WITHYogesh Surendranath wants to decarbonise our energy systems: By developing novel electrochemical reactions, he hopes to find new ways to generate energy and reduce greenhouse gases.
Electricity plays a huge role in our lives, from lighting our homes to powering the technology and devices we rely on every day. Electricity can also have a huge impact at the molecular level by driving chemical reactions that create useful products.
MIT chemistry professor Yogesh Surendranath works at this molecular level and uses electricity to rearrange chemical bonds. The electrochemical reactions he develops hold potential for processes like breaking water into hydrogen fuel, creating more efficient fuel cells, and converting waste products like carbon dioxide into useful fuels.
“All of our research is about the decarbonization of the energy ecosystem,” says Surendranath, who recently got a job in MIT’s Department of Chemistry and serves as the deputy director of the Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage Center, one of the low-carbon energy centers operated by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).
Although his work has many applications in improving energy efficiency, most of the research projects in Surendranath’s group arose out of the laboratory’s fundamental interest in studying, at the molecular level, the chemical reactions that occur between the surface of an electrode and a liquid.
“Our goal is to uncover the key rate limiting processes and key steps in the reaction mechanism that lead to one product over another so that we can rationally control the properties of a material so that it is most selective and the overall reaction efficient perform, ”he says.
Surendranath was born in Bangalore, India and moved to Kent, Ohio with his parents when he was 3 years old. Bangalore and Kent happen to have the world’s leading centers for the study of liquid crystal materials, which Surendranath’s father, an organic chemist, specializes in.
“My father used to take me to the lab, and while my parents encouraged me to practice medicine, I believe that these experiences probably sparked my interest in science and chemistry at a young age,” recalls Surendranath.
Though interested in all sciences, he narrowed his focus after taking his first college chemistry course at the University of Virginia with a professor named Dean Harman. He decided to take a double degree in chemistry and physics and eventually did research in Harman’s inorganic chemistry laboratory.
After graduating from UVA, Surendranath joined the graduate school at MIT, where his thesis advisor was then MIT professor Daniel Nocera. With Nocera, he researched the use of electricity to split water as a means of renewable hydrogen production. Surendranath’s PhD thesis focused on developing methods to catalyze half the reaction that extracts oxygen gas from water.
During a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley, he became even more involved in catalyst development. There he was interested in nanomaterials and the reactions at the interfaces between solid catalysts and liquids.
“At this interface, many of the most important processes involved in energy conversion take place in electrochemical technologies such as batteries, electrolysers and fuel cells,” he says.
In 2013, Surendranath returned to MIT to join the faculty at a time when many other junior faculty members were being hired.
“One of the most attractive features of the department is the balanced mix of young professionals and senior faculty. This has created a nurturing and lively atmosphere that is very cooperative, ”he says. “Most of all, however, the phenomenal students at MIT pulled me away. Science is driven by its intensity and enthusiasm. ”
One of the many electrochemical reactions that Surendranath’s laboratory tries to optimize is the conversion of carbon dioxide into simple chemical fuels such as carbon monoxide, ethylene, or other hydrocarbons. Another project focuses on converting methane, which is burned from oil wells, into liquid fuels such as methanol.
“In both areas, the idea is to convert carbon dioxide and low-carbon raw materials into basic chemicals and fuels. These technologies are critical to decarbonising the chemical and fuel sectors, ”says Surendranath.
Other projects include improving the efficiency of catalysts for water electrolysis and fuel cells, as well as for the production of hydrogen peroxide (a versatile disinfectant). Many of these projects grew out of his students’ desire to chase difficult problems and pursue unexpected insights, says Surendranath.
“The real joy of my time here, in addition to science, was watching students I mentored grow and mature to become independent scientists and thought leaders, and then start their own independent careers, whether that be in in industry or in science, ”he says. “This role as a mentor for the next generation of scientists in my field has paid off tremendously.”
Although they take their work seriously, Surendranath and his students like to keep the mood in their laboratory bright. He often brings mangoes, coconuts and other exotic fruits to share and loves to fly stunt kites – a type of kite that has multiple lines and enables them to perform acrobatic maneuvers like figure-of-eight. He can also occasionally be seen making balloon animals or blowing extremely large soap bubbles.
“My group has really created an extremely positive, collaborative, and uplifting environment where we follow really difficult problems and we have a lot of fun doing it,” says Surendranath. “I feel blessed to work with people who have invested so much in research and built a culture where every day is a joy to work.”