In her Energy Frontier Research Center, Cynthia Friend explores climate change solutions, forges interdisciplinary partnerships, and trains a new generation of innovators
EARTH DAY 50TH ANNIVERSARY
Cynthia Friend, the first woman to earn tenure in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard, and the department’s first female Chair, is working on greening the worldwide chemical industry. She designs new catalysts—used to speed up chemical processes and make them more efficient—and leads an interdisciplinary team of scientists in an Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC), launched in 2014. Recently, we spoke to Friend and Dr. Jeffrey Miller, the EFRC Research Program Director, about the Center’s mission, climate change, and why it’s important for researchers to work with industry.
Q & A
WHAT EXACTLY IS AN ENERGY FRONTIER RESEARCH CENTER?
FRIEND: An Energy Frontier Research Center is a multi-institutional grant from the Department of Energy, Basic Energy Sciences. The objective is to basically use a team approach to try to address really big problems in energy sciences. In our case, we're trying to decrease the carbon footprint and increase the energy efficiency of chemical synthesis, which accounts for about a quarter of the energy use worldwide.
Let me also now introduce Dr. Jeff Miller, who is our program director for the EFRC.
SO, TELL US ABOUT THE PROBLEMS YOU'RE WORKING TO ADDRESS.
FRIEND: As I said, we're trying to understand how to improve energy efficiency for chemical syntheses using heterogeneous catalysis, which is used in about 75 percent of processes to produce chemicals, including fuels, in industry. Our catalysts are solid materials that can speed up the desirable reactions and inhibit undesirable reactions that might occur otherwise.
So, a good example would be, if you burned methanol, you could make it into a flame and it would make CO2 and water primarily. That's not desirable because CO2 is a greenhouse gas; it actually has negative value. We're trying to design these solid materials—these so-called catalysts—so they make the product you want (in this example, formaldehyde) and not the one that you don't want, which is CO2. That's important because you produce less greenhouse gas but you also have a lot less waste and that leads to increased energy efficiency.
MILLER: I’ll jump in to say the transformation of methanol to formaldehyde is a 20-billion-dollar annual market worldwide. It's projected to increase to 40 billion over the next decade. In a 20 to 40-billion-dollar market, there need to be more sustainable processes. In fact, just catalysis by itself counts for something like 20 to 30 percent of world GDP. Many things start as chemicals. It's either finding greener ways to make them or do without the things. Probably a little bit of both is the right way to go.
SO, A BETTER CATALYST CAN MAKE CHEMICAL PRODUCTION GREENER. CAN IT MAKE IT CHEAPER, TOO?
FRIEND: Yes, cheaper in the sense that you produce less waste.
But the EFRC has another potential long-term impact for environmental issues—workforce training. We have a group of fantastic students and postdocs working for us from eleven different institutions, including Harvard. They all bring different expertise; they take leadership roles in the Center by helping to direct projects; they go to different facilities. So, we’re training and educating students from undergraduates all the way to postdocs. Jeff plays a huge role in that, so he might want to comment.
MILLER: Achieving results like this involve all kinds of different expertise areas. You have to have someone who knows how to physically make these materials. Then you have to measure how it behaves, for example, or how it changes during use. Those are completely different skill sets, and that's the concept of the Center. Then you need an expert just to keep track of the acronyms for all the techniques.
IT SEEMS LIKE A PERFECT ENDORSEMENT FOR WHY INTERDISCIPLINARY COLLABORATION IS A REQUIREMENT TO TACKLE SUCH HUGE ISSUES.
FRIEND: Yes. You need deep expertise in a specific area but you also need breadth. Without those two things combined, you can't tackle these interdisciplinary problems.
Cynthia Friend has led an Energy Frontier Research Center since 2014. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Friend.
THERE ARE A LOT OF WAYS TO TACKLE ENERGY—WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO GO IN THIS DIRECTION?
FRIEND: Basically, I saw an opportunity to predict and develop catalytic processes based on our fundamental understanding. That's different than historical catalyst development, which has been sort of Edisonian in nature—trial and error—as opposed to asking the question, can I predict what materials and what conditions can give me the best selectivity and the most product?
Selectivity is getting the product you want and not those you don't; ideally, you'd like to get 100 percent of the product you want. Reactivity means you get as much as you can of that—you can convert the reactant to product very efficiently.
SO, YOUR MODEL-BASED METHOD IS A NEW WAY OF APPROACHING CATALYST DESIGN?
FRIEND: It is. We're not the only group that's trying to develop methods for rational catalyst design. There are organizations that are similar to the EFRC throughout the world that are trying to work on these things conceptually, although they are often taking a somewhat different approach and are focusing on different reactions.
MILLER: The intentionality we devote to using science to guide the engineering is really a key difference to our method for developing and discovering catalysts. Progress should come faster when you're not just on a random walk. We're on a guided random walk.
FRIEND: I like Jeff's analogy. I often ride my bike to work, and I try to avoid busy streets if I can. Initially, I would explore side streets and see if I could get to where I wanted to go in a way that was less stressful than driving down Concord Ave. After trying different routes and going down dead-end streets and having to turn back, I found an optimized route that gets me there efficiently and safely. You have to explore a little bit to know where to go.
WHAT'S YOUR GRAND HOPE FOR THE CENTER'S RESEARCH?
FRIEND: There are two things that are my ideal. One is just demonstrating that we can take fundamental principles and actually develop a new catalytic process that can be used in industry— taking basic research all the way to practical application. One of our former postdocs, Branko Zugic, is currently trying to obtain early funding for some intellectual property that was developed in the first four years of IMASC.
If we could do that for one of these really important reactions—I'll take alkene functionalization as probably the prime example because there is no industrial process that can do that well. That would have a huge impact. It would probably take at least ten years if we were successful with the fundamentals today.
MILLER: If you look less than ten years into the future, there are other things that some of these catalysts can do. For example, Tanya Shirman (a former IMASC postdoc in Joanna Aizenberg’s lab who was a co-inventor of the technology) has now co-founded a Boston-area start-up, Metalmark Innovations. They've shown they can use a version of this technology for air purification, which is hugely valuable. They're mainly thinking about indoor air purification (an Uber driver could use the device in the car, for example), but these catalysts can actually convert tiny pollutants—including viruses—into harmless components. It can be very hard to filter pollutants efficiently, but when you can use a catalyst at a reasonable temperature and just convert these things into harmless products, it could have a huge impact on health.
Maybe people are one of the most important products of the Center.
IT SOUNDS LIKE THE CENTER IS LIKE A MIDDLE "ROUTE" FROM WHICH RESEARCHERS CAN BRANCH OFF AND EXPLORE.
MILLER: A fleet of bikers!
FRIEND: Yes, a fleet of bikes. The idea is that people will take what they learn—both in methodology and approaches—and branch out not only within catalysis but to other areas. A lot of the tools that are used in our work can be beneficial to other energy sciences like developing new energy storage materials, photocatalysis, super-capacitors for energy storage.
In an interdisciplinary center people push each other. Everyone is not always in agreement but in the end the science is so much better.
ON A BROADER LEVEL, WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP TO FIGHT CLIMATE CHANGE?
FRIEND: I actually am very involved with discussions at DOE [Department of Energy] because I'm the Vice Chair of an advisory committee called Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee. From my perspective, there has to be a multi-faceted approach. In addition to the kinds of things we're doing, I think one important area is energy storage—finding ways to take sunlight or wind power and store those in electrochemical cells. Converting sunlight to energy, using photochemistry to make fuels. We can't focus on just one; we need to focus on a multi-faceted approach.
ARE YOU HOPEFUL?
FRIEND: Yes. I'm generally an optimist. I really think that the ingenuity of people, if it's harnessed appropriately, can solve important problems like this. It requires financial support and a will on the part of society to solve these problems. But I think that over time humankind has demonstrated an ability to innovate and adjust. If we take that energy, we can make huge inroads in solving environmental problems. I'm from the Midwest, so I'm optimistic by nature.
WHAT ABOUT INDUSTRY—WHAT'S THEIR ROLE IN CLIMATE CHANGE ACTION?
FRIEND: Engaging the petrochemical industry to help solve these problems, in my opinion, should be part of the solution. That's why I think working with a company like TOTAL, which is a large petrochemical company, is important because they also are interested for their very survival in solving a lot of these issues. The profit motive, I understand, is overriding for industry—that's what they're supposed to be doing, making a profit. But if we set up a system whereby they can make a profit and address energy problems and environmental problems, I think industry will step up. To some extent, they are already—they're interested in CO2 conversion to fuels, especially in Europe because there are strict regulations.
SO, I HEARD YOU HAVE A PHOTO OF A WOLF IN YOUR OFFICE?
FRIEND: Actually, it's a painting. Bill Klemperer, our late colleague, has a daughter Wendy, who is a very accomplished artist. When she was a beginning artist and I was an assistant professor, Bill was showing me her artwork and I really liked it. So, for a very modest price, I bought this painting from Wendy, and I had to pay it in monthly installments because I didn't have very much money. It was kind of inspirational because when I was an assistant professor it was always sitting right across from my desk. It still is now. Not that I necessarily needed to be inspired to be more aggressive, but if I ever needed it, it was there.