A conversation with ORNL chemist Gabriel Veith
October 25, 2017
ORNL’s Gabriel Veith is committed to saving energy through better batteries and more efficient chemical processes. He began pursuing his passions at the lab nearly 15 years ago, starting as a postdoc in the Materials Science and Technology Division.
In 2008 Veith earned an Early Career Award for Scientific Accomplishment from UT-Battelle for advances in nanoscale catalyst synthesis by new vapor deposition methods. He holds a PhD in inorganic chemistry from Rutgers University.
We talked with him about the importance of battery technology and the opportunities available for more efficient fertilizer production. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.
1. What are you working on?
I’m an experimental chemist working on the synthesis and characterization of new materials for energy storage and conversion applications.
I focus on the development of thin film materials. An everyday example of a thin film would be the reflective coating on the inside of a potato chip bag. I also develop bulk powder materials. So, I make materials from all different length scales and form factors.
I take these materials and use them in my experiments.
For example, I use thin films as model systems to study interfaces for batteries, collaborating with scientists at the Spallation Neutron Source. When we study the material as we charge and discharge it, we can follow how the interfacial chemistry evolves, which is important for battery life.
I also take powder materials and collaborate with microscopists here at ORNL, studying the structure and chemistry of these materials as a function of a catalytic reaction.
If we can understand these interfacial and structural changes and processes we can predict ways to control them which will enable improved performance of a battery or catalyst in the future.
2. What benefits will come from improving battery technology?
The obvious improvements in everybody’s lives will be longer-lasting cellphones and vehicles that travel longer distances. For me, I think of improved batteries in terms of resiliency, energy security and reliability.
In the United States right now we produce a lot of renewable energy to produce electricity. The problem is you often produce electricity at times when you don’t need the extra electricity or in places where you don’t need to use it right then and there.
Traditionally we would use something called pumped hydro. When power plants are producing extra electricity they would pump water uphill, and when they needed extra electricity they would release the water from the dam through a turbine and generate electricity.
You can’t use pumped hydro with something like solar energy because you’re often in a desert or a place where water is scarce. You can’t use pumped water in a place like Kansas, because there’s not a significant elevation change to pump water up and have it go back down to generate electricity.
This points to the need to use something like batteries, where you can put a battery in a brown field, or in a city, or under a bridge, and then you’ve got a place to store electricity so that you can use it when you need it.
This becomes important in rural locations such as where my mother lives or where my mother- and father-in-law live. There, when you lose electricity you no longer have the ability to pump water from your well to drink, take a shower, or flush the toilets. Also, you can lose electric heat. By having batteries that they can use in their home, they could store electricity for use when they lose power.
Batteries would also be important in extreme weather, like Super Storm Sandy in New Jersey or during the recent flooding in Louisiana, where it knocked out the power grid. If you were able to store electricity, this would aid the first responders and emergency medical teams and get the communities back up and running at a much faster pace.
3. You are also focused on new catalytic process. Why is this important?
Right now in the United States about 3 percent of our total energy consumption goes to the chemical reduction of nitrogen. This is taking nitrogen from the air and turning it into ammonia fertilizer. Now, 3 percent doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you consider that there are only 200 factories worldwide for the reduction of nitrogen to make ammonia, this is a significant process in terms of energy for one chemical reaction.
We do this because it’s the only way we have to make fertilizers right now, and without these fertilizers there would be mass starvation and death around the world. The amount of ammonia we need in the future is going to continue to grow as countries improve their economies, and people in those countries want higher protein diets. That will lead to a negative cycle where we need more and more ammonia.
I believe now is the time to improve these nitrogen reduction processes. This process that we’re using now is over 100 years old. There have not been significant changes. But with the advances we’ve had in materials, chemistry, characterization and theory, now is the right time to reinvestigate these processes, develop new ways to do it, and rethink the whole nitrogen reduction cycle.