Dr. Adam Weber oversees the work of intern Sara Kelly at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. Dr. Weber was recently named one of the winners of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers. | Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
President Obama recently named 102 winners of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, the federal government’s highest honor for science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their careers. The awards recognize those who are working to address global challenges through innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology. Dr. Adam Weber of the Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was honored for his cutting edge work to help make hydrogen fuel cells and their components more efficient and durable.
1. Question: What inspired you to become a scientist?
Adam Weber: I have always been interested in chemistry and its application to solving real-world issues. For this reason I have worked in the field of chemical engineering, where chemistry, mathematics and engineering are applied. Even as an undergraduate, I was fascinated with studying problems in depth and being able to predict observed phenomena, whether it was rainwater sheeting on a driveway or predicting chemical composition changes and heat required to run a process. Being able to solve environmental problems and make an impact is one of the main reasons that I became a scientist.
2. Q: Several reports recently released by the Energy Department indicate the nation’s hydrogen and fuel cell market is continuing to grow. However, there are challenges to continued wide-spread adoption of these clean energy technologies. What challenge(s) are you working on related to the deployment of hydrogen and fuel cell systems?
AW: While barriers remain in the adoption and wide-spread use of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, substantial progress has been made both in hydrogen generation (where low-cost natural gas has been a game changer), transmission, and conversion to electricity. The research conducted by my group is mainly focused on the latter, and especially in lowering the total cost of ownership of fuel cells by optimizing their performance and durability. Using mathematical models and advanced diagnostics, our focus has been on understanding, in detail, the limiting process occurring within the cell and its components and finding efficient and economical ways to overcome them.
3. Q: What is the most interesting discovery from your research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory?
AW: Throughout my career at LBNL, my group has focused on thermal and water management, especially in relation to ion-conductive membranes. Through modeling and experimental investigations, we have been able to explain what drives certain observations such as environment-dependent water uptake. One interesting result from these studies is the impact of thermal history on membrane behavior, including some, as yet unexplained, time effects. In addition, the responsive behavior of the membrane depends on the environmental ion concentration, and this finding may lead to the development of adaptive materials. All of these studies provide input to our fuel cell models so we can optimize fuel cell behavior.
4. Q: What are working on now that you are most excited about?
AW: The work that I am most excited about relates to transport in fuel cells, particularly in catalyst layers where the oxygen reduction reaction occurs. The formation of catalyst layers is an active area of research. My group has focused on the ion-conductive polymer films inside this layer, where we have shown that the morphology of these films affects their transport properties, and these in turn can limit performance, especially with decreased catalyst (e.g., platinum) amounts. Understanding and minimizing these interactions can lead to substantial cost improvements in fuel cells and help unveil the mystery of catalyst-layer formation.
5. Q: Which famous inventor or scientist do you admire the most and why?
AW: While I have always enjoyed the Einstein quote, “If we knew what we were doing it wouldn’t be called research,” I would say that the scientist I admire most would have to be Newton due to his ability to see the world in a different light and describe the physics of many different fields and phenomena. The ability to conceive of something like calculus, where the sum of an infinite series is a finite number, is pretty inspiring.
6. Q: What do you like most about working at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory?
AW: LBNL, as with most National Laboratories, is a dynamic and energizing place to work. It provides a critical mass of experts in many fields and this promotes great interactions, discussions, and new research directions. The ability to work with state-of-the-art equipment in addition to the human resources also makes LBNL an exciting place to come to work every day.
7. Q: What is your favorite sci-fi movie?
AW: I have always enjoyed reading and watching high fantasy, especially those with magic…maybe that is why I wanted to become a scientist -- to understand if there is such a thing. Growing up my favorite movie was probably Camelot due to the story of Merlin and the great use of Carmina Burana during the horse-charging sequences. Nowadays, I would have to say the Lord of the Rings due to the great storytelling of Peter Jackson, the story itself by Tolkien (which was one of the first fantasy trilogies I read), the absolutely beautiful scenery of New Zealand, and the great acting.
8. Q: What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
AW: The best piece is probably just “follow your nose,” which my graduate school advisor, John Newman, used to say all of the time. In this fashion, you just need to break down problems in a logical sequence, start at the beginning, and see where the research takes you.
9. Q: How do you like to unwind on the weekend?
AW: I am not sure if it is unwinding per se, but typically the weekends are spent with my family, and especially my wife and 7-year old twins. Whether it is working with them on Legos, board games, or just watching a movie, they help to keep me balanced and grounded.
10. Q: Do you have any tips for students who want to pursue a career in science?
AW: I would say that you should question your environment and seek to understand the underlying cause and effects that are around you. When you find an interesting problem, do not be overwhelmed; break it down and tackle each piece systematically. See the endeavor as a story and don’t be eager to just skip to the end, enjoy the journey.