As energy continues to play an increasingly pivotal role in our daily lives, scientists are exploring how to push beyond what was previously thought possible to create safer, more efficient, and more sustainable sources.

Energy conversion technologies like fuel cells and electrolyzers, which interconvert chemical and electrical energy, may have a crucial role in surmounting this challenge.

Some approach this challenge from an engineering perspective: How can we best use the materials we have to create a better energy conversion system? Melissa Novy, a Ph.D. student in the macromolecular science and engineering program, finds another intriguing question within that premise: How can we be sure we are using the best materials to begin with?

Now, Novy will get to explore that question alongside some of the world’s most knowledgeable scientists and engineers on the subject. Novy was recently awarded a prestigious U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science Graduate Student Research Program Fellowship. This fellowship is geared toward high-achieving graduate students and seeks to enable them to use Department of Energy laboratories and facilities to complete their graduate research.

“It’s a great opportunity to do cutting-edge research and make some really cool connections,” said Novy.

Novy’s advisor, Robert Moore, in the Department of Chemistry and director of the Macromolecules Innovation Institute (MII) at Virginia Tech, said the fellowship “acknowledges Melissa’s profound accomplishments, hard work, and dedication to the science and engineering of materials needed to meet our global demand for sustainable energy solutions.

“This unique experience will help her establish invaluable professional relationships needed to accelerate her emerging career as a leader in macromolecular materials research,” Moore said.

Melissa Novy is wearing protective gloves and glasses while using equipment in a lab
Novy uses fuel cell testing equipment as part of her research. Photo courtesy of Melissa Novy.

In fact, Novy is currently at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, where she is building upon her work in Moore’s lab by exploring promising new materials for use in fuel cells. The particular fuel cells of interest are able to convert the energy that is stored in hydrogen molecules into usable electrical energy.

Notably, this process only has one byproduct — water — which means that this particular type of fuel cell is hugely promising in terms of aiding a transition to zero-emission sources of energy. However, the fuel cells rely upon a component that has been constructed from the same polymer material since the 1960s, and there is likely much room for innovation. A series of new materials is being developed by the company 3M, and they hold the promise of opening up new possibilities for fuel cell efficiency and durability. 3M has trusted Novy with early samples of these materials, to build up a base of knowledge about their chemistry, physical structure, and ultimately fuel cell performance.

To fully examine these alternative polymer materials, Novy is tapping into the world-renowned facilities at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She has access to a state-of-the-art X-ray scattering facility at the Advanced Light Source called a synchrotron to investigate the nanoscale structure of the materials.

By describing the structural characteristics systematically and in detail, she is helping to lay the groundwork for a more robust scientific understanding of fuel cell materials. This understanding will enable researchers and engineers to take a more strategic, well-informed approach to developing the next generation of fuel cells.

In addition to her access to advanced equipment, this fellowship also provides Novy with the opportunity for collaborations with preeminent researchers in the field of fuel cell research.

“I’m working with some of the top names in the fuel cell ionomers field,” she says. “They’ve done a lot of great work and I’ve read their papers, so it’s exciting to get to know these people on a professional level.”

Taking things a step further, Novy is collaborating with researchers whose knowledge and backgrounds are different from her own.

“The groups here are a bit more on the engineering side of things, so I’ll be getting exposed to not only the fundamental science that I’ve been doing with Dr. Moore, but also I’ll be collaborating and writing papers with the engineering side. I’d call it a really great experience to get exposed to a broad range of sub-disciplines,” Novy said.

Moore said the work that Novy is doing aligns with major tenets of MII, such as an indisciplinary approach to solving problems and supporting and facilitating the work of graduate students.

“Just as chemists and engineers collaborate at places like Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory,” Moore said, “we work across disciplines at the Macromolecules Innovation Institute to accelerate discovery and innovation.”