COSAM News Articles 2024 05 Auburn alumnus bridges Auburn University and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in DOE's Energy Earthshots Initiative

Auburn alumnus bridges Auburn University and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in DOE's Energy Earthshots Initiative

Published: 05/28/2024

By: Maria Gebhardt

On April 24, 2024, David E. Crawford (first person on the right of the photo), a physics graduate student working with Professor Jianjun (JJ) Dong (first person on the left of the photo), made a research presentation to two scientists from Department of Energy (DOE)’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Judith Vidal  (second person from the right) and Katherine Jungjohann (third person from the right), in the Leach Science Center on Auburn’s campus. Vidal and Jungjohann are the director and associate director of the recently funded DOE Energy’s Energy Earthshots Initiative research center on DEGradation Reactions in Electrothermal Energy Storage (DEGREES). Physicists of Auburn University are collaborating with this NREL led multi-institute research team on the long duration storage of renewable, sustainable thermal energy, by providing research expertise on atomistic materials simulations.

“I am excited that Auburn University is part of an incredible team working to make a real difference in challenges to sustainable energy,” said JJ Dong, professor of physics. “This project will help to reduce costs of renewable energy and increase its overall performance.”

The Auburn team will be awarded a nearly one million dollars NREL sub-contract over the next four years as part of this DOE’s Earthshots Initiative.

“We are providing fundamental physics that enables the technology to make changes to renewable energy technologies,” said Dong. “We will be conducting modeling to look at material structures at atomic-scale that could provide substantial insights on the degradation mechanisms of materials properties for long-term energy storage”

However, this partnership actually started years ago on the Plains.

“About seven years ago, I had the opportunity to co-advise a mechanical engineering student, Yi Zeng,” he said. “I worked with him to mentor him while he was earning his PhD. We worked on various research projects related to phase change materials and fundamental thermal conduction theory and published several papers together.”

After graduation, he joined NREL.

“Yi had an opportunity to become a short-term post-graduate trainee,” he added. “However, the pandemic closed the lab soon after he arrived NREL.”

Dong and Zeng stayed in touch during the pandemic, and Dong continued to provide Zeng guidance to help him succeed as a trainee.

“I was able to give him advice and work with him on conducting computer simulations remotely while the national lab was completely closed,” said Dong.

 And that led to a post-doctoral research associate position.

“He did such a great job that he became a postdoctoral scientist at NREL,” he enthusiastically said.

Now working at NREL, Zeng was able to share Dong’s research and the capabilities of Auburn University with stakeholders within the national lab.

“The culture at Auburn University promotes that graduate students are treated as partners,” said Dong. “Faculty nurture them to launch their careers and provide a foundation for future success.”

This mutual respect and desire to work together remains after students pursue careers.

“Students in the Department of Physics are exposed to the very frontiers of research,” he said. “They gain insight on cutting-edge research and work on areas that are at the forefront of technology.”

On a recent site visit, members of the DOE Lab saw how graduate students are valued at Auburn and the depth of the research they are involved in.

“We recently had a site visit where they could talk to current graduate students,” Dong said.

The multi-disciplinary research helps both Auburn and the students. A current graduate student, Dave Crawford who is part of the new award, had an opportunity to share his experiences and perspectives with the DOE team.

“We build resources that showcase the Auburn story,” Dong said. “Our graduate students are examples of the strength of Auburn Research and provide visibility around the world.”

This partnership is an example of the expertise of the faculty, the passion for the students and the very heart of the university.

 “It is just part of Auburn’s DNA,” Dong added. “We add value to a graduate student’s education with integrated research that provides an elevated student experience like nowhere else.”

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