1 month ago

Auburn chemistry professor’s research aims to advance more efficient use of solar energy

AUBURN, Ala. – The quest to find more efficient renewable energy sources is growing across the globe, and one Auburn University chemistry professor is dedicating his research to taking the cause to the next level in the coming years.

Byron Farnum, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM, is tasking his research team, The Farnum Group, with storing harnessed solar power in a more efficient way in an effort to power-pack batteries to store twice the amount of energy. The hope, he says, is to add a second electron to the reaction mechanism at the molecular level to double the storage units’ power capacity.

Once that is achieved, engineers and other leaders in the energy sector can take the improved power source—large-scale redox-flow batteries, which store energy in the form of reduced and oxidized small molecules—and apply it to real-world applications. That could translate down the road into solar-powered grids capable of powering entire cities.

“Energy from the sun, at least in our lifetime, is limitless,” said Farnum, a professor at Auburn since 2016. “I want to come up with new and clever ways of designing molecules so they can store more energy. Then, an engineer can come along and put that molecule in the battery and study how it can be cycled. It’s just a no-brainer, and I think we have to move more and more in the direction of renewable energy.”

Lithium ion batteries, common in smartphones, laptops and other devices, are currently the industry standard for compact energy storage. Farnum and his research team will be using electrochemistry to oxidize inorganic complexes comprised of nickel, a light-weight, earth-abundant metal with a low price point, as they search for ways to double power capacity that can be expanded to a grand scale.

“The challenge with lithium ion batteries is that, when you start to scale them up to make a battery that is the size of a table, its weight becomes huge,” Farnum said. “The way it conducts electricity and the way the lithium ions move in that device means that the efficiency begins to drop off as you get bigger and bigger. So, we’re trying to store two electrons per atom, compared to a lithium ion battery, where roughly you’re only going to store one electron per atom.

“In order to really push toward doing two-electron chemistry versus one-electron chemistry, we need to understand how to control the molecular environment around nickel. Doing so could double your energy density just by storing two electrons instead of one.”

A long-term goal of scientists dedicated to renewable energy is to provide immense amounts of power via efficient storage mechanisms like batteries. Large-scale implementation of improved sources could be revolutionary.

“The scale of it is definitely important,” Farnum said. “You want to store as much energy in a small amount of space. All our research, even outside this one project, is focused on broader themes around solar energy and renewable energy.

“We are always thinking about if it’s worth us doing this research if it couldn’t be applied later. That’s always in the back of our mind. As of right now, no one has made a battery that’s designed using our strategy for inorganic molecules.”

Farnum’s research will be funded by a $682,030 National Science Foundation CAREER Award he received earlier this spring, a big shot in the arm for him and his team.

“It’s huge,” said Farnum, who will use most of the funds to pay for graduate student stipends and research supplies. “For one, it gives us security to keep going in this direction and gives us confidence that we know others around the country who have reviewed the grant support this idea and the National Science Foundation thinks it’s worthwhile. It gives me a big confidence boost.”

The five-year grant is non-renewable, but Farnum plans to use it to lay the foundation for future research.

“The idea is that, at the end of the five years, we will be able to write another proposal based on an extension of these ideas,” he said. “After five years, we will have learned enough about these molecules that we will have designed totally new ones and will know how they’ll function in lab-scale batteries. We’ll be ready to take the next step, for sure.

“Whether it’s scaling up or going another direction toward a different molecule or metal, it’ll always keep going forward.”

Farnum says his research will be focused on two main goals in the coming years.

“We really have to understand the mechanism, so, our first goal is to understand how the electron transfer—putting electrons on the molecule or taking them off—is coupled with rearrangements of the molecules’ shape,” he said. “As a second goal, if we can realize the most important steps for two-electron transfer, then we can amplify those steps with new molecular design. At the end of the five years, we want to have those two pieces down pat.

“We want to show that we can do two-electron storage with this molecule, we want to have lab-scale demonstrations of it and have collaborations with other people. The dream scenario would be we have a patent, and it would be something we could potentially commercialize by getting it to someone who really knows what they’re doing in terms of manufacturing and scale.”

If successful, Farnum said the research could lay the foundation for substantial practical applications.

“We need people who are doing really small, detailed, fundamental work and then other people who are going to say, ‘Oh, that looks interesting, I’m going to apply that to this battery technology,’” he said. “Then someone else says, ‘Now, I’m going to make a product,’ and somebody above that saying, ‘Now I’m going to scale it out and distribute it across the country.’”

Variables and challenges abound at every corner, so Farnum and his team will need years to vet a trial-and-error process common in scientific research to make progress and see results.

“That’s the nature of science and experimentation,” Farnum said. “Most of the time, it doesn’t work, but you keep trying, keep trying and keep trying.”

His team will be taking a page from nature’s playbook with its work, Farnum says.

“Solar energy conversion is really inspired by nature,” Farnum said on a recent COSAM Talks podcast. “Plants are doing this, so how are they doing it? That’s what I was always fascinated by, absorbing light as this ethereal energy source. Somehow plants are taking advantage of it, but we’re not, at least at a large scale.”

That curiosity and fascination, common in most scientists, drives Farnum in his work.

“It’s fascinating to me, and I think everybody should be fascinated by solar energy,” Farnum said on the podcast. “I’m not trying to make a product to sell. I’m trying to understand chemically how solar energy conversion works, because we have to convert more to renewable energy sources. As a society, I just think we really need to move in that direction.

“If the planet does it, then we need to do it, too.”

(Courtesy of Auburn University)

4 mins ago

There are some very positive signs on how Alabama is dealing with the coronavirus

All too often we in the media, including myself, dwell on the negative.

The mainstream media always sides with the bad guys, be they rioters, Democrats or the coronavirus.

So, let’s talk about some good news and good guys.

The fact that we are in day three of sub-1,000 new coronavirus cases is great. Whether it is the mask ordinance or not, who cares. The numbers are coming down, and that is great.


Three straight days at this level have not been seen in Alabama since June 28!

Hospitalizations are down, too.

And the reproduction of the virus is below one, as well. This, according to BamaTracker.com, is great news:

Rt is the rate of reproduction of the virus. If Rt is above 1.0, the virus will spread quickly. When Rt is below 1.0, the virus will stop spreading exponentially.

White House coronavirus task force member and Navy Admiral Brett Giroir appeared on WVNN’s “The Dale Jackson Show” on Thursday to talk about Alabama’s coronavirus response and noted that near-universal masking could have close to the same results of a lockdown without the devastating economic impact.

When asked about the recent spike in deaths the state is seeing, he noted a trend that involves a high number of cases followed in two weeks by high hospitalization rates and then followed by an increase in deaths.

Giroir believes Alabama is on the right track and should stay the course to get to the other side of this pandemic.

This is not the only good news on the coronavirus to come out in the last 24 hours. The coronavirus testing that has been done in the University of Alabama System is showing some pretty good results.

According to aldotcom, 30,000 tests have been done and 249 students tested positive for the coronavirus, which is 0.83%.

My takeaway:

This is huge. It opens the door for a return to classrooms, college football and some sign that normal college life might be possible.

The students at these schools deserve a huge amount of credit for this. They clearly social distanced, masked up, washed their hands and sacrificed to help get these numbers where they are.

This shows that it can be done and we can get these numbers down to avoid further restrictions, damage to our economy and maybe get back to a normal-ish life soon.

There is an incentive to accentuate the negative. Some make their living off of that, but it’s OK to see the good in the world every now and then.


Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 AM weekdays on WVNN.

1 hour ago

Netflix releases trailer for movie filmed in Alabama starring Tom Holland

Netflix on Thursday released a trailer for its upcoming film “The Devil All The Time,” which was filmed in Alabama and features an ensemble cast including Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson.

The streaming content giant says its new movie “renders a seductive and horrific landscape that pits the just against the corrupted.”

The trailer released Thursday showcases a grim, unsettling tone with multiple shots framed in darkness and scored with ominous music.

The movie was filmed in 2019 from February to April. Several locations across Alabama were used during production, including a street in downtown Anniston that was dressed to match the movie’s post-World War II setting.


“The Devil All The Time” is an adaptation of the 2011 novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, which spent weeks on the bestsellers list. The film is directed by Antonio Campos.

The movie appears to have piqued the interest of many on the internet. It accrued 1.6 million views on Youtube in the first five hours it was online.

Tommy Fell of the Alabama Film Office told the Elmore Autauga News that “The Devil All The Time” is the largest production to shoot in the Yellowhammer State since Tim Burton’s “Big Fish” in 2003.

Holland portrays the son of a WWII veteran who is pitted against an evil preacher portrayed by Robert Pattinson and other nefarious characters in the small town where he lives.

The various spots the crew used across Alabama will be used to create the small Ohio town where the movie is set.

Holland is familiar to many moviegoers as the most recent actor to portray Spider-Man, a performance that earned him high marks from critics and many devoted fans.

“The Devil All The Time” will premiere September 16, exclusively on Netflix.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

1 hour ago

Retirement Systems of Alabama head: Trump ‘enjoys conflict and turmoil over progress and a United America’

Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) CEO Dr. David Bronner had some harsh words for President Donald Trump this month.

In August’s RSA Advisor, a monthly publication from the group, Bronner entitled his normal column, “The ‘Economic Terror’ of 2020.”

“We are slightly past halfway of 2020 and to be honest, it feels like a decade of problems thrown at the world in a mere six months. Unfortunately, our president enjoys conflict and turmoil over progress and a United America,” he wrote to begin the column.


“I have known President Trump for over 25 years,” Bronner continued. “We have played golf twice, and sat beside each other during numerous public and private events – the Miss Universe pageant and the Elevated Acre Park dedication in New York City. Our relationship cooled when he built Trump Towers with illegal immigrants from Poland and abused contractors in the process.”

“Take his unusual management style, add to it the world’s worst pandemic in our lifetime, toss in legal protests (don’t forget that is how women got to vote), some taken over by rioters – and here comes hurricane season,” he warned. “How do these things affect and impact Alabama? When Alabama started to develop tourism 27 years ago, we had about $1.8 billion in tourist revenue – most of that was from the beaches. Revenue grew to $17 billion in 2019. If a solution to COVID-19 is not found, that could easily be cut by 50% to 75%.”

Bronner subsequently highlighted vaccine development efforts as a source of optimism before making some economic observations and predictions.

He then concluded the column with praise for former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who recently denounced President Trump.

“In time, we will get past these serious problems – from racism to health pandemics – if we listen to the real heroes of America like General James N. Mattis, our former Secretary of Defense: ‘In unity, there is strength,'” Bronner wrote.

The Advisor issue, including Bronner’s column, is hosted on RSA’s website online, which utilizes an “AL.gov” domain.

A physical copy was also sent to the more than 370,000 RSA members, who are State employees and retirees. Additionally, Advisor copies are traditionally placed in RSA-owned buildings and certain governmental buildings, including the State House, for distribution. The Alabama Great Seal is displayed just above Bronner’s column.

The federal government maintains “.gov” domains and regulates their usage. It is the policy of the federal government that “political information” not be shared on “.gov” websites, which could put the RSA’s domain in jeopardy.

The Code of Alabama states, “No person in the employment of the State of Alabama, a county, a city, a local school board, or any other governmental agency, whether classified or unclassified, shall use any state, county, city, local school board, or other governmental agency funds, property, or time, for any political activities.”

Bronner is the highest paid state employee in Alabama. In Fiscal Year 2019, he was paid $754,684.98, according to records published by the Alabama Department of Finance.

This is not the first time the RSA head has publicly attacked Trump or made controversial political statements.

During a meeting of the Alabama State Employees Association in October 2015, Bronner said of then-candidate Trump, “I know the bastard, he ain’t worth anything. I assure you, if Mr. Trump was president, you wouldn’t like it. That I can promise.”

RELATED: How an Alabama state employee built a billionaire’s lifestyle in a taxpayer-funded job

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

1 hour ago

Mazda Toyota Manufacturing to boost Alabama investment by $830 million

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – Mazda Toyota Manufacturing (MTM), the joint venture between automakers Mazda Motor Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp., plans to make an additional $830 million investment in Alabama to incorporate new cutting-edge manufacturing technologies to its production lines and provide enhanced training to its workforce of up to 4,000 employees.

“Toyota’s presence in Alabama continues to build excitement about future opportunities that lie ahead, both for our economy and for the residents of our great state,” Governor Kay Ivey said.

“Mazda and Toyota’s increased commitment to the development of this manufacturing plant reiterates their belief in the future of manufacturing in America and the potential for the state of Alabama to be an economic leader in the wake of unprecedented economic change.”

The additional investment brings the total figure in the state-of-the-art facility in Huntsville to $2.311 billion, up from the $1.6 billion originally announced in 2018.


The investment reaffirms Mazda and Toyota’s commitment to produce the highest-quality products at all of their production facilities.

The investment also accommodates production line modifications to enhance manufacturing processes supporting the Mazda vehicle and design changes to the yet-to-be-announced Toyota SUV that will be both produced at the Alabama plant.

The new facility will have the capacity to produce up to 150,000 units of a future Mazda crossover model and up to 150,000 units of the Toyota SUV each year.


MTM continues to plan for up to 4,000 new jobs and has hired approximately 600 employees to date, with plans to resume accepting applications for production positions later in 2020. Initial hiring began in January.

“Mazda Toyota Manufacturing is proud to call Alabama home. Through strong support from our state and local partners, we have been able to further incorporate cutting-edge manufacturing technologies, provide world-class training for team members and develop the highest quality production processes,” said Mark Brazeal, vice president of administration at MTM.

“As we prepare for the start of production next year, we look forward to developing our future workforce and serving as a hometown company for many years to come,” he added.

Full-scale construction of the Alabama plant continues, with 75 to 100 percent completion on roofing, siding, floor slabs, ductwork, fire protection and electrical.Construction began in early 2019.

“This newest investment by our partners at Mazda Toyota Manufacturing shows the company’s continued confidence in the ability of our community to provide a strong, skilled workforce to meet the demands for quality and reliability,” Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said.

“We look forward to the day when the first vehicles roll off the line,” he added.

“We are excited to learn of this additional investment being made by Mazda Toyota Manufacturing,” Limestone County Commission Chairman Colin Daly said.

“We continue to be grateful to MTM for their belief in our community and look forward to our partnership with them for many years to come.”


Greg Canfield, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said MTM’s new investment will magnify the economic impact of a project that is poised to transform the North Alabama region.

“With this enhanced investment, Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA is adding new technology and capabilities to a manufacturing facility that was already designed to be one of the most efficient factories in the automotive industry,” Canfield said.

“We’re confident that the groundbreaking collaboration between Mazda and Toyota will drive growth not only for the companies but also for North Alabama for generations.”

(Courtesy of Made In Alabama)

3 hours ago

Alabama coronavirus update: Hospitalizations begin to decrease, new cases falling

There is good news in Alabama’s fight against the coronavirus this week, with a number of key metrics including hospitalizations showing the state making progress while the disease remains highly active.

Hospitals across the state admitted an average of 108 COVID-19 patients per day over the last week — a number that is far higher than preferred by healthcare professionals — but also the first time the rate has declined on a week to week basis since the beginning of the pandemic.

Previously, the seven-day average of hospitalizations had hovered between 160 and 200 since July 17.

Yellowhammer News used numbers from the coronavirus information hubs BamaTracker and Johns Hopkins University for the data in this article.


There was an average of 1,156 new coronavirus cases confirmed in the Yellowhammer State over the last seven days. That is is down from an average of 1,415 for the week concluding on August 6, a roughly 18% decline.


Notably, Alabama’s total number of coronavirus cases since the virus reached the state exceeded 100,000 this week and reached a total of 101,491 as of Thursday morning.

Another good sign for the state is that seven counties reported no new cases on Thursday. For virtually all of July and early August, only one or two counties each day did not report a case.

Especially encouraging to infectious disease experts is the decline in the percentage of tests for COVID-19 that are coming back positive.

According to the data, 13% of the tests given each of the last seven days in Alabama have come back positive, and though that is well above the national average of 7.8%, it is a welcomed decline from a statewide high of over 20% that happened over the week ending August 2.

BamaTracker says the ideal range of tests coming back positive is 1%-5%.

On average, 24 people with coronavirus died each day for the last week in Alabama, one of the highest rates from throughout the pandemic.


The state’s death toll now stands at 1,821 with another 69 people who are presumed to have perished with COVID-19 but have not yet been confirmed by the Alabama Department of Public Health.

According to experts, a surge in new cases follows the occurrence where the virus was spread by about seven to 14 days. A corresponding increase in hospitalizations occurs around two weeks after the surge in new cases, and the concluding uptick in deaths comes two to four weeks after the increase in hospitalizations.

Those expert findings would indicate Alabama’s increase in deaths stems from behavior occurring around the weekend of July 4, though figures like State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris are quick to point out that something as complex as the fluctuations of a pandemic are never attributable to one single factor.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95