Tom Jaramillo, assistant professor of chemical engineering, came to Stanford in large part because of GCEP and the opportunities in energy research that it provides.
With research interests in energy and catalysis, Tom quickly became the lead investigator on two GCEP efforts: Nature-Inspired Solid-State Electrocatalysts: The Oxidation of Water and the Reduction of CO2 to Fuels and Nanostructured MoS2 and WS2 for the Solar Production of Hydrogen.
In 2011, he was honored with a National Science Foundation CAREER Award and was selected as a GCEP Distinguished Lecturer.
Now Tom steps into a new role as a GCEP Research Theme Leader in the area of electrochemical energy conversion and storage. He is charged with helping GCEP identify research opportunities involving solar fuels, electrocatalysis, batteries, fuel cells and hydrogen that could have the greatest impact on reducing global CO2 emissions to the atmosphere.
Tom took some time to answer a few questions for GCEP.
What was it about GCEP that helped bring you to Stanford?
GCEP has played a significant role at Stanford establishing itself as a global leader in energy-related research. Of the many ways in which GCEP has contributed to the advancement of energy-related science and technology, one of the most telling is its role as the focal point for energy researchers at Stanford, bringing the community together to leverage each other's strengths to solve challenging, global-scale problems. It was clear to me that my research would be able to move scientific frontiers faster and farther with an organization like GCEP right here on campus.
As a young assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Stanford, why did you decide to go into energy research?
There are three general criteria that I consider when deciding upon which research directions to pursue. First, I like working in areas where I can make a technological impact with a benefit to society; in general, the larger the scale the better. Secondly, I appreciate the opportunity to work in areas where important, fundamental scientific questions remain unanswered; one of the great joys of research is shining light onto those questions and providing new knowledge as to how our world works. And third, I enjoy leveraging my background education in chemical engineering for creating major breakthroughs in science and technology. Energy research fits all three criteria; I see myself working in this area well into the future.
GCEP Research Theme Leader and investigator Tom Jaramillo (left) conducts research with his students.
Tell us about your research and how it could possibly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the major themes in our research is the efficient production of fuels from renewable resources (e.g., solar and wind) and then the efficient consumption of those fuels to get the energy back out when needed (e.g., in fuel cells and flow batteries). These technologies have the potential to produce and consume fuels with minimal (or even zero) net greenhouse gas emissions, and can potentially do so at the terrestrial scale.
What would surprise people most about the work that you do?
Many people – even scientists – are surprised when they find out that we can chemically transform CO2 into a wide variety of fuels and useful chemicals, for instance methane, ethylene, ethanol and ethylene glycol (among many others). The fact that we can do this chemistry in a room-temperature, ambient-pressure process surprises them even more.
As a GCEP Research Theme Leader in the area of electrochemical energy conversion and storage, what do you hope to achieve?
The interest in electrochemical technologies has increased significantly in recent years and for good reason – many electrochemical processes can achieve high efficiency, high- energy density and/or high-power density. There are many different types of electrochemical energy conversion technologies that researchers are currently developing. As a Research Theme Leader in this area, one of my primary goals is to help keep GCEP up-to-date on the latest emerging technologies in order to identify the most promising avenues that should be pursued. I also look forward to bringing together researchers in this area, identifying opportunities for us to leverage our diverse talents in order to accomplish ambitious scientific goals that require teamwork to succeed.
What are some of the up-and-coming energy technologies in your area that we should keep our eyes on?
There are many. Some of the most intriguing technologies are those that have the potential to couple to grid-scale wind and/or solar energy to store that intermittent energy over long periods of time (hours-to-days) in a cost-effective manner. This is a tall order. Two technologies in particular that may be able to accomplish this ambitious goal are solar fuels and flow batteries. However, there is still much research and development that needs to be done to improve these technologies to the point where they could compete with fossil fuels on a cost-basis.
What has been most enlightening or rewarding about your time at Stanford so far?
Interacting on a daily basis with the phenomenal people that make up the Stanford community – students, faculty, staff, as well as those in the surrounding area of Silicon Valley. There is a strong spirit of innovation here, with tremendous scientists and engineers, along with fantastic people working on the policy, economic and business side of technology – lots of motivated individuals who are not afraid to challenge themselves as they pursue ambitious goals.