By Samantha Bertolino
MSE graduate student Richard Andres Ortiz Godoy is hoping his research can be part of the effort to liberate society from fossil fuels. His research focuses on fuel cells, which provide an efficient, reliable and environmentally friendly next-generation energy alternative. Such prospects, however, wouldn’t be possible without access to the advanced research facilities, faculty expertise and dedicated technical staff available to him as a student in the MSE graduate program.
He received his B.S. in materials science and engineering from Universidad del Valle in 2011 before joining the University of Texas (UT) as a research assistant. There Andres was in charge of sample preparation and transmission electron microscopy image acquisition for projects involving Proton-Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells (PEMFC). In 2017, he decided to go back to school. MSE Assistant Professor Jasna Jankovic – who would later become his advisor – was the reason he chose UConn. “I got many offers from universities with high rankings and good standing. But Dr. Jankovic assured me that I would be embraced in a safe and caring environment. She is compassionate in her work, something that most people within academia lack. I knew that she would help me to grow . . . not only as a professional, but as a person as well,” Andres said.
Since joining the MSE program, Andres has had the opportunity to expand greatly his knowledge of his chosen field. His research investigates the dominant degradation mechanisms in PEMFCs at the nanoscale level of the platinum (Pt) catalyst, as well as the carbon corrosion that occurs after potential cycling. His research group is also proposing to enhance the stability and durability of fuel cell catalysts by different novel mechanisms, such as shielding parts of the catalyst system with a protective ultra-thin corrosion-resistant film. This work is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and is conducted under the supervision of Professor Jankovic at the Center for Clean Energy Engineering (C2E2) and the Center for Advanced Microscopy and Materials Analysis (CAMMA). It is carried out in collaboration with Pajarito Powder, The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and the Colorado School of Mines, among other institutions and private companies. Their research has the potential to provide insights that can unravel the true nature of catalyst degradation, as well as provide a deeper understanding of electrode architecture at nanometer length scales, which in turn can lead to more stable fuel cell operation.
Andres is driven by the real-world applications of his research to end society’s adverse reliance on fossil fuels. “Our dependency on certain technologies has trapped us in this toxic narrative where the systems we rely on devastate both the environment and our health.” Andres hopes we can eliminate the need for fossil fuels by converting the chemical energy of hydrogen and oxygen into electricity, with water as a by-product. PEMFCs represent promising energy conversion capabilities in transportation, and in stationary and portable applications. This technology, in fact, is currently being employed in countries like Japan and South Korea, which is attempting the construction of three hydrogen-powered cities by the year 2022. The widespread use of hydrogen as a fuel for cooling, heating, electricity, and transportation would be the culminating achievement of the type of research that Andres is conducting.
Andres’s research on this topic has afforded him a range of opportunities for collaboration. He worked for three months at the International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory (INL) in Portugal, where he also ran several experiments at The University of Porto. This allowed him to learn new techniques in electron microscopy and electrochemistry, as well as to meet and connect with many exceptional researchers. Andres also tries to stay involved in any activity that includes outreach or assistance to new students. He was a senator in the Materials Research Society (MRS) until this year, and hopes someday to be the doctoral advisor of one of the students he has already mentored.
Together with the rest of Jankovic’s research team, Andres has recently published a paper in Advanced Functional Materials that describes work carried out in collaboration with the Israel Institute of Technology, Istituto di Chimica dei Composti Organometallici and The University of Toledo. He is also writing a review paper on carbon support corrosion in PEMFCs. Additionally – and for the second year in a row – he has received the General Electric (GE) fellowship, which provides Ph.D. students with opportunities for professional development and enrichment. Next year Andres will participate in a 6-month-long NSF funded internship at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. He is also planning to apply for a prestigious fellowship in France, with the prospect of working at either Sorbonne or Grenoble University sometime in the near future. In Europe, Andres hopes to work in a laboratory where he can explore new corners of his research. Once he receives his Ph.D. he hopes to obtain postdoctoral position that will allow him to continue his studies to Asia. His ultimate goal is to secure a permanent position as an academic researcher or a professor.
In advice to future MSE students, Andres highlights the importance of respecting everyone, regardless of their professional status. He warns students to always remember that any published work will have their name attached to it, and will therefore go on public record. It is essential that they always put forward their very best effort and are able to communicate effectively as a team. He also encourages students to make time for themselves. “Your physical health is closely tied to your mental health, and they are equally important. When you are rounded out, you can take yourself wherever you want to be,” Andres shared.