Fikile Brushett

Fikile Brushett

Vitals

Current affiliation: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Age: 33

Ph.D. alma mater: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Advice for young scientists: “The most interesting and important problems exist at the interface of multiple disciplines. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and to step outside your comfort zone.”

If I weren’t a chemist, I would be: “I had dreams of being a professional soccer player, but more likely, I would be a high school science teacher.”

As a fourth-year graduate student, Fikile Brushett already had a faculty job lined up at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But he wanted to do a postdoc anyway, so MIT held his spot. In grad school, he studied energy conversion in fuel cells, and he wanted to learn about the other side of the energy equation—storage—before he started his own lab.

During his two years as a postdoc at Argonne National Laboratory, Brushett worked on electrochemical flow batteries, which are used for energy storage on the electrical grid. “I thought I would see if I liked it. If not, I could go back to working on fuel cells,” he says. “At least I’d know something about storage.”

Unlike the familiar batteries used in portable devices, which store their charge in solid electrodes, redox flow batteries store charge in electrolyte solutions that are housed in separate tanks and pumped into an electrochemical reactor to alternately charge and discharge the battery. Most flow batteries use water-based electrolyte solutions.

When Brushett moved away from water-based systems and started working on all-organic systems as a postdoc, critics said they would be too expensive to make and operate. Brushett and his colleagues responded by developing a techno-economic model to show that all-organic flow batteries are in fact economically feasible. The model tells them what material properties are required to overcome cost hurdles and points to the most promising research areas. Such modeling “can help define a design space that is obscured at first,” Brushett says.

Research at a glance


Brushett is developing batteries for storing energy from sustainable sources such as wind and sunlight. The molecules shown in this all-organic electrochemical flow battery are among the ones that his lab is creating to improve the devices’ efficiency and capacity. Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN

Brushett is developing batteries for storing energy from sustainable sources such as wind and sunlight. The molecules shown in this all-organic electrochemical flow battery are among the ones that his lab is creating to improve the devices’ efficiency and capacity.
Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN

Now at MIT, he’s using the model to guide the design of new materials. A major focus of his lab is understanding how chemical structure affects the function of redox active molecules, with the goal of expanding the toolbox for engineering batteries. In addition, his lab is developing new electrochemical reactors to improve battery performance.

He’s proud of the work his lab is doing to explore the design possibilities for flow batteries. “I hope it inspires our friends in the organic chemistry community, who are far better at molecular synthesis, to look for new materials.”

Three key papers

Concentration-Dependent Dimerization of Anthraquinone Disulfonic Acid and Its Impact on Charge Storage” (Chem. Mater. 2017, DOI: 10.1021/acs.chemmater.7b00616)

High Current Density, Long Duration Cycling of Soluble Organic Active Species for Non-Aqueous Redox Flow Batteries” (Energy Environ. Sci. 2016, DOI: 10.1039/c6ee02027e)

An All-Organic Non-Aqueous Lithium-Ion Redox Flow Battery” (Adv. Energy Mater. 2012, DOI: 10.1002/aenm.201200322)

Vitals

Current affiliation: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Age: 33

Ph.D. alma mater: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Advice for young scientists: “The most interesting and important problems exist at the interface of multiple disciplines. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and to step outside your comfort zone.”

If I weren’t a chemist, I would be: “I had dreams of being a professional soccer player, but more likely, I would be a high school science teacher.”

Luke Connal