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William Chueh: From GCEP-funded graduate student at Caltech to Stanford researcher achieving a "new level of understanding" of battery dynamics
Just 10 years ago, William Chueh was a GCEP-funded graduate student at Caltech conducting research on high performance solid oxide fuel cells with principal investigators Sossina Haile and David Goodwin.
In 2012, Chueh joined Stanford University as an assistant professor in Materials Science and Engineering, and his research proposal with Nick Melosh for an innovative approach to solar water splitting in photo-electrochemical cells was awarded $1.5M in GCEP funding.
Since then, Chueh, a Center Fellow for Stanford's Precourt Institute for Energy, has earned a number of honors including MIT Technology Review's "Top Innovators Under the Age of 35," the International Society for Solid State Ionics Young Scientist Award, the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, and the Sloan Research Fellowship for early-career scholars.
He went to Berlin, Germany, last year, to receive the BASF Volkswagen International Science Electrochemistry Award for attaining a "new level of understanding for diverse fundamentals battery dynamics which limit battery rate capability and life cycle." He received €50,000 in prize money and was recognized for his insights "paving the way for further improving lithium-ion batteries and significantly enhancing their performance."
At just 34 years of age, Chueh currently leads a group of 25 students and postdoctoral scholars and they explore efficient electrochemical pathways for converting solar energy to chemical fuels and subsequently to electricity. The group also develops next-generation materials for electrochemical energy storage.
Chueh's latest work with scientists at Stanford and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory discovered how using nanotechnology can produce a big boost in catalytic performance and was featured in Nature Communications.
He received his BS in Applied Physics, and his MS and PhD degrees in Materials Science, all from Caltech.
He took some time to answer some questions for us.
How did GCEP funding of the research you conducted at Caltech influence the direction of your career?
I take great pride in that I was a GCEP-funded graduate student at Caltech who started his independent career at Stanford, also supported by GCEP. While at Caltech, I appreciated the enabling nature of GCEP funding: the resources are sufficiently large that the project allows a team to tackle a significant challenge (as opposed to a typical academic grant), while at the same time valuing both fundamental and technological breakthroughs. My GCEP-supported work at Caltech was on solid-oxide fuel cells, which introduce me to the fascinating concept of ion-insertion electrochemistry. Building on the expertise I developed at Caltech, I extended to other facets of ion-insertion electrochemistry, such as solid-state photo-electrochemistry and lithium-ion batteries.
You received three degrees from Caltech. How did you decide to take your first job as an assistant professor at Stanford?
To be completely honest, I applied to faculty positions as a relatively clueless fifth-year graduate student because my advisor encouraged me to, not because I had selected it as my next career step. However, when I interviewed at various universities, particularly at Stanford, I saw what would be possible if I took this path: to work with a group of talented students, researchers and faculty members to tackle some of the toughest challenges such as energy storage in a way that is not possible elsewhere. On Sand Hill Road, one can go to the birthplaces of subatomic physics and Google. Stanford is a place where pursuit of fundamental science is merged elegantly with the desire to make technological impact. Both perspectives are integral to addressing our energy and climate challenges.
Please tell us how your GCEP research focused on maximizing solar-to-fuel conversion efficiency in photo-electrochemical cells could help lead to a future with lower greenhouse gas emissions.
The availability of low-cost but intermittent renewable electricity (e.g., derived from solar and wind) underscores the grand challenge to store and dispatch energy so that it is available when and where it is needed. My group is working both on electrochemical storage (i.e., batteries) as well as chemical storage (i.e., fuel). Elevated-temperature photo-electrochemistry promises the combine both light and heat to convert sunlight, water, and CO2 to liquid fuels. If successful, we can store sunlight in the form of fuel dispatchable over long distance and time, rendering the intermittency an issue of the past, and increasing the penetration of solar substantially beyond current levels.
What impact did receipt of support from GCEP have on your research goals?
GCEP funded the year-long visit of my colleague Prof. Martin Bazant from MIT in 2015-2016, who is an expert in theory and modeling of electrochemistry, transport, and reactivity. Without the support, Martin would not have spent a year at Stanford as a "GCEP Visiting Scholar." During his stay, Martin and I developed an intense collaboration on lithium-ion batteries, combining his theoretical expertise with our experimental capabilities. The result was several high-profile publications that shifted the paradigm of bottom-up battery design. Our collaboration also led to the formation of a $6M center called D3BATT: Data-Driven Design of Lithium-Ion Batteries, funded by Toyota Research Institute.
Based on the output from your laboratory, what is your vision for the future of energy?
We are entering an era where solar and wind-derived energy will be competitive fossil-based ones. However, the inherent intermittency of these abundant, carton-free energy sources has limited their penetration. Therefore, energy storage is among the most pressing challenge our planet faces. There is no single silver bullet, and one must develop both near-term and long-term solutions. In the near-term, likely electrochemical energy storage will provide the heavy lifting, and my group is working in this direction intensely, bringing together characterization techniques that allow you to watch batteries as they charge, new theories that models the behaviors of not only electrons and full devices, but also everything in between, and finally, data analytics that takes advantage of the revolution in machine learning. In the long-term, direct conversion of sunlight to chemical fuel is necessary, and that's where our GCEP work is contributing potentially viable solutions.
What is the most important lesson you want your students to learn?
I strive to prepare students to become scientific leaders. Four important qualities come to mind: (1) the ability to select a problem to work on that is bold; (2) the ability to tackle a problem so complex that no one knows the end point; (3) the ability to surround oneself with diverse points of view, then absorb, integrate and chart a path forward, (4) the ability to constantly resetting the baseline and moving the goal post.
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