It has been a banner year for Meng Li. Graduating with a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from Stony Brook University in the summer of 2011 and getting hired by Brookhaven National Laboratory as a research associate in the Chemistry Department, by any standard, are significant accomplishments. Li, however, has also won three major awards for her work in the field of novel fuel cell electrocatalysts.
Li’s awards include the H.H. Dow Memorial Student Award from the Electrochemical Society for her stellar performance as a graduate student in the field; the Oronzio and Niccolò De Nora Foundation Young Author Prize of the International Society of Electrochemistry for her contributions to a paper published in Electrochimica Acta as an author under 30; and Stony Brook’s President’s Award to a Distinguished Doctoral Student for her academic achievements while pursuing her Ph.D.
“I was very excited and honored to receive these awards,” said Li, who continues the graduate research she began with mentor Radoslav Adzic of Brookhaven’s Chemistry Department five years ago.
Li’s research focuses on the development of novel ternary electrocatalysts composed of platinum-rhodium-tin dioxide (Pt-Rh-SnO2), which enable the direct oxidation of ethanol to carbon dioxide (CO2) at the anode of a direct ethanol fuel cell.
Fuel cells that can directly generate electrical energy using ethanol fuel are desirable because ethanol is a renewable biofuel with a high energy density. But the electrocatalysis that converts ethanol to CO2 has been difficult and impractical.
Li, Adzic, and their collaborators have advanced electrocatalyst performance, bringing practical ethanol fuel cells much closer to popular use. The catalysts Li studies involve nanocatalysts and single crystal based model catalysts, prepared by wet chemical and electrochemical synthetic methods. Understanding the novel electrocatalysts requires characterizing their nanoscale structures and chemical compositions at Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) using X-ray absorption spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction. Catalytic properties are determined by electrochemical and infrared techniques. Li also uses the advanced electron microscopes in the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN) in her research.
“Meng is a very capable young scientist. She is motivated and ambitious and she did work over five years that involved the very difficult synthesis of new catalysts that was a major breakthrough in ethanol oxidation,” said Adzic. “She accomplished that with skills greater than what you would expect from a graduate student.”
Li said that she was initially more interested in art and design as a high school student, but eventually found science more appealing because of its logical and societal value. “I would also like to say that my work is useful,” said Li.
As an undergraduate, Li worked on the development of zinc and tin coatings that prevented the corrosion of a particular magnesium alloy. She received her B.E. in materials science and engineering in 2006 from Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. When she arrived at Stony Brook to pursue graduate study under a Presidential Fellowship, she followed a similarly specific course of study, a focus for which Li says she is thankful.
“I think it’s good that I worked on a very specific project in my graduate study and was well-trained through it, but in the future, I’d like to be a primary investigator and do more broad research,” said Li.
“I am interested in catalysis and electrochemistry. I am very glad that I’ve found them to be useful in the study of alternative energy,” said Li. “My research will be correlated with other aspects of renewable energy research, as well, like making hydrocarbon fuel from photo-electrochemical reduction of CO2, and developing electrocatalysts for rechargeable lithium-air batteries.”
For now, Li is very happy to work in Adzic’s lab and at Brookhaven, where she continues to learn from other scientists, like Ping Liu of the Chemistry Department and Nebojsa Marinkovic of the NSLS. “It’s very good to have them close, to discuss my experiments and learn from them.”