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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Gordon Peterson is hunting for efficient, sustainable energy materials

The Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellow’s work could help turn waste heat into an energy resource

A combination of machine learning and experimentation is aiding Peterson’s exploration of thermoelectric materials at Argonne.

Massive amounts of heat are produced and lost through industrial manufacturing. What if we could capture that heat and use it as a form of energy? Gordon Peterson is researching materials that could help make the generation of electricity from waste heat an important part of decarbonization. After earning his Ph.D. in materials chemistry from the University of Wisconsin in 2020, Peterson became a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Houston. He joined the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory in the fall of 2022 as a Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellow in the Materials Science division.

The Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellowship is an international award given to outstanding doctoral scientists and engineers to help them develop their careers in Argonne’s high-impact research environment. The fellowship honors Maria Goeppert Mayer, a theoretical physicist who earned the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 for her work at Argonne proposing a mathematical model for the structure of nuclear shells of the atomic nucleus. The fellowship provides early-career scientists the opportunity to pursue their own research directions, with the support of a sponsor and up to three years of funding. Here, Peterson talks about his career and his experience in the program so far.

There’s a lot of different research going on in materials science to work towards decarbonization, and I think thermoelectrics will be an important part of solving that problem.” — Gordon Peterson, Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellow

Q: What is your research focus at Argonne?

A: I’m working on materials called thermoelectrics, which are critical components of devices that generate electricity from heat. Some thermoelectric generators are already being used as an alternative energy source. For example, NASA uses a type of thermoelectric generator to power probes in space, where we can’t rely on solar energy or batteries. Instead, the generator harvests the heat given off during the steady decay of a radioactive element like plutonium to generate electricity and power the probe. One nice thing about thermoelectrics — especially in space — is that they have no moving parts, which reduces the risk of equipment needing to be repaired or replaced.

Q: Why aren’t thermoelectrics used more widely?

A: There are a lot of theoretical applications for thermoelectric generators. For example, we can imagine trying to recapture the heat energy lost during industrial manufacturing or using our own body heat to power a small device. Unfortunately, the current state-of-the-art materials often contain toxic or expensive metals like lead, tellurium and silver. So, scaling up manufacturing of devices that use these elements in their components is challenging.

The goal of my fellowship is to design thermoelectric materials that are both more efficient and environmentally sustainable. I’m doing this through what I call synergistic design. Recently, I’ve been trying to get a better picture of how atoms are arranged inside some of the best known thermoelectrics to understand how the structure of these materials could help us engineer better properties.

Q: What is synergistic design?

A: With synergistic design, I’m trying to combine machine learning and computer simulation with synthesis, the physical process of making materials in the lab. Over the next couple of years, I want to explore how modeling can help choose the best materials for me to try to make in the lab, and how the new data that I get from experiments can help build stronger models. Hopefully, these approaches will help me find new thermoelectrics that are efficient and environmentally friendly.

One thing to be aware of is that thermoelectric properties are very sensitive to both the crystal structure and elemental composition of the material, so the big challenge right now is figuring out the relationships between the structure, composition and properties. Computer simulation is a really useful tool for testing this. I’ve been using the Carbon high performance computing cluster at Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials (a DOE Office of Science user facility) to investigate the properties of some of the materials I’m interested in.

Q: Why did the Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellowship appeal to you?

A: I have a broad background in terms of doing synthesis, computational work and machine learning, so I thought that the fellowship would be a really good way to try to figure out how I can combine all those skills while collaborating with scientists who have in-depth knowledge on each of those pieces.

I was also interested in applying my research toward a sustainable energy economy. There’s a lot of different research going on in materials science to work towards decarbonization, and I think thermoelectrics will be an important part of solving that problem. Before Argonne, I had worked a lot on materials with complicated structures and compositions, so finding how to apply that knowledge to thermoelectrics felt like a natural extension of what I had been working on. Plus, there are many materials out there that haven’t been discovered yet, and finding them is pretty fun.

Q: What do you like to do outside of work?

A: My fiancé and dog and I go on walks around our neighborhood, and we like traveling and going camping. One of my major hobbies is ultimate frisbee, which has been a great way to meet people in Chicago from outside the lab.

Q: What advice do you have for others interested in following your career path?

A: I think one of the hardest things to do early in your career is to figure out where you fit in the scientific community. When I applied to the fellowship, I tried to think about what my strengths and skills were and how I could combine those into a project that made sense for me. Also, I think people can sometimes hesitate to reach out for help, but everyone is going to need support as they progress through their career. In my experience, most people are willing to help — all you need to do is ask.

About Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials
The Center for Nanoscale Materials is one of the five DOE Nanoscale Science Research Centers, premier national user facilities for interdisciplinary research at the nanoscale supported by the DOE Office of Science. Together the NSRCs comprise a suite of complementary facilities that provide researchers with state-of-the-art capabilities to fabricate, process, characterize and model nanoscale materials, and constitute the largest infrastructure investment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The NSRCs are located at DOE’s Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley, Oak Ridge, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories. For more information about the DOE NSRCs, please visit https://​sci​ence​.osti​.gov/​U​s​e​r​-​F​a​c​i​l​i​t​i​e​s​/​U​s​e​r​-​F​a​c​i​l​i​t​i​e​s​-​a​t​-​a​-​G​lance.

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://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.