Solving energy problems, one molecule at a time

Jan 26, 2012 by David L. Chandler
Photo: M. Scott Brauer

Jeffrey Grossman says Cambridge has a better climate than California — for carrying out materials science research, that is. That’s why Grossman decided, two years ago, to make the move from the University of California at Berkeley to a position at MIT.

“I really don’t like sunshine that much,” he says, in a wry tone that clearly suggests otherwise: It was the innovative climate inside the halls of MIT, not the frigid weather outside, that drew him here.

Grossman hadn’t been to Cambridge prior to the move, but there was some family history here: His father, Neal, now an associate professor of philosophy emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is an MIT alumnus (SB ’67). “I have his slide rule,” Grossman says, “that was given to him by his uncle, who was also an MIT alum.”

Growing up in suburban Evanston, Ill., Grossman says he decided very early on that he wanted to study physics when he got to college. “It was those mysteries that physics could answer that attracted me,” he recalls. “This was very exciting to me.”

He pursued that ambition, majoring in physics at Johns Hopkins University, and then continuing his studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he earned his doctorate in computational physics. He accepted a postdoc position in physics at Berkeley, “and I knew I wanted to move more toward applied physics,” he says. “I love physics, but what excites me the most are those intersections between engineering and science.” He soon decided that materials science was exactly the right field in which to pursue his research vision.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Video: Melanie Gonick

Grossman also decided that energy, in particular, presented “the perfect combination of a global-scale problem that we face, that happens to need — at its core — new materials,” he says. “And we’re also at a point where we can predict and make new materials as never before. I don’t know if we’ve ever had a challenge this big that faces us, where the answer really is in the design of new materials.”

Putting a move on

Although he and his wife, Katherine Moschandreas, graduated from Evanston Township High School together, Grossman says, they never knew each other at the school. It was only at their 10th reunion that they finally met: She was living in Cambridge (having earned two master’s degrees from Harvard University) but was about to move to Berkeley, where he was then a postdoc. They began dating soon after she moved, were married soon after that, and now have three children (ages 8, 7 and 3).

Grossman says that as a graduate student and postdoc, he found it important to have outside interests that could provide a different kind of focus. For him, that came in the form of competitive ballroom dancing, which he pursued seriously throughout those years.

“When you go dancing and look around, everyone is smiling. No one dances and is not having fun,” he says. It’s a good outlet, he adds, because “it’s something that’s not work, but it requires quite a bit of concentration. That kind of balance between my work and other interests actually allows me to be more productive and more creative. But a balance doesn’t come easy — you have to work to maintain it.”

Shaping molecules, and solar panels

In 2009, Berkeley offered him a faculty appointment — and so did MIT. Much as he enjoyed his work in California, he says, “Professionally, I had never seen a place like MIT, where people are so problem-driven. It’s not just materials scientists — in all the departments, everyone I meet, everyone is cross-disciplinary, working on both the practice and the theory. This is where people, and I mean everyone — from the undergraduate students to graduate students, postdocs, staff scientists and faculty — are the most driven I’ve ever seen to solve hard problems together.”

So it became an easy choice for him, and he joined MIT in fall 2009. “It’s a thrill to be here, because of that culture and that environment. … If you want to try to change the world and make it better with science and engineering, this is just a really unique place,” he says.

Grossman, who was awarded tenure this year and is now the Carl Richard Soderberg Associate Professor of Power Engineering, has continued his research on developing and applying computational techniques to understand and design new materials at the scale of atoms and electrons, mostly for energy applications. For example, he and one of his postdocs recently showed how a particular material can collect solar energy in a form that can be stored indefinitely by changing the molecule’s configuration, and then release that energy on demand by snapping back to its original form in response to a small nudge such as an increase in temperature.

Grossman has also created a balance between his group’s computational predictions and practical demonstrations of those ideas. For example, he leads a new team at MIT working to make efficient, quantum-dot-based solar cells. He and his students are also arranging solar panels in three-dimensional shapes to increase the power produced over the course of a day and smooth out its variability, and are in the process of building full-scale prototypes of such systems on a rooftop at MIT.

Grossman’s work extends beyond new energy technologies into other areas, such as designing environmentally sustainable concrete and producing clean water. “One of the advantages of the kinds of simulations we do is that the same methods can be used to impact diverse technological challenges,” Grossman explains. “For example, since we study how electrons move through materials, and how this controls key properties that limit the material’s performance, we can tackle old problems … in new ways.”

Whether simulating new solutions or fostering collaborations among his MIT students and colleagues, it seems that moving from California to Cambridge has sharpened Grossman’s resolve to make the most out of every precious hour of sunlight.

Explore further: Physicists consider implications of recent revelations about the universe's first light

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Research update: New way to store sun's heat

Jul 13, 2011

A novel application of carbon nanotubes, developed by MIT researchers, shows promise as an innovative approach to storing solar energy for use whenever it’s needed.

Is there a hidden bias against creativity?

Nov 18, 2011

CEOs, teachers, and leaders claim they want creative ideas to solve problems. But creative ideas are rejected all the time. A new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the ...

The kids are alright

May 26, 2011

Children should be seen and not heard... who says? A Philosophy academic at The University of Nottingham is challenging the adage by teaching primary school children to argue properly.

Graphene shows unusual thermoelectric response to light

Oct 07, 2011

Graphene, an exotic form of carbon consisting of sheets a single atom thick, exhibits a novel reaction to light, MIT researchers have found: Sparked by light’s energy, the material can produce electric ...

Exploring the inner workings of materials

Nov 02, 2011

Growing up in an “idyllic” area of farms and orchards in southern New Jersey, Krystyn Van Vliet had little exposure to science or technology. And yet, it was that very environment that she credits with kindling ...

Recommended for you

Grasp of SQUIDs dynamics facilitates eavesdropping

21 hours ago

Theoretical physicists are currently exploring the dynamics of a very unusual kind of device called a SQUID. This Superconducting Quantum Interference Device is a highly sensitive magnetometer used to measure ...

UK's lead in physics healthy but insecure

23 hours ago

The quantity and quality of scientific papers produced by UK physicists indicates that the UK remains in an elite group of nations contributing at the leading edge of physics research.

Atom probe assisted dating of oldest piece of earth

Apr 21, 2014

(Phys.org) —It's a scientific axiom: big claims require extra-solid evidence. So there were skeptics in 2001 when University of Wisconsin-Madison geoscience professor John Valley dated an ancient crystal ...

Could 'Jedi Putter' be the force golfers need?

Apr 18, 2014

Putting is arguably the most important skill in golf; in fact, it's been described as a game within a game. Now a team of Rice engineering students has devised a training putter that offers golfers audio, ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

UK's lead in physics healthy but insecure

The quantity and quality of scientific papers produced by UK physicists indicates that the UK remains in an elite group of nations contributing at the leading edge of physics research.

Grasp of SQUIDs dynamics facilitates eavesdropping

Theoretical physicists are currently exploring the dynamics of a very unusual kind of device called a SQUID. This Superconducting Quantum Interference Device is a highly sensitive magnetometer used to measure ...

Robot scouts rooms people can't enter

(Phys.org) —Firefighters, police officers and military personnel are often required to enter rooms with little information about what dangers might lie behind the door. A group of engineering students at ...

In the 'slime jungle' height matters

(Phys.org) —In communities of microbes, akin to 'slime jungles', cells evolve not just to grow faster than their rivals but also to push themselves to the surface of colonies where they gain the best access ...