Scialog Collaboration Continues with DOE Award

Scialog: Advanced Energy Storage team whose 2019 award sparked a successful collaboration to advance fundamental understanding of the electrochemical interface has received $1.8 million in U.S. Department of Energy funding to take their research on a new path into the area of direct air capture of CO2.

Joaquín Rodríguez-López, Chemistry, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will collaborate with Veronica Augustyn, Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, North Carolina State University, and Jahan Dawlaty, Chemistry, University of Southern California, on this project: Reversible Electrochemical Capture/Release of Carbon Dioxide Mediated by Electrostatically Enhanced Charge Transfer.

“Scialog catalyzed this award,” said Rodríguez-López, who will serve as PI on the new project, an extension of their previous work together to better understand how the electric field on the surface of an electrode changes the behavior of molecules in its vicinity. “We would not have dared apply for this new grant without this collaboration, but building the right team can help you tackle bigger challenges.”

“We’ll be putting our expertise together in materials, electrochemical interfaces and spectroscopy to see if we can come up with a new mechanism of capturing carbon dioxide that utilizes the electric field formed at an electrochemical interface, trying to understand the polarization of the CO2 molecule under electrochemical conditions,” Augustyn said.

Rodríguez-López said the Scialog format allowed the collaborators “the time and space to brainstorm and discuss a lot of ideas,” including a paper that Dawlaty had previously published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry. Rodríguez-López said Dawlaty’s concept presented a powerful opportunity for them to collaborate, and during their discussions at Scialog an idea for a team project took shape.

“Jahan has techniques that can see things at these electrochemical interfaces, Veronica is really interested in understanding how things like ions go inside materials so you can build better batteries, and my group is interested in understanding how molecules interact with electrodes so we can make other types of batteries,” Rodríguez-López said. “Our three approaches are very complementary.”

Augustyn said Scialog funding has allowed the team to meet virtually every two weeks to discuss their project and enjoy transformative, “out-there” conversation that continues to fuel their collective passion and curiosity. That excitement has spread to the students in their labs, who routinely communicate with each other to keep the project going forward.

“It’s one of the most exciting things I get to work on right now,” she said.

Their work could help pave the way for the development of materials to capture and release carbon dioxide, in addition to advancing understanding of the electrochemical interface, which could apply to fields outside of CO2 capture.

Although their work could result in technological advances, Dawlaty stressed the importance of pursuing adventurous ideas without knowing exactly how they might be used.

“Fundamental science always needs to be alive and many steps ahead of technology,” Dawlaty said. “What’s important is that we’re exploring new territory.”

Augustyn said the team is delighted the DOE was willing to fund a team working on a really different idea and new to the field of CO2 research. “Considering the tremendous climate challenges we are facing, it’s great to see a government agency funding really new concepts by new people.”

The team also had praise for Scialog for breaking barriers between scientists from different disciplines, providing a forum for stimulating and open discussion, and creating a supportive community of early career Fellows and more senior scientists.

“Beyond catalyzing fundamental science through awards, bringing together people like me who are thinking ‘I probably don’t belong here’ is really wonderful,” Dawlaty said. “From the inside, you realize how much everyone doesn’t know.”

“Hearing a Nobel Prize winner, Stanley Whittingham, saying ‘we actually don’t know this’ was very important,” Dawlaty said. “At some level it was comforting, and it made me realize I did have something to offer.”

All three said Scialog offers long-term connections both inside and outside of funded teams.

Dawlaty ended up writing a paper with another AES Fellow, V. Sara Thoi of Johns Hopkins University, and Augustyn said she has reached out to other AES Fellows for continued dialogue and feedback.

“That’s an exciting place to be for scientists,” Augustyn said. “At the frontiers of a new topic, driven by your imagination and your knowledge.”

The Scialog: Advanced Energy Storage initiative, where this collaboration first took shape, was funded in partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. (The Sloan Foundation is also a sponsor of Scialog: Negative Emissions Science, which will hold its second meeting in November.)

Sloan Foundation program director Evan Michelson said the DOE award illustrates the outsized impact philanthropy can have on scientific progress.

“It doesn’t take a lot of money to have an impact on shaping the direction of scientific research,” Michelson said. “What it takes is the care, attention, and the know-how to bring the right researchers together in an environment that encourages imagination, collaboration, and taking risks.”

RCSA Senior Program Director Richard Wiener agreed. “This really exemplifies what we are trying to accomplish together by convening early career researchers and providing opportunities for seed funding of new collaborative projects through Scialog initiatives.”

Republished from Research Corporation for Science Advancement