I was fortunate enough to apply for and receive an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at Northwestern University this summer. Northwestern is not only a prestigious university with great funding and top scientists, but it is also located in beautiful Evanston, Illinois. The university is literally built on Lake Michigan, complete with green trees and a great view of downtown Chicago over the lake.
I worked with Dr. Scott Barnett, a leader in solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs). A SOFC works with carbon-based fuels or hydrogen gas, which it then catalytically breaks down while converting the released chemical energy into an electrical current. SOFCs work at high temperatures (600 - 800ºC), which is required to reduce electrical resistances in the cells. My specific role in the research was utilizing a sol-gel synthesis, in which metal ions are tethered together using organic linking molecules, in order to create a high surface area material. This higher surface area was intended to improve the number of reaction sites for the fuel cell, thereby increasing the amount of power delivered. I learned a number of new instrumental techniques, methods for production of fuel cells, and even a bit about electrochemical testing.
Despite some frustrations in transitioning research environments, I drew a great deal of knowledge for an experience of only 9 weeks while making strides in research that might soon be impactful.