The Department of Chemical Engineering has announced the appointment of Martin Z. Bazant to a new endowed chair professorship, made possible through a generous gift by Edwin G. Roos ’44. In addition to this gift, Roos has also provided a new endowed graduate student fellowship for the department.
An active alumnus for nearly 70 years, Roos has given more than $10 million to MIT, much of it to support chemical engineering, the field in which he majored. Roos feels deeply connected to the department, although he only worked for several years as a chemical engineer before building a lifelong career in real estate.
“I have a bit of regret or guilt that I never fulfilled my training and never went on to do basic engineering research,” says Roos. “I want others to do what I didn’t do, and because I appreciated the fact that MIT does great research, I felt I had an obligation to give.” Roos is the department’s most generous living donor.
“This is truly a special event for us,” says Paula Hammond, the David H. Koch Professor of Engineering and department head. “These gifts will have a positive impact on the entire department, enabling us to enhance a range of activities central to our mission, and specifically supporting the research enterprise of Professor Bazant, who is extremely dedicated to the exploration of new and creative ideas.”
Bazant, who arrived at MIT in 1998, is pursuing some of the most challenging problems at the intersection of energy, environment, and sustainability. His recent research has yielded a fundamentally new way to purify salty or contaminated water using an electrical shockwave. He is also investigating the potential of using room temperature ionic liquids (mixtures in which electrically charged molecules themselves comprise a liquid) for battery storage.
Bazant’s research interests and accomplishments are all the more remarkable given the fact that he never took chemistry classes past high school. “I’m an oddball, self-taught in every field,” Bazant says. “I follow my curiosity, which is the best way to do innovative research.” His career evolved through different disciplines, to the point, he says “where the topics of my research and teaching are far removed from my training and education.”
With a master’s degree in applied mathematics from the University of Arizona, and a PhD in physics from Harvard University, Bazant taught applied mathematics for his first decade at MIT. Around 2001, a singular experience turned his attention toward engineering. “I was doing a pencil-and-paper calculation of fluid flows around a metal sphere in an electric field,” he recalls. “It turned out to be an interesting problem that hadn’t been studied much at the time.”
Together with a graduate student, Bazant began tailoring what he calls a “mathematical exercise” to the harnessing of flows in microfluidics, work that had immediate application to controlling fluid flow in small-scale “lab on a chip” devices. Bazant eventually filed patents in fluid mechanics, and with student and faculty colleagues, developed products for the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology.
“This is a real MIT story,” says Bazant. “I was still in the math department, but didn’t feel constrained to just do math.” As a result of an “incredible experience of going from abstract exercise to experimental realization, to practical devices,” Bazant says, “I got excited, and realized that theoretical physics and mathematics can have a direct impact on the real world.”
In 2008, Bazant moved over to the Department of Chemical Engineering, which felt like a more natural home given his expanding interest in conducting research leading to real-world applications. His laboratory supports both theoretical and experimental research, which allows him both to pose basic questions and test hypotheses about the behaviors of particles and chemicals in electrochemical systems.
Among Bazant’s current problems, which focus on electric fields and flows, is understanding phase transformations in lithium ion and lithium metal batteries, and learning how to control the movement of ions in the service of more efficient battery storage. “Lithium metal is the ultimate anode material,” says Bazant. “You can’t have a higher energy density than that.”
He is also scaling up his novel water purification system, which harnesses an electric shock wave to drive a current through a flowing stream, separating salty or contaminated water from liquid that is clean and potable. With concern for the world’s limited supply of clean water, Bazant hopes to commercialize the system in a few years.
“This was the original motivation for starting my lab, and it took about five years to achieve this vision,” he says. “When you’re starting a lab from scratch as a theorist, it doesn’t always go smoothly, because your resources are limited and it’s hard to get grants without a track record.”
This is one of the reasons, says Bazant, that “the Roos chair for me is a blessing.” The gift will enable Bazant to focus on what he does best, which is to innovate. “It’s incredibly liberating for my research, because with a steady source of discretionary money I can try all sorts of new things.”