Charudatta Phatak, an assistant materials scientist at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, has received the 2015-16 NU-Argonne Early Career Investigator Award for Energy Research.
This marks the sixth year that Argonne and the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern University (ISEN) jointly presented this award, which honors a scientist working collaboratively across the two institutions to advance the field of energy research.
Working alongside Northwestern collaborator Sossina Haile, a Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Professor of Applied Physics, Phatak will receive $100,000 over three years for his proposal to develop an electric field map representing the electrode-electrolyte interface.
The interplay between electrode and electrolyte is what powers batteries and other energy devices. An electrolyte holds charged ions that can form an electric current, while an electrode is the conductor that passes that current. Teasing out the reactions that take place around an electrode will provide insight on battery design, solid oxide fuel cells and catalysis.
While a fair amount of work has been done to investigate the changes that occur spatially as an electrode interacts with an electrolyte, Phatak aims to fill a gap in our knowledge by quantifying the electric fields and charge densities that evolve at this interface.
“The ultimate goal,” Phatak said, “is to gain a fundamental understanding of what exactly is going on, so that you not only have an enhanced view of electrochemical reactions, but you can also identify missing pieces that will benefit all energy-related devices.”
Common batteries are the classic example of applications for this research. Lithium-ion batteries are essentially two electrodes separated by an electrolyte. Lithium often accumulates on an electrode, forming a dead layer and reducing the battery’s capacity for charge. But scientists are uncertain whether the lithium layer is electrically dead, and if so, what causes this.
Quantitative information on the electric fields surrounding the electrode could improve modeling of the reactions taking place inside a battery, and could allow for more efficient design.
Phatak’s enthusiasm for this project was kick-started when he was awarded an equipment grant last year for installation of a new biprism on a Lorentz transmission electron microscope. The biprism enabled Argonne materials scientists to observe even smaller particles and to detect the associated electromagnetic fields with even greater sensitivity.
This advanced instrument was the perfect tool to explore unanswered questions about the electrode-electrolyte interface, and Phatak was thrilled to receive additional support through the NU-Argonne prize.
“Winning this award definitely means a lot,” he said. “It feels great that my effort in visualizing and understanding nanoscale phenomena is highly valued, and that ISEN is willing to support this research going forward.”
The $100,000 award will primarily support a PhD student for the next three years, who will be co-advised by Phatak and Haile.
Phatak’s first exposure to Argonne was as a visiting student while he was completing his PhD at Carnegie Mellon University. He joined the lab as a postdoc in 2009, and then as a staff scientist in 2011.
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. With employees from more than 60 nations, 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. Argonne is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy.
The 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, please visit science.energy.gov.