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Surprising reactions

Yogesh Surendranath says there are big questions to answer on the way to a renewable energy economy.
Yogesh Surendranath says there are big questions to answer on the way to a renewable energy economy.
Photo: Len Rubenstein

Yogesh Surendranath was mesmerized by a magnet his parents gave him when he was five. Digging up the iron-rich soil in his Ohio backyard, he easily found treasure. What most fascinated him, though, was the inexplicable way the magnet functioned — a problem he could not immediately fathom. Surendranath recalls “being imbued with a curiosity about how the natural world works.”

An assistant professor of chemistry today, and a researcher for the MIT Energy Initiative, Surendranath has lost neither his sense of wonder nor his drive to understand natural processes. Both come into play frequently in his work on the chemistry of solid-liquid interfaces. At these common borders between different types of matter, materials react to each other, making and breaking chemical bonds as atoms swap electrons. Sometimes these reactions prove surprising, which Surendranath especially relishes: “The most interesting result is the one that runs counter to our expectations,” he states.

Surendranath, who earned a PhD in inorganic chemistry from MIT in 2011, has long appreciated the “beauty and power of correlating material structure to function and property.” As an undergraduate, he grew “captivated by how electron transfer mediates chemical bond formation and breaking” — the basis for electrochemistry. He became particularly interested in understanding the behavior of metal atoms at interfaces, and their role in complex reactions. “I like to work on problems where we know less than 5 percent of what’s going on rather than 95 percent, and put in the rest of the puzzle. Electrochemical systems are a rich ground for discovery,” Surendranath states.

There is another motivation for his research besides discovery. Efficient electron transfer in chemical reactions “lies at the heart of most major energy storage platforms, including batteries and fuel cells,” says Surendranath. These technologies, which stockpile electrical energy in chemical bonds, and discharge that energy as needed, are limited in efficiency and scope by current knowledge.

Fundamental advances in electrochemistry could shrink these constraints, paving the way to cost-effective, large-scale storage of electricity from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. “The solid-solution interface is where the rubber meets the road,” Surendranath states. “If we could engineer at the atomistic, molecular level a more efficient and selective reactivity, we could make new fuel cells, or fuel products.”

One intriguing possibility Surendranath is pursuing: reducing carbon dioxide to a fuel, a trick accomplished by green plants, but not yet very efficiently by humans. Surendranath would like to “short-circuit nature’s route,” which relies on solar energy to rupture the chemical bonds of water and carbon dioxide. He is designing alternative catalysts, agents that can trigger rapid reactions between inert compounds, to see if he can speed up the process. “It could be a game-changing method for energy storage,” he says.

Surendranath is the first to acknowledge that there are big, basic science questions to answer on the way to a renewable energy economy. “The fundamental problem holding us back is catalysis,” Surendranath states. “How do you drive a very complicated reaction that involves many electrons, and the rearrangement of many bonds down a single pathway, all with very low energy input? These are difficult things to achieve.”

In a laboratory that employs a range of techniques, including molecular, thin film, and nanocrystal synthesis, Surendranath hopes to uncover new principles of catalyst design that might eventually form the basis for advanced batteries, fuel cells or electrolyzers. “This would be the home run,” says Surendranath. “Getting to the bottom of how things behave is very gratifying. Things become beautiful once you understand them, and that’s what we’re really trying to do.”

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