Fikile Brushett is in search of new methods to retailer vitality

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Fikile Brushett is looking for new ways to store energy

Fikile Brushett, an MIT chemical engineering professor, had an unusual source of inspiration for his career in chemical science: the character who played Nicolas Cage in the 1996 film The Rock. In the film, Cage portrays an FBI chemist who is hunting down a group of villainous US soldiers who command chemical weapons and have taken over Alcatraz Island.

“For a long time I wanted to be a chemist and work with chemical warfare agents for the FBI. That was the goal: to be Nick Cage,” recalls Brushett, who first saw the film as a student in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington .

Although he didn’t join the FBI or work with chemical weapons – which he thinks is probably for the best – Brushett pursued his love of chemistry. In his lab at MIT, Brushett leads a group devoted to developing more efficient and sustainable methods of storing energy, including batteries that can be used to store the electricity generated by wind and solar energy. He is also exploring new ways to convert carbon dioxide into useful fuels.

“The backbone of our global energy economy is currently based on liquid fossil fuels, and the demand for energy is increasing,” he says. “The challenge we are facing is that carbon emissions are very closely linked to these rising energy demands, and carbon emissions are linked to volatility in the climate, as well as pollution and health impacts. To me this is an incredibly urgent, important and inspiring problem. “

“A body of knowledge”
Brushett’s parents immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s before he was born. His mother, an English teacher as a second language, is from South Africa and his father, an economist, is from the UK. Brushett grew up mainly in the Washington area, with the exception of four years in Zimbabwe, which he spent at the World Bank due to his father’s work.

Recalling that idyllic time, Brushett says, “School ended at 1 p.m. So you had most of the afternoon to play sports in school or you could go home and just play in the garden.”

His family returned to the Washington area when he was in sixth grade, and in high school he took an interest in chemistry and other science and mathematics.

He majored in chemical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania because someone had advised him that chemical engineering would be a good fit if he liked chemistry and math. While enjoying some of his chemical engineering courses, he initially struggled with others.

“I remember having really trouble with chemE for a while, and I was lucky enough to have a really good academic advisor who said, ‘Look, chemE is hard for some people. Some people get it right away, for some people it takes a while for it to sink in, “he says. Concepts began to take hold around his junior year, he recalls. “Instead of seeing courses as independent units, the units came together and flowed into a body of knowledge. I was able to see the connections between courses.”

While initially most interested in molecular biotechnology – the field of developing proteins and other biological molecules – he ended up working with his academic advisor, John Vohs, in a reaction engineering laboratory. There he investigated how catalytic surfaces influence chemical reactions. On the recommendation of Vohs, he applied to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for a graduate school, where he worked on electrochemical projects. With his doctoral advisor Paul Kenis, he developed microfluidic fuel cells that can be operated with various fuels as portable power sources.

During his third year he began applying for faculty positions and was offered a position at MIT, which he accepted but deferred for two years to do a postdoc at Argonne National Laboratory. While there, he worked with scientists and engineers to conduct a wide range of research into electrochemical energy storage, and became interested in flow batteries, which are now one of the main focuses of his laboratory at MIT.

Modeling new technologies
Unlike the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power our cell phones and laptops, flow batteries use large liquid tanks to store energy. Such batteries have traditionally been prohibitively expensive because they are based on expensive electroactive metal salts. Brushett is working on alternative approaches that use cheaper electroactive materials made from organic compounds.

Such batteries could be used to store the electricity produced intermittently by wind turbines and solar panels, making them a more reliable, efficient, and less expensive source of energy. His lab is also working on new ways to convert carbon dioxide, a waste product and greenhouse gas, into useful fuels.

In a related area of ​​research, Brushett’s laboratory performs “techno-economic” modeling of potential new technologies to assess which aspects of the technology need most improvement in order to make it commercially viable.

“With techno-economic modeling, we can develop goals for basic research,” he says. “We’re always looking for the speed-limiting step. What’s preventing us from moving forward? In some cases it could be a catalyst, in other cases it could be a membrane. In other cases it could be the architecture for the device . “

Once these goals are identified, researchers working in these areas will have a better idea of ​​what to focus on in order for a particular technology to work, says Brushett.

‘This is what I was most proud of in our research – hopefully opening up or demystifying the field and allowing a wider group of researchers to step in and add value, which I believe is important for the growth of science and the development is new ideas, “he says.

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