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Recharging green energy ed

Posted 10:27 a.m. Friday, March 29, 2024

Sujat Sen, Chemistry & Biochemistry, received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation for the project, "Fundamentals and Applications of Electrochemically Active Nanofluids for Energy Storage and Conversion.

UW-La Crosse chemistry professor receives prestigious NSF career grant to teach the next generation of renewable energy experts

The nation is ramping up its investment in renewable technologies, with wind, solar and other renewables. They are now expected to overtake coal as the world’s largest source of electricity by 2025. 

But new, greener ways of producing electricity require experts who understand electrochemistry, notes Sujat Sen, UW-La Crosse assistant professor of chemistry. While the sun and wind are powerful energy generators, the sun doesn’t shine at night and the wind doesn’t always blow. For green energy technologies like these to be more readily accessible and dependable, they require the energy to be stored or converted — a fundamental concept of electrochemistry. 

“Typically, we don't see people studying electrochemistry until they get to the graduate school level, and that’s what I’m trying to change,” says Sen. “We need to make electrochemistry easier and more accessible to learn in earlier years because we need a lot of people who will take on this challenge of renewable energy storage.” 

Sen received a $556,579 National Science Foundation grant that will help him train future generations of scientists who can figure out some of the most perplexing questions in electrochemistry. The five-year grant will allow Sen to lead an electrochemistry research lab with UWL undergraduates and workshops for area high school students to explore renewable energy devices such as solar cells, fuel cells and batteries. 

Growing demand for scientists to power a renewable energy future 

Electrochemistry has become an increasingly popular field of study as the country invests in new renewable energy technologies, notes Sen. The CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 was a formal, federal push to grow research and development to keep the U.S. a leader in the industries of tomorrow, including clean energy. 

Although electrochemists are in demand to build the technology used in renewable energies, electrochemistry is a subject often left out of high school curriculum and only briefly explored in most college undergraduate general education curriculum, explains Sen.  

Core concepts of electrochemistry are used widely already in many renewable energy devices such as batteries used in electric vehicles, solar cells in solar panels, and fuel cells used by NASA’s space missions since the 1960s. While the batteries we are usually familiar with can store energy on a small scale for devices such as cell phones, laptops and even electric vehicles, storing enough energy to power larger things like buildings or even city blocks (i.e. grid-scale) is still the subject of ongoing research. Sen has been studying chemical energy storage and conversion for over a decade. He is particularly interested in how nanofluids— fluids filled with tiny, suspended particles — can be used to speed up the chemical energy conversion process.  His NSF grant will focus on the use of electricity to convert chemicals such as  carbon dioxide into methane, which in turn can be used as a fuel to heat homes and buildings. After combustion, the methane converts back to CO2 forming a sustainable fuel cycle.  

Sen’s grant will also include the development of chemical simulation tools for both teaching and research. These computer simulations will allow students to push boundaries and explore the potential of various electrochemical devices outside of a closely-monitored lab setting. For instance, students would build and test devices such as a solar cell in the lab and subsequently expand their understanding by using a simulation of the same, without worry of making mistakes that could result in a safety hazards. 

About the high school workshop 

Electrochemistry workshops for high school students will be offered after year two of the grant, in summer 2026, which will be a week-long effort offered in coordination with UWL Graduate & Extended Learning. Students will assemble basic versions of renewable energy devices such as solar cells, fuel cells, electrolysers and batteries and learn how they work. Details will eventually be available on the UWL Graduate & Extended Learning website. 


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