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10 Questions for a Materials Scientist: Brian Larsen

January 24, 2013 - 10:50am

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Brian Larsen is developing the next generation of fuel cell catalysts thanks to the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Postdoctoral Research Awards. | Photo courtesy of Dr. Guido Bender, NREL.

Brian Larsen is developing the next generation of fuel cell catalysts thanks to the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Postdoctoral Research Awards. | Photo courtesy of Dr. Guido Bender, NREL.

Meet Brian Larsen -- a materials scientist and one of the recipients of the 2012 Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Postdoctoral Research Awards. Larsen discusses his fuel cells research at the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and how the research award has impacted his career.

Question: How did you end up in renewable energy research?
Brian Larsen: I began my career as a mechanical design engineer, but when I started my Ph.D. program, I transitioned to materials science -- developing disease-targeting nanoparticles as diagnostic agents for medical imaging. After I graduated, I steered my materials research toward energy applications. I worked under NREL scientist Dr. Jeffery Blackburn to create thin films of single-walled carbon nanotubes and nanowires to be used in solar cells as the transparent conducting layer -- a solar cell’s top layer.

Question: What led you to want to work on fuel cells?
BL: Hydrogen fuel cells are one of the most viable clean energy storage solutions for our current and future needs. Hydrogen fuel cells have established a strong foothold in backup power and material handling equipment -- like forklifts -- and the quick adoption in these niche applications bodes well for a successful large-scale adoption of hydrogen fuel cells in the future.

Question: What are you currently working on?
BL: I am developing the next generation of fuel cell catalysts -- the component that facilitates the reactions of oxygen and hydrogen to generate the fuel cell’s electric current. Conventional fuel cell catalysts are platinum nanoparticles, which are essentially tiny spheres of platinum metal. My work involves developing new catalyst materials with high aspect-ratio shapes at the nanoscale, such as a long wire or thin plate, that consist of platinum alloyed with a lower-cost metal, such as nickel or cobalt. High aspect-ratio shapes and alloying platinum have each been shown to increase the catalytic performance of platinum catalysts. Developing a catalyst with both of these properties has a strong potential to dramatically reduce the amount of platinum needed in a fuel cell -- and consequently lower fuel cell costs. 

Question: What is your biggest research challenge?
BL: Developing the high aspect-ratio shapes of the new catalyst materials because it involves controlling the shape of materials at the nanometer scale (imagine a “wire” that is 1,000 times smaller than a human hair) with a wide range of metals, each with unique material properties. 

Question: How did you hear about the EERE Post Doc Research Award?
BL: I was working as a postdoctoral researcher on a fuel cell catalyst project led by Dr. Bryan Pivovar, and he encouraged me to write a proposal for the program. I was attracted to the award because it gave me the opportunity to develop my own research project.

Question: What is the most exciting thing you have been able to do during your post doc experience?
BL: It has to be the inaugural meeting for our research award program last year. The meeting was planned in conjunction with the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit -- which had extraordinary speakers, including Bill Gates and President Clinton, and enlightening panel discussions with leaders from industry and public policy.

Question: What do you want to focus on after your research award ends?
BL: I would like to continue my current work developing novel nanomaterials for electrocatalysis applications in renewable energy while also expanding my research to explore scalable processes for my materials.

Question: What do you like to do in your spare time?
BL: I love spending time in the mountains, either hiking in the summer or snowboarding in the winter.

Question: How has the research award experience helped you?
BL: The program gave me the opportunity to develop and execute my own research project. My experience going through the entire project life-cycle has been great -- identifying and understanding the goals of the Department’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cells program, designing a research project to achieve those goals, developing a project proposal, and executing the project.

Question: What research are you following?
BL: I follow work that investigates viable real-world applications of nanoscale materials. The studies that catch my eye are those that demonstrate precise control of the properties of nanoscale materials at a large scale (e.g. material shape or magnetic properties) because these are steps towards “nanoengineering” and “nanomanufacturing.”

Learn how you can apply for the 2013 EERE Postdoctoral Research Awards before the Feb. 28 application deadline.

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