Connecting Globally, Materials Scientists Seek Sustainable Energy Solutions

Mar 01 2013 | By Holly Evarts

Over the winter break, Simon Billinge, professor of materials science, applied physics, and applied mathematics, and two second-year PhD students—Eric Isaacs and Benjamin Frandsen—traveled to Ethiopia to take part in a two-week program developed by the Joint US-Africa Materials Initiative (JUAMI). This Materials Research School is the first program to be offered by JUAMI, a new initiative targeted at building materials science research collaborations between the United States and Africa and to link young materials scientists in both regions in a school taught by top researchers in the field.

Still friends even after the soccer match.

“We created JUAMI to connect researchers in Africa and the U.S. to tackle problems in research and graduate education together,” says Billinge, principal investigator of the National Science Foundation grant that funds this initiative. “This school focused on energy sustainability, which is a world problem, a human problem. Only by understanding each other’s difficulties, and by building relationships and sharing resources, will we find robust solutions that take the world as a whole towards a sustainable energy future.”

The program in Ethiopia, which ran from December 9 to 21, 2012, drew more than 50 PhD and early career materials researchers from across the U.S. and East Africa. They joined 15 internationally recognized instructors for two weeks of lectures, problem solving, and cultural exchange in historic Addis Ababa. The tutorials and seminar topics ranged from photocatalysis and photovoltaics to fuel cells and batteries.

“As a PhD student working to develop improved materials for energy storage, I benefitted enormously from this opportunity and feel honored to have been a part of JUAMI,” says Isaacs. “Although I came in with little to no experience in the topics outside my PhD research at Columbia Engineering, by the end of the two weeks, I felt knowledgeable and excited about all of these renewable energy technologies.”

The students and researchers hailed from the U.S, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania in East Africa, with others from South Africa and Zambia.

“To travel halfway across the world to Ethiopia and find materials scientists and engineers trying to tackle the renewable energy problem just like us was remarkable,” Isaacs adds. “Although we all came from such different backgrounds and cultures, we were united in our desire to use science and engineering to make a significant contribution towards a sustainable energy future.”

A typical day included morning lectures from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

“These lectures,” Frandsen notes, “provided a thorough but accessible introduction to a variety of topics in energy materials.”

After lunch, the students took part in hands-on activities, including group problem-solving sessions and basic experiments, which enabled them to apply the material presented from the morning lecture. For dinner, they broke into small groups, each with Ethiopian students as guides, and sampled the local cuisine. Evenings were spent either working on group projects or going out with their newfound friends.

“The group excursions we took were great,” Frandsen adds. “One of our journeys took us straight across the Great Rift Valley, where many of the most important discoveries relating to early hominid species were made. And diving into the hot springs was fun, as we were able to swim in the naturally warm water and watch the antics of the wild monkeys living in the area.”

Another highlight was the big soccer game among the students and instructors.

“The teams were evenly divided among all the different nationalities,” says Frandsen, “since it would have been completely one-sided (not in our favor!) if it had been Africa versus the U.S.”

Both Frandsen and Isaacs agree the most rewarding part of the school was seeing 60 strangers from around the globe become a close-knit group of friends and collaborators.

“We learned so much not only about materials science, but also about each other and our backgrounds,” Frandsen says.

Adds Isaacs, “It was an astounding and humbling experience to see firsthand some of the challenges faced by the African scientists. Although the school only lasted two weeks, I am confident that the friendships and collaborations we developed in Addis Ababa will continue for a very long time.”

JUAMI was organized by Billinge with Peter Green, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan; Sossina Haile, professor of materials science and of chemical engineering at Caltech; Teketel Yohannes, chair of the Africa committee and professor of chemistry at the University of Addis Ababa; Bernard Aduda, principal of the College of Biological and Physical Sciences at the University of Nairobi; Tom Otiti, professor of physics at Makerere University; and Joseph Tesha, director of research and associate professor of engineering materials at the University of Dar es Salaam.

Billinge and his colleagues are already working on a JUAMI online “collaboratory“ where researchers and students can share their expertise as well as their questions and research problems. He notes that a number of scientific collaborations that grew out of the Ethiopia school will be the first projects hosted on this new site. Meanwhile, the group will continue to seek funding to support future programs across the globe and expand the range of topics covered. 

“The school exceeded all of our expectations,” Billinge says. “The energy and good will generated by the participants was infectious and we are strongly motivated to keep it going.”

For more firsthand accounts from the school participants, read their blog entries.

Participants arranging themselves in the shape of a nano-onion (top half)

Participants arranging themselves in the shape of a nano-onion (bottom half)

Ben Frandsen, center, and Eric Isaacs, second from right, with newfound friends

Traditional singing and dancing at the school banquet

Stay up-to-date with the Columbia Engineering newsletter

* indicates required