When it rains, it pours: sometimes, the adage applies to career recognition as well as weather.
Chemical & Materials Engineering Professor Dev Chidambaram received the Regents Mid-Career Researcher Award at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Honor the Best Ceremony on May 9. The accolade coincides with announcements of two research grants with which Chidambaram is involved: a $1 million National Science Foundation award to advance the circular economy for lithium batteries in the state of Nevada; and a $1.3 million Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-e), an arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, to develop stable, non-corroding oxygen evolution electrodes.
The research awards must seem a matter of course for Engineering Associate Dean Jeff LaCombe and Chemical & Engineering Department Chair Victor Vasquez, who nominated Chidambaram for the Regents award. “…in his career of 19 years, Professor Chidambaram has rapidly become a top internationally recognized expert in electrochemical materials and interfacial science, particularly within his area of specialization in materials for sustainable energy,” LaCombe and Vasquez wrote in their nomination of Chidambaram. “He has played a lead role in bolstering the reputation of our program and university in important communities within our materials discipline and among leaders in energy research spanning academia, government and industry.”
Chidambaram joined the University in 2009, after earning his Ph.D. at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, then working in academia and at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, NY. During his time at the College of Engineering, he has been recognized with the Faculty Excellence Award in 2013 and in 2015 was named the Ormat Technologies Scholar of Materials and Interfaces, a title he continues to hold. He has more than 225 publications and presentations, and has brought in over $13 million in research contracts as the principal investigator at the University.
While the Regents award recognizes Chidambaram’s achievements, he credits his research team in his Materials and Electrochemical Research Group.
“I feel very honored to receive this recognition but it is more of a recognition for my lab and my group,” Chidambaram said. “That’s what makes this important to me: it was not just me, it was my student scientists and their hard work. My students have received three Regents Outstanding Graduate Student awards, numerous scholarships and fellowships from NSHE (Nevada System of Higher Education), Department of Energy and National Science Foundation, and have graduated with prestigious fellowships at various national laboratories across the country.”
Advancing battery science
Chidambaram is the only faculty in Nevada with a degree in electrochemical engineering, the field that combines electricity and chemistry. It’s the basis behind such industries as electroplating, electrorefining and electrometallurgy, but electrochemical engineering now is most known as the fundamental science behind batteries.
As the lithium ion battery industry undergoes explosive growth, the field is getting a lot of attention — and the University may just be the place to study it. Chidambaram, who teaches electrochemical engineering and batteries courses, developed the College of Engineering’s Battery and Energy Storage Technologies minor, believed to be the first in the nation, in 2016.
He also has a particular academic background that makes him especially qualified to lead in the field of electrochemical materials science. “I started working on my B.S. in electrochemical engineering and I just became fascinated by how it is just the surface of the material that determines all the properties,” Chidambaram said. “So, I obtained my Ph.D. in materials science and engineering.”
This unique combination of expertise has led to the establishment of a world-class research facility at the University, which is used to train students and scientists and provide characterization services — the process of understanding a material’s chemical nature and physical properties — to nearly three dozen local businesses. It’s a skill Chidambaram expects to be in demand more and more as the batteries industry grows.
“The students who are being trained on this are very highly trained specialists on topics that not many people work on, so they are the future,” Chidambaram said. “It is these skill sets that makes them valuable.”
Chidambaram says his graduate students have put in tons of hard work and effort, and that they are being trained to be the new faces of this niche field. His students work in C-suite in battery companies, as scientists and scientific managers in energy companies, and as staff scientists at various national laboratories.
“I consider my students as electrons in the electrochemical research,” he said. “Without electrons, there is no electrochemistry.”