Brookhaven Awarded $11M in Funding to Support Clean Energy Research

Lab receives support for three of its proposals — on catalysts for water electrolysis, batteries, and bioproducts

By Denise Yazak and Karen McNulty Walsh

Photo of Principal Investigators Jingguang Chen, Amy Marschilok, and Qun Liu

From left to Right: Principal Investigators Jingguang Chen, Amy Marschilok, and Qun Liu

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory has been awarded funding from the DOE Office of Science for three proposals submitted in response to a DOE call for projects in Chemical and Materials Sciences to Advance Clean-Energy Technologies and Transform Manufacturing (CEM). $11M in funding over a span of three years will support projects addressing foundational science that could lead to the development of new catalysts for water electrolysis, sustainable batteries, and novel approaches for manufacturing bioproducts.

The funding awarded to Brookhaven Lab is part of more than $140 million awarded by the Office of Science for research into clean energy technologies and low-carbon manufacturing at universities and National Laboratories across the nation.

“Meeting the Biden-Harris Administration’s ambitious climate and clean energy goals will require a game-changing commitment to clean energy — and that begins with researchers across the country,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “The research projects announced today will strengthen the scientific foundations needed for the United States to maintain world leadership in clean energy innovation, from renewable power to carbon management.”

This work may result in solutions that can immediately be implemented and commercialized and/or knowledge that can be leveraged in follow-up research.

“It’s exciting to see the scientific community coming together to solve these critical issues that face us as a nation,” said James Misewich, Associate Laboratory Director for Energy and Photon Sciences at Brookhaven Laboratory. “Clean energy is a key initiative at Brookhaven Laboratory, and these three clean energy projects show a lot of promise in contributing to that mission. The support that these awards provide allows projects like these to get the focus and resources they need, and we are grateful to the Office of Basic Energy Sciences within the Department’s Office of Science for this opportunity.”

Here are the CEM projects supported by the funding awarded to Brookhaven Lab:

Nitrides of Earth-abundant Metals as Cost-effective Catalysts for Water Electrolysis

Hydrogen is a promising alternative to our current carbon-dependent fuel and energy systems. Water is a plentiful source of hydrogen, but that hydrogen is combined with oxygen that must be removed before the hydrogen can be used for fuel. While water is inexpensive and plentiful, the materials to refine it into pure hydrogen are not.

Water electrolysis, or electrochemical water splitting, is the process of using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Currently, this is done using a membrane electrolyzer, a device with a polymer membrane that separates reactions involving hydrogen at a cathode and those involving oxygen at an anode. Most membrane electrolyzers use acidic electrolytes because of the availability and reliability of acid-compatible membranes. But to work, these electrolytes require electrocatalysts that contain platinum and iridium, scarce and expensive metals.

Jingguang Chen and his team in Brookhaven Lab’s Chemistry Division aim to find replacements for platinum, namely nitrides of earth-abundant metals (EAM). These new electrocatalysts would allow for large-scale hydrogen fuel production by water electrolysis at reduced cost. The team has a foundation of published research showing that EAM-nitrides can perform nearly as well as platinum or iridium catalysts in acidic electrolytes. Their ongoing work aims to get a complete understanding of these reactions and the stability of the material and its performance in-situ—that is, in actual electrolyzers.

“Hydrogen production by water electrolysis is the most promising pathway to achieve the DOE Earthshot objective to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen by 80% to $1 per kilogram within the next decade,” remarked Chen.

The award funds the first three years of research at a total of $4,500,000.

The Catalytic Promise of Molybdenum Chalcogenides to Enable Aqueous Zinc Sulfur Batteries

Amy Marschilok and her collaborators in the Interdisciplinary Science Department, the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II), and the Computational Science Initiative at Brookhaven Lab, and the Institute for Electrochemically Stored Energy at Stony Brook University, are pursuing a battery that is not only better for the environment, but better for the consumer. This team of materials scientists and chemists are using catalytic electrochemistry as an approach to enable electrochemical energy storage with higher capacity in batteries made from sustainable materials. The scientists aim to understand and tune kinetic barriers to electrochemical sulfur conversion via an integrated experimental/theoretical effort. Their ultimate aim is to harness the catalytic promise of sustainable molybdenum chalcogenides to enable aqueous zinc sulfur batteries.

“As the demand for energy grows, so does the need to identify sustainable alternatives for energy storage,” explained Marschilok. “Consideration of conversion materials expands access to broader populations of reactants and products, with the benefit of making new classes of sustainable materials accessible for energy storage. Thus, this project will have significant impact toward addressing the need for clean, reliable energy for the nation.”

The award funds the first three years of research at a total of $3,400,000.

Transformative Biohybrid Diiron Catalysts for C-H Bond Functionalization

Hydrocarbons, such as the alkanes found in crude oil, are an essential raw material for manufacturing many everyday products— from fuels and plastics to solvents and building materials. To make these products, the carbon-hydrogen bonds in inert alkanes must be activated through an energy- and resource-demanding process. In addition to requiring heat, pressure, and catalysts containing expensive, precious metals like platinum, the yield from this process is low and comes with hard-to-separate unwanted byproducts

Qun Liu and his team in Brookhaven Lab’s Biology Department and Chemistry Division aim to find a cleaner and more cost-effective way to convert alkanes to a variety of highly pure products with a net zero-carbon release. The project will investigate methods to replace the current process by using low-temperature, electrochemically driven biocatalysts made from iron, an abundant metal that constitutes about 80% of the inner and outer cores of Earth.

 “This is multidisciplinary research,” noted Liu. “We are integrating structural biology and biochemistry through the Biology Department, theoretical chemistry and computational modeling through the Chemistry Division, artificial intelligence and machine learning through the Computer Science Initiative, in operando x-ray absorption spectroscopy at National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II), and electrochemistry through the University of Utah. We’ll also be relying on Brookhaven Lab facilities like the Laboratory for BioMolecular Structure (LBMS). This foundational work should expand and lead to even more research in this crucial area.”

The award funds the first three years of research at a total of $3,200,000.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit

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