'A chance to shine': Three MatSE faculty serving four DOE-awarded centers addressing the U.S.' energy efficiency


By Emily Jankauski

URBANA, Ill. — Illinois researchers take every opportunity to turn our tomorrow into a bright future. Three faculty members from The Grainger College of Engineering’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Axel Hoffmann, Nicola Perry and Kenneth Schweizer, have been tasked with just that, serving as researchers for four Energy Frontier Research Centers. This $400 million U.S. Department of Energy initiative is tasking institutions across the nation to lead 43 research centers over the next four years to help meet President Biden’s goal of reaching a net-zero emission economy by 2050.

The Grainger Engineering faculty research efforts span from making magnetic materials inspired by the human brain come to life in our electronic devices, to developing ceramics that derive electrical power from green hydrogen, to replacing flammable liquids in lithium-ion batteries with safer, solid materials. All aim to inspire novel, energy-efficient methods for pushing the needle forward in achieving President Biden’s goal.

Explore the MatSE researchers’ efforts below and see how they’re putting the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign on the nation’s map of next-generation technology leaders.

Hoffmann’s making brain waves with magnetic materials

Axel Hoffmann
Axel Hoffmann

Hoffmann is teaming up again with Q-MEEN-C, which is a $12.6M EFRC led by the University of California—San Diego. This center will investigate quantum materials for an energy-efficient neuromorphic computer. The team initially received funding in 2018, and this round of awards will keep the crew’s efforts moving forward.

The Founder Professor in Engineering’s focus is exploring magnetic materials that can have oscillations of the magnetization. He’ll put his magnetic materials expertise to work providing useful, energy-efficient applications of quantum materials, like creating systems inspired by the human brain’s function.

Such materials could help solve a whole gambit of future energy problems, such as faster, more reliable voice recognition for our cellphones and connectivity for autonomous vehicles.

“The problem with languages is that it doesn’t come in clear ones and zeros that your traditional computer can very easily process and were built for,” Hoffmann said. “Right now, if you talk to your cellphone and use voice recognition (like Apple’s Siri), that computation, what you’re saying, is not happening on your cellphone. The cellphone sends the audio file to the cloud, and a computer somewhere out there crunches the numbers and tries to figure out what it’s similar to, and it then sends that information back to your phone.”

Like voice recognition, autonomous vehicles will also drive up energy consumption as they’re decked out with sensors that are essential for detecting weather conditions, road markings, other vehicles, pedestrians and much more.

“All that information has to be sent outside the car to be processed and then sent back so that the car can do what it’s supposed to,” Hoffmann said.

But what if your vehicle’s sensors lose connection? Unlike WiFi outages, that brief glitch could be life-altering.

Hoffmann and the Q-MEEN-C researchers aim to move all that processing closer to the device, making it more reliable and energy efficient.

“(Current data processing) is very wasteful because it has to travel very far, and it is processed on a system that has much more energy available to do what it needs to do than your cellphone would have,” Hoffmann said. “So, the idea is that you want to move lots of that processing closer to the device that’s needing the processed data, but for this to happen, we have to provide an energy-efficient solution because if it takes too much energy, then you can’t make it work for your car or phone.”

To do just that, Hoffmann and the Q-MEEN-C researchers will put magnet materials’ oscillations to work. The tricky element to magnet materials’ oscillations is that it can change quite a bit as the materials’ dynamics are very nonlinear, meaning that their frequency or amplitude may vary.

The neurons in the human brain are very similar to these oscillating materials, periodically sending out a spike or an electrical voltage point to encode information in a frequency. Like the brain, magnetic oscillators can change their frequency depending on how they’re coupled to other oscillators.

“You can start making very complex networks that can react to input in a very nonlinear fashion, which can be used for pattern recognition or things of that nature,” Hoffmann said.

Hoffmann aims to utilize the next four years to see how the researchers can continue building up the complexity of these magnetic oscillators more and more to gain more interesting functionality out of them and help with more energy-efficient processing of less well-defined data.

“It’s great fun to be able to approach a problem from lots of different vantage points,” Hoffmann said. “In our center, for example, there are different aspects where we try to get neuromorphic functionalities in a very different way. That triggers lots of new ideas that you otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s a great opportunity to broaden your horizon in many ways.”

Nicola Perry
Nicola Perry

Perry’s moving from fossil fuels to hydrogen and from liquid to solid ion-conductors

Perry is involved with two new EFRCs — one led by Northwestern University and the other led by the University of Michigan.

The $10.4 million Northwestern University EFRC, also known as HEISs — which means hot, spelled heiß, in German — is taking a closer look at using hydrogen as an alternative energy carrier over fossil fuels.

The team will explore novel and emerging ways hydrogen moves into and through materials and how its movement ultimately can impact the efficiency, performance, and lifecycle of carbon-neutral energy devices and brain-inspired computing. Energy devices enabled by these materials include fuel cells, which can provide electrical power and heat from hydrogen without releasing greenhouse gases, and electrolyzers, which can store intermittent renewable (solar, wind) energy stably and at scale in the form of hydrogen.

“Hydrogen, in terms of how it exists in materials and how it moves, is a unique species on the periodic table because it’s so light,” Perry said. “So-called multi-hued hydrogen gets its name not only from different ways it’s produced but also because hydrogen can take different forms in materials.”

“We’re trying to understand how it moves,” Perry added. “We’re trying to design energy landscapes within materials that will make hydrogen move in favorable ways and so to engineer materials with specific kinds of interfaces or specific kinds of defects to tailor the energy landscape.”

The University of Michigan’s $11 million EFRC research effort is known as MUSIC: Mechano-chemical Understanding of Solid Ion Conductors. The team will focus on ceramic ion-conductors, which are materials that play a role in numerous clean-energy devices. Recent efforts with lithium-ion and sodium-ion batteries are prime examples of such devices. Other uses include flow cells, plus fuel and electrolysis cells.

Researchers have been making a shift in the materials used in lithium-ion batteries, moving from liquid electrolytes to solid electrolytes because of the numerous cases where fires occurred during cellphone and laptop charging, and because of the ability to work at greater energy densities. However, without a flexible electrolyte to buffer the stresses, the dynamic motion of ions in all-solid-state devices has mechanical consequences, posing new challenges and questions.

“We’re looking at complex, interdependent coupled behaviors between mechanical aspects – stresses and strains like the stretching and compressing of materials – and their electrochemical performance,” Perry said.

The MUSIC researchers also hope to gain a greater understanding of how this mechano-chemical coupling affects the evolution of the material’s structure and functionality during fabrication and use, which currently remains a complex phenomenon not well understood.

“It's encouraging that this funding enables us to tackle climate change – and indeed prioritizes clean energy and efficient computing – through careful investigation and creative design of enabling materials," Perry said.

Schweizer aims to revolutionize the energy efficiency of polymer-based batteries and fuel cells

Kenneth Schweizer
Kenneth Schweizer

Schweizer is taking part in the $12 million EFRC led by Oak Ridge National Laboratories, known as FaCT, to understand and design fast and cooperative ion and proton transport in polymer-based solid electrolytes.

Like Perry, a major focus is on energy storage pertaining to lithium-ion batteries, but where the foundational material is a polymer rubber, amorphous polymer solid or a hybrid “nanocomposite” composed of polymers and ceramic particles.

“Lithium batteries have revolutionized technology, but to move forward, we need something better, and what we mean by better is something cheaper, lighter, easier to manufacture and safer,” Schweizer said.

Polymer-based ion conducting batteries have many advantages in these regards over existing material designs. Still, at present, they are not where they need to be in terms of energy efficiency and performance. What’s slowing them down, according to Schweizer, is that “the ions that conduct electricity in a polymer plastic-based battery move too slowly by a factor of between a hundredth and a thousandth to be practical for energy storage applications.”

This complicated problem requires the development of an integrated fundamental physics, chemistry and materials science-based understanding of ion transport in polymers. The FacT Center aims to experimentally synthesize novel polymers with controlled structure and enhanced “pathways” for ion transport 100-1000 times faster than presently achievable, guided by insights gleaned from advanced simulation, theory and data-driven modeling. 

Schweizer’s role will be to develop new theoretical understanding of ion transport in polymers and nanocomposites, which can be exploited to strongly increase the rate of motion of both single ions and their cooperative flow through the polymer material.

“The hope is that if you can understand something better, you can engineer it better,” Schweizer said. “It’s an area I’ve always been interested in, so it maps nicely on my to-do list. I’m looking forward to it scientifically and with regards to collaboration.”


While the Grainger Engineering researchers are each addressing separate, vital energy problems, they can all agree that it’s inspiring to have three MatSE faculty leading these nationwide efforts.

“We hit the jackpot,” said Schweizer, who wholeheartedly believes the DOE awards will also impact Illinois students and postdocs with the collaborative spirit required in each of these efforts.

“That’s a big plus for them, especially since most of them do not wish to become professors,” Schweizer said. “They’ll go out and put their stamp on the real world, which requires that interdisciplinary collaborative aspect even more.”

For Perry, these efforts should serve as a guidepost for future Illinois researchers, showcasing the game-changing energy and sustainability research activities at Illinois and the incredible opportunities available to students.

“At MatSE, we are committed to and invested in accelerating our response to climate change. It’s encouraging to see growing research opportunities in this area for our students as well as department leadership. We’ve got fantastic people and facilities, so it’s given us a chance to shine.”

Other institutional stakeholders working alongside the three MatSE researchers include Argonne National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Colorado School of Mines, Florida State University, French National Center for Scientific Research, Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, Northwestern University, Penn State University, Purdue University, Princeton University, Texas A&M University, University of Chicago, University of California—Davis, San Diego and Santa Barbara, University of Paris—Sud, Orsay, University of Michigan—Ann Arbor, University of Tennessee, and the University of Texas—Austin.


The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is also home to a 10.65 million dollar U.S. DOE EFRC on its campus led by Grainger Engineering and Beckman Institute researchers to address the fundamental scientific challenges facing manufacturing and end-of-life management of thermoset plastics.

Nancy Sottos, department head of materials science and engineering, Swanlund Endowed Chair, Center for Advanced Study Professor and a researcher at the Beckman Institute, will serve as this effort's principal investigator and center director.

Fellow Illinois EFRC collaborators include Jeff Baur, Founder Professor of aerospace engineering and affiliate professor of materials science and engineering; Randy Ewoldt, mechanical science and engineering professor and Kritzer Faculty Scholar; Philippe Geubelle, Bliss Professor of aerospace engineering; Jeff Moore, the Stanley O. Ikenberry Endowed Chair and professor of chemistry; and Sameh Tawfick, associate professor of mechanical science and engineering. Other intuitional collaborators include Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sandia National Laboratories, Stanford University and the University of Utah.