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02/25/2011 08:00:00

Sustaining the Next Generation of Energy Scientists

Training the next generation of scientists capable of creating startling and transformational advances in sustainable energy research is a critical component of the mission of Caltech's Resnick Institute.

And although the institute is not yet two years old—it was created in June of 2009 by a gift from Stewart and Lynda Resnick and began operating the following April—it has already begun to fulfill that mission, thanks to the newly developed Resnick Fellowship program.

The first two Resnick Fellows began their work in the fall of 2010. Last week, the institute put out a call for applications for the next set of two-year awards, which provide tuition plus a $30,000-per-year stipend for graduate students from any discipline who are seeking to explore unusual and creative sustainable-energy research projects on campus.

"The Resnick Fellowships are unique because they provide an opportunity for Caltech students to think outside the box and take a chance on potentially groundbreaking new work in areas that might not otherwise get explored," says Neil Fromer, the institute's executive director. "Caltech has always been a place where creative individuals can have a big impact. With these fellowships, we are similarly enabling students to chart new paths."

As part of his Resnick Fellowship, Matt Smith, a graduate student in bioengineering working in the laboratory of Frances Arnold, is looking for better ways to create second-generation biofuels—biofuels made from cellulose, hemicellulose, or lignin, all of which are components of plant cell walls. Specifically, he's using new protein recombination techniques to try to create active, stable forms of the enzyme beta glucosidase, which is used to cut small-length cellulose chains into individual glucose molecules.

"It's a more unusual, riskier project," Smith says. "When I started talking about it, Frances suggested I apply for a Resnick Fellowship. She felt it was in the spirit of the institute—a project on energy and sustainability that's a bit 'out there.'"

Smith's fellow Fellow, David Abrecht, is working with both Brent Fultz and Theo Agapie on a stationary hydrogen-storage project using ionic liquids. "Hydrogen gas is uneconomical to store," Abrecht explains. But in order to develop hydrogen as a fuel, hydrogen needs to be stored cheaply, at room temperature and pressure, and it needs to be able to release quickly.

The answer, Abrecht says, may lie in liquid storage. "I'd been thinking about liquid-state storage systems for a while," he explains. "Liquid-state storage might allow you to use hydrogen as a buffer to prevent supply spikes in the electrical-generation grid, to fill in the gaps."

Abrecht is looking at what are known as ionic liquids—which are salts in a liquid state—that would be able to bind with hydrogen at more-or-less normal temperatures and pressures. "Trying to find funding for this kind of project from typical sources would have been very difficult," he says. "I would not have been able to do this project without this fellowship."

Smith and Abrecht are looking forward to the next generation of Resnick Fellows. "The more Fellows there are, the more opportunity we'll have for interaction," Smith says. "I'm looking forward to that, to creating a small community of students working toward similar goals."

Written by Lori Oliwenstein