads awareness about the climate and sensitizes people to what’s happening. Now that I’m at Argonne, I research on mid-latitude climate.”
Akinsanola gets a large amount of satisfaction from his job, and his work in this field has left him optimistic for the future.
“We scientists are doing something,” said Akinsanola. “The scientists and the community are both trying. The public is learning about climate and becoming aware of what’s going on, and they’re changing the way they act.”
Nicolas Stauff is a nuclear engineer and group manager who works on advanced reactors at Argonne. He sees nuclear energy as a proven and readily available way to decarbonize the electrical grid and provide energy on demand without contributing to the current climate crisis.
Stauff enjoys his work at Argonne, and feels the lab is working to improve our world and fight against climate change.
“We’re involved in such high-impact projects at Argonne,” said Stauff. “We really have the potential to change the world for the better. Argonne is unique because it has such a wide range of capabilities, everything from grid modelling to advanced reactor development. I went into nuclear energy in 2005 because I knew addressing climate change would become a high priority. It’s clearly the challenge of the century, and it’s far from done.”
Stauff does what he can to stay motivated and optimistic about the climate crisis. He admires Enrico Fermi and his team — key scientists in the founding of Argonne — who were able to design a working nuclear reactor experiment without any computers. Such an impressive feat is a perfect example of the tenacity and hard work that Argonne is known for to this day.
“When it comes to the climate crisis, we’ve already gone a long way in technology development, changing minds, and aligning policies with the science,” said Stauff. “There’s still a lot to do, but technology now exists to help us. It’s a challenge, of course, but I’m optimistic that we will overcome remaining challenges.”
Sanza Kazadi is the founder of Kazadi Enterprises, which is developing a technology platform and products that leverage environmental thermal energy to accomplish heating, cooling, water purification and electrical power production. As a CRI Innovator at Argonne, Kazadi has had many opportunities to work with intelligent people on solutions to the climate crisis.
“I’m not a climate scientist in the sense that I don’t carry out research to describe and predict the climate problem,” said Kazadi. “What I’m doing is exploring and developing technology that should be effective in not only helping us adapt to the changing climate but also to prevent additional climate change. In particular, my research is aimed at accessing and using environmental thermal energy as a viable energy source,” he added. My research is opening this energy source up as a viable alternative energy option — one that is ubiquitous, equitable and sustainable.”
Kazadi began reading about the climate crisis when he was a kid in the 1980s. These days, he’s extremely happy to work at Argonne, which he sees as a place that’s performing the work necessary to solve climate change.
“Argonne is full of really smart people and has enormous resources not available to a researcher working largely outside of the university or national laboratory community,” said Kazadi. “Just being part of this group of people is a joy because of the energy and ideas of the community members.”
Kazadi has a nuanced perspective on climate change. His experience with climate science over time has allowed him to keep a clear head and stay focused on the problem at hand.
“I work to renew my determination to be part of the solution,” said Kazadi. “This is a problem like other problems and it has a myriad of potential solutions. I am working to develop part of one of those solutions and I’m shoulder to shoulder with other people working on different aspects of the problem. I have faith that we will overcome [climate issues] through hard work and cooperation.”
Susan Babinec works on energy storage solutions for renewable energy applications, principally wind and solar. These renewable energy sources will be vital in the fight against climate change, and we need to be able to store their energy so that they can be available 24/7.
Babinec has been concerned about the climate crisis for some time now. “My efforts began 20 years ago, before climate change became so obviously urgent,” she said. “I’m a scientist and I was simply following the science — it was inevitable. I believed climate change would emerge with clarity. I always wanted to work on something that made a difference in the world.”
She’s glad to know that she’s not alone in fighting the climate crisis. “The amazing people that we have working at Argonne make me enthusiastic about my research and its impact,” said Babinec. “We have very talented people, really bright and dedicated people who are working on projects that will change the world.”
When thinking of the climate crisis, Babinec’s knowledge as a scientist gives her hope for the future.
“As a scientist, I know that change doesn’t happen overnight,” said Babinec. “I remind myself that it’s a long road. The solution is not singular, but a combination of untold numbers of innovations.”
Lei Cheng is a chemist in Argonne’s Materials Science division who develops materials for next-generation batteries. She’s interested in the chemistries inside large batteries that can power electric vehicles or other large devices.
“Lots of carbon dioxide emissions come from transportation,” said Cheng. “If we can make the transformation to batteries and everything is electrified, then we can begin to decarbonize. We’re working on new materials that have potential to store more energy and are independent of critical materials like lithium … , and moving to more readily available materials like calcium and magnesium.”
Cheng believes that the lab enables her to do impactful and necessary research.
“Argonne is the right place to do this kind of research,” she said. “I really embrace my job at Argonne, which is highly collaborative and multidisciplinary. [While] I work specifically with computation, other collaborators help me validate and improve my models, and the complementary computational and experimental work gives us a holistic view of the materials and systems. There’s kind of a sweet spot of research going on here at Argonne and the national labs in general.”
Cheng is relentlessly hopeful for the future. One thing she’s optimistic about is the current push toward mitigating climate change.
“Just the fact that people started talking about this more and realizing the urgency is important,” said Cheng. “They’re looking at near-term challenges and pouring a lot of money into the deployment of mitigation measures, which I think is a good first step. Long-term research is important as well.”
Colleen Zumpf’s research applies new techniques to unproductive and less-productive agricultural land to produce fuel and benefits to the ecosystem, such as clean water and improved soil health.
“My main work relates to bioenergy production,” said Zumpf, a postdoctoral appointee in Argonne’s Environmental Science division. “Part of that is growing perennial crops that can be used to create a renewable fuel. We also look at which crops are the best to grow and decide where to place them in the landscape to have the biggest benefit. That can mean we’re picking a crop that has less fertilizer or nitrogen use, which may have a lower carbon footprint than traditional crops like corn.”
These perennial crops can also help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in our soils.
Zumpf was drawn to her work through her love of ecological restoration. Her decision to work at Argonne was based on the lab’s long history with land management and environmental research.
Zumpf has a deep love of plants, and she is often able to find inspiration and optimism in her work with them.
Plants are amazing for so many reasons, she notes, but one of their more intriguing aspects is that they are the original solar panels. In a time when we desperately need to switch to renewable energy sources like solar power, looking to plants may provide inspiration in a variety of ways.
“During the pandemic, there was a big movement to buy houseplants to keep your air clean,” said Zumpf. “The same thing applies outside. That’s why I got into environmental science. From my perspective, it’s preserving and restoring the nature we have around us.”
Arturo Gutierrez is a staff scientist working on the development of cathode materials used in batteries. One of his main concerns is developing new batteries that rely on earth-abundant materials, which would reduce emissions resulting from the mining process.
With such a vitally important job, it’s no surprise that Gutierrez is passionate about his work.
“I’m excited about improving the processes we currently use to synthesize battery materials,” said Gutierrez. “We can do this by improving the old methods or by developing new, less wasteful processes.”
Something that inspires Gutierrez is the innate human desire to improve upon our world. He believes the scientific method itself is a great model for how to address the current climate crisis.
“Instead of looking at it simply from a perspective of climate science, I look at it as improving previous methods or technology,” said Gutierrez. “That is what inspires me about the scientific method. I see it as a method for continued improvement. That is something to get excited about in all aspects of life.”
Gutierrez does his best to remain optimistic about the climate crisis. He says he’s someone who sees a challenge and feels motivated to overcome it, and this desire to be actively engaged keeps him focused on the task at hand.
“I look at the topic of climate change as being resourceful and frugal with resources,” said Gutierrez. While he does a lot at his job to be resourceful when tackling scientific challenges, Gutierrez also feels compelled to practice frugality at home, as well.
“We limit water use, we recycle and repurpose things such as clothes, furniture, and so on. Our seven-person family is quite expert at repurposing and frugal living,” Gutierrez said.
Kristen Wahl is the section manager and the director of the DOE Advanced Vehicle Technology Competition program in the Center for Transportation Research at Argonne. For nearly 25 years, Wahl has been working on advanced mobility research and education at the lab, including the most recent EcoCar Mobility Challenge.
“The EcoCar program helps to reduce the impact of transportation on climate change by advancing energy-efficient and sustainable transportation technologies that help enable America to use less petroleum,” said Wahl. “This Earth Day we’re bringing students together from across the country to launch our first battery electric vehicle challenge to build a diverse, clean mobility workforce that will help us meet the decarbonization needs of the industry.”
The students that Wahl interacts with are a key factor in the optimism she feels about the climate crisis.
“We’ve had 30,000 students over 34 years go through the DOE advanced vehicle technology programs, including EcoCAR,” said Wahl. “Those alumni are now working in the automotive industry to shape sustainable mobility solutions and future automotive products. We are at the precipice of a once-in-a-generation transformational shift in transportation and we need the best and brightest workforce to help us tackle the climate crisis!”
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.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.