The benefits of disequilibrium

June 22, 2020
Assistant Professor Jarad Mason

Jarad Mason earns a prestigious Department of Energy grant to develop new materials and help solve global energy challenges

On June 23, 2020, the Department of Energy (DOE) awarded 76 prestigious grants through their Early Career Research Program. Jarad Mason, who joined the department of chemistry and chemical biology just over two years ago, is one of the 76 winners, earning a five-year award to develop novel glassy materials that could help solve a wide range of worldwide energy challenges from safer batteries to efficient separation membranes and even radioactive waste storage.

“This DOE program is broadly interested in new types of materials that have relevance to addressing global challenges in energy,” said Mason, an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology. “Our focus is establishing the basic science that will ultimately enable these types of applications.”

In March, just before the Harvard campus shutdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mason and his students labored to polish and submit their proposal. “It was right as we were starting to suspend laboratory operations,” he said. Just three months later, Mason received a call from the DOE program officer with the good news: Their project, “Converting Metal–Organic Liquids into Microporous Glasses via Non-Equilibrium Syntheses,” won the agency’s support.  

While the world tries to escape from the disequilibrium brought by COVID-19, Mason and his lab are studying how to create and control non-equilibrium materials like supercooled liquids and glasses. Most materials (like human beings) want to return to equilibrium, their lowest energy states. But materials trapped in non-equilibrium configurations can come with unusual structures and properties that scientists can use to design new technologies—like next-generation solid-state electrolytes with high ionic conductivities for batteries and membranes with tunable free volume for gas separations. 


A photo of the Mason group assembled behind the chemistry complex

The Mason Group, as of March 2019. Mason stands on the far left. 


So far, such materials are poorly understood and difficult to study. Think of a high mountain peak and a boulder resting at the top, Mason said. Give the boulder a shove and it wants to reach the valley. Block one path and it can pummel down another. “What you want to do in non-equilibrium synthesis,” he said, “is stop your boulder from getting all the way down to the lowest altitude, and trap it up in a higher, less stable configuration.”

Ultimately, Mason and his students hope to control that boulder’s path: To direct syntheses down specific non-equilibrium pathways and in so doing dictate a material’s shape, size, and porosity. Owing to their mechanical strength, optical transparency, processability, and lack of grain boundaries, glasses are a particularly important class of non-equilibrium materials. Now, the researchers will use coordination chemistry principles to tinker with their structures (like tinker toys, Mason said) to achieve new and adaptable properties.

“To be able to push metal–organic glasses toward specific applications,” Mason said, “we need to have a better synthetic toolkit, a better understanding of how to actually make these materials and how to understand their properties.”

This DOE grant is not Mason’s first big early career award—in 2019, he earned grants from two coveted Young Investigator Programs, the Office of Naval Research and the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. This cross-agency support proves the broad applicability of Mason’s work, which could lead to technological innovations beyond the energy sector, spanning the fields of chemistry, physics, engineering, and even medicine. Still, the mounting threat of climate change is hard to ignore; and with tech that could improve chemical industrial processes and fuel production and storage, help design green vehicles, and purify natural gas and even water, it’s not surprising the DOE chose to invest in Mason.

“The Department of Energy is proud to support funding that will sustain America's scientific workforce, and create opportunities for our researchers to remain competitive on the world stage,” said Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar. “By bolstering our commitment to the scientific community, we invest into our nation’s next generation of innovators.”

Mason is, no doubt, a leader in that generation.