March 21, 2011

Department of Energy calls on expertise of materials scientists

In a search for experts to help address the nation’s energy challenges—how to generate and use power more efficiently—materials scientists might not immediately come to mind.

But two Whiting School faculty members who study materials recently played key roles in developing a report for the U.S. Department of Energy that identified materials-related products and processing technologies that could someday serve as game-changers in areas such as energy efficiency and energy-related business opportunities.

The two Johns Hopkins participants were Kevin Hemker, professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Jonah Erlebacher, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

In a recent interview, the faculty members said that materials scientists have an obvious role to play in saving energy when they work on fuel cells and lighter materials for automobiles. The Department of Energy–sponsored meetings, they said, gave them a chance to meet with other prominent materials scientists to help direct attention and resources toward more complex energy-related projects.

Hemker, who has a secondary appointment in Materials Science and Engineering and who studies the mechanical behavior of nanomaterials, served on the Energy Materials Blue Ribbon Panel. This group, organized early last year by the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, singled out the four most-promising research topics related to materials and energy, including higher-performance materials for extreme environments and multimaterials integration in energy systems.

Erlebacher, whose research projects include catalysts and fuel cells, served on a technical working group that focused on a third target research area identified by the Blue Ribbon Panel: functional surface technology. This group looked at catalysts and coatings that can help reduce the loss of energy during chemical processes and curtail the release of environmentally harmful gases.

“It was an incredibly rewarding experience,” Erlebacher said. “We were brainstorming about where the really important research areas are and where materials scientists can make the most difference.”

Hemker said that one of the areas he was most interested in was the development of materials and coatings that can enable power plant engines to operate safely at a higher temperature. The increased temperature leads to more energy efficiency, he said.

The recommendations produced by Hemker, Erlebacher and their colleagues have been presented to top Department of Energy officials. The goal is to guide federal energy policies and the allocation of research funding.

“The message,” Hemker said, “is that materials science has a big role to play in addressing the nation’s energy challenges.”

The reports to which Hemker and Erlebacher contributed were released recently by the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society and can be viewed online at the group’s energy website,