The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather

    Excerpt:

    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower

    Excerpt:

    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships

    Excerpt:

    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

1 week ago

Auburn University’s Tiger Excellence Scholars Program participants thriving, becoming leaders

((Auburn University/Contributed)

Not only are members of Auburn University’s Tiger Excellence Scholars Program (TESP) enjoying their college experience on the Plains, they are thriving and evolving into leaders.

Nearly 300 students involved with the program – designed to support the persistence and retention of students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, low-income families and first-generation college enrollees – posted a 3.42 cumulative GPA for the fall 2020 semester. Administered through Auburn’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity (OID), in partnership with the Office of the Provost, the scholars program is developing the leaders of tomorrow through its efforts.

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A total of 69 TESP students finished the fall 2020 semester with perfect 4.0 grade-point averages, bolstering the group’s already strong cumulative GPA that routinely eclipses the institutional average. The majority of TESP students are recipients of the Provost Leadership Undergraduate Scholarship.

More than a dozen of the program’s students came to Auburn through the state chapter of Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), an initiative administered through the Office of University Outreach that is designed to identify potential college students from Alabama middle and high schools and provide a path to higher education. Those students finished the semester with a 3.68 cumulative GPA, further illustrating the program’s success.

“I’m biased, but I think I have the best students on campus,” said Jasmine Prince, OID’s assistant director for Inclusive Excellence Initiatives, who oversees the TESP program. “What our numbers say is that our students understand not only our commitment to ensuring they’re successful academically, but also that they’ve made a personal commitment to ensure their own academic success. We play a role in that, but it’s a lot of individual work on their part.

“It speaks to the way we’re communicating our expectations to them about what excellence looks like and what scholarly behavior is, and it speaks to their own personal commitment to what academic excellence means. It’s a big deal to be in this program.”

Commitment to excellence

The TESP model is focused on the holistic development of all scholars through intentional engagement, supportive resources and community building. In addition to financial support, TESP students are given access to academic help, mentors and other university resources.

Students are encouraged to engage with one another at a variety of social events, from movies or game nights to “success seminars” and athletic activities – often led by upperclassmen in the program. The consistent interaction gives students a sense of community, further deepening their college experience and helping new students become acclimated to college life.

“We want them to spend time together outside of an atmosphere where they have to learn something, like in their regular classes,” said Prince, who has worked with the program since 2016. “We want to give students opportunities to lead and determine how the sessions are run. Creating an environment where they feel like they can thrive is important.”

OID was forced to shift TESP operations online with the COVID-19 outbreak last year, but administrators and students rallied to adjust and overcome the obstacles. They focused on helping students adjust to virtual instruction in the wake of the pandemic.

“The very first thing we did when we all transitioned to a virtual learning environment is that we hosted one or two scholar check-ins,” said Prince, who hopes the program can involve more in-person events as the winter semester progresses. “We wanted to ensure they were transitioning well, they had what they needed at home and were communicating with their faculty members. That was important for them to have an outlet to be able to share their concerns.

“More of our experiences last spring were centered on community building. We were able to check in with them, see what they needed from us and then provide that. Fall semester, our entire program was virtual. Scholars really missed the in-person events, and we did virtual community nights, which I think also was helpful for our team and scholars.”

TESP operates with four “Pillars of Success” in mind: Academic Excellence, Leadership Capacity, Diversity and Inclusion and Future Focus. Students are taught the importance of each pillar throughout their time at Auburn and, in the process, are given a strong foundation from which to build their professional careers after graduation.

“We’re prepping them for the next steps beyond Auburn,” said Prince, who is hosting a TESP Young Alumni Panel later this semester.

To apply for the program – which has grown from 30 to nearly 300 students as it approaches its 15th anniversary – students submit an application and essay that outlines their desire to become a scholar and contribute to the university’s diversity efforts. Essays are scored by a selection committee, and then college deans make the final decisions about who is admitted.

Scholars must maintain a 3.0 cumulative GPA to remain in the program, and students may keep their scholarships for all four years of their collegiate careers by meeting the requirements. OID has partnered with Academic Support to provide academic coaching to any TESP students who need extra help acclimating to college or boosting their GPAs.

An opportunity to thrive

For senior public relations major April Alvarez, TESP helped offer a way for the Montgomery native to become the first person in her family to attend college.

“I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to make it to college,” Alvarez said. “Not only has (the scholarship) given me the opportunity to be here, but it’s given me so much more than that. There’s a community behind it, so I have these mentors I can lean on.

“I just remember when I got here and thinking, ‘Wow, my world is forever changed.’ I really saw everything from a whole new lens once I got to Auburn and realized I can do well and get this degree, but also have all this knowledge of how to be successful in the professional world.”

Alvarez is president of Students for Clean Water – an Auburn group that works with the Birmingham-based Neverthirst clean water ministry to provide water filters to Nepal and raise awareness for the global water crisis that plagues many nations. In addition, she is interning at Lee County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and helping the association promote its efforts to aid abused and neglected children.

Alvarez is one of the TESP Resource Consultants, the student team responsible for leading community night experiences and facilitating success seminars. The professional skills and leadership experience Alvarez has gained during her four years in the TESP program, she said, have been invaluable.

“I definitely feel like I’ve gotten a lot out of it and have grown as a person,” said Alvarez, who will graduate in May. “Looking back, I just never would have thought of myself to be in this position of earning a degree and developing so much professionally. I didn’t even know what a cover letter was when I got to Auburn.

“I think having the access to all kinds of information like that has really made a difference for me and made me into more of a well-rounded person.”

Royce Williams – a freshman mechanical engineering major – followed his sister, Naja, into TESP. In addition to educating him about different facets of campus life and resources available to him as a scholar, the program has helped Royce meet people, despite the pandemic.

“It’s been really helpful in paying for my college experience, and the events they host also have been really helpful,” said Williams, a Birmingham native. “I’m more of an introvert, and with COVID going on and most classes being online, it’s been harder for me to meet new people. The activities they have are really helpful for meeting new people who have the same interests as me.

“Having less opportunities to be out on campus walking around and seeing what’s going on and what’s out there because of COVID, this program has really helped in reaching out and recommending different events and organizations to get involved with.”

Williams is a member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), the Engineering Academic Excellence Program (EAEP) and the Emerge at Auburn leadership program. He has enjoyed TESP’s success seminars, where he has begun to learn skills that will help him down the road in the workforce.

“One thing I’m really looking forward to getting involved with in college is the co-op programs, because I think it will help me learn a lot about what type of job I want to do and what I want to do outside of college,” Williams said. “So, these programs that help with interview skills and how to make a proper resume and helped me prepare for that experience have been really helpful.”

Prince said the most fulfilling aspects of the program for her and other administrators is seeing firsthand how the students grow and evolve during their time on the Plains.

“Some of the most fulfilling moments come when students have those ‘Aha!’ lightbulb moments and it just clicks,” Prince said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, this is why all that stuff you’ve been telling me matters.’ I love seeing all those things get put together in those moments.

“I always love seeing students graduate – although it also makes me sad when scholars leave – because our scholars are doing some incredible things. We have scholars all over the nation who are in professional or graduate school or working for amazing companies or teaching. It’s exciting to know that I was a part of preparing them to step into whatever their next chapter might be.”

No matter where her career path leads, Alvarez will take with her experiences and memories that would not have been possible without TESP.

“I’ve gotten much more than just a degree, and I feel a lot more confident as a person and in my abilities,” said Alvarez, who would love to work for Delta Air Lines or in the nonprofit or health care sectors after graduating. “I’ve gotten a lot of experience and learned a lot about myself in the process.”

This story originally appeared on Auburn University’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 months ago

Auburn unveils student center named in honor of Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton

(Auburn University/Contributed)

Harold Melton was humbled and thankful during his remarks at the dedication ceremony for the Harold D. Melton Student Center on the Auburn University campus.

Melton – the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and first Black president of the Auburn Student Government Association (SGA) – was joined by his wife, Kimberly, parents, Augustus and Carole, and other family members at the half-hour ceremony. Melton – a 1988 Auburn graduate who studied international business and Spanish – was appreciative while giving remarks in front of the building, which is in the heart of campus near Jordan-Hare Stadium and Haley Center.

“Auburn University owes me nothing, it really doesn’t, and already it has given me all I could ever hope or ask for,” said Melton, who became Auburn SGA president in 1987. “It is a privilege to hear so many great things said about me, many of which I don’t feel like I can even begin to deserve. Thank you to Dr. (AU President Jay) Gogue for his continued leadership of this institution and the members of the Board of Trustees, and special thanks also goes to the Student Government Association itself because this was a student-led initiative.

“When you show up to school, you don’t know what you’re getting into, you don’t know what’s in store and you hope you made the right decision. I never thought I’d get involved with the SGA or certainly become SGA president, never thought I’d be on the supreme court and never imagined this kind of moment. I thank the Lord for leading me to this place, because it was exactly what I needed for spiritual, educational and social growth, and I’m grateful every day this is where I went.”

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Melton, from Marietta, Georgia, went on to graduate from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1991, began serving on the Georgia Supreme Court in 2005 and became its chief justice in 2018. He is a board member of Atlanta Youth Academies and on the national, local and collegiate boards for Young Life Ministries.

Gogue lauded the university’s trustees for voting unanimously in September to name the building in honor of Melton.

“This is a really, really, really great day in the life of Auburn University,” Gogue said. “In 1987, this young kid comes here, gets the whole student body excited, they elect him as student body president and head of the Student Government Association. Then we come to today, and we make real history today. I simply want to say to Chief Justice Melton, you actually honor Auburn by allowing us to honor you today.”

Others attending the ceremony included Alabama state Sen. Vivian Figures, chairwoman of the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus; state Sen. Bobby Singleton, minority leader of the Alabama Senate; state Rep. Anthony Daniels, minority leader of the Alabama House of Representatives; state Sen. Tom Whatley; state Rep. Joe Lovvorn; and state Rep. Jeremy Gray.

Auburn Board of Trustees member Elizabeth Huntley reflected on the decision to honor Melton.

“Today, we celebrate the accomplishments of this esteemed trailblazer who has represented Auburn with such distinction and who has led meaningful change toward progress in the way of diversity and equality,” Huntley said. “The naming will forever serve to remind all Auburn students – past, current and future – that with perseverance through adversity and hard work, anything is possible. On behalf of the Auburn University Board of Trustees and as a proud mother, I personally want to thank Chief Justice Melton for continuing to cultivate the next generation of leaders and for setting a foundation that allows our children to not only dream, but to achieve.

“It’s a privilege to be on this stage with you, and it’s an honor to be part of this moment in time.”

Her daughter, Ada Ruth Huntley, earlier this year became the first Black female to earn the title of SGA president.

“The student center is a cornerstone of the experience of your everyday Auburn student and serves as a safe space for all to gather,” Ada Ruth Huntley said. “This is where student leaders gather to develop their leadership and (work to) leave Auburn better than they found it. You walked so that I could run, and I am incredibly grateful for your contributions to our university.

“I cannot think of any building more fitting to carry the name of Chief Justice Harold D. Melton.”

Constructed in 2008, the three-level Harold D. Melton Student Center is a favorite gathering spot for Auburn’s more than 30,000 students, complete with dining facilities that include a Chick-fil-A and Starbucks, study areas and the James E. Foy Information Desk. With more than 5,000 visitors each day, the 184,000-square-foot center provides student resources, structured activities and a variety of amenities, and houses Student Affairs, The Auburn Plainsman, Greek Life and Auburn Cares offices.

Bobby Woodard, senior vice president for Student Affairs, said naming the building for a former student is the perfect fit.

“It’s hard to imagine a more worthy name for Auburn’s student center than Chief Justice Melton’s,” said Woodard. “Chief Justice Melton is a walking, talking, living, breathing embodiment of the Auburn Creed, an Auburn man through and through, and I can think of no better way to recognize him than by naming this building in his honor. This beautiful building finally has a name on it, and I am proud to work at the Harold D. Melton Student Center.

“It will be a lasting testament to all that he has accomplished and all there is to come.”

Melton, who was born in Washington, D.C., offered some sage advice for Auburn’s current student body.

“I would say, first and foremost, get involved, but do more than just get involved,” said Melton, who ended his speech by leading everyone in a War Eagle cheer. “You really have to leave your mark. If you face adversity in any form, push through anyway and don’t get knocked off course. This university has too much to offer for you to not allow yourself to enjoy it all because of a little adversity.

“Come with the mission to get and to give and be committed to that.”

Naming the student center in Melton’s honor is the first step in the university’s long-term inclusive effort that is headed by Trustees Elizabeth Huntley and James Pratt and the Presidential Task Force for Opportunity and Equity. In addition, the Auburn board in July endorsed a student-led initiative to create a plaza recognizing the legacy of Black Greek organizations and African American culture. The National Pan-Hellenic Council Legacy Plaza will be erected in front of the new Academic Classroom and Laboratory Complex.

“Today’s naming also speaks to the long-term, deliberative work Auburn has committed to in advancing a culture of inclusivity that will serve to further unite our Auburn family,” trustee Huntley said. “We continue to make great strides in our family for celebrating people for their character and not the color of their skin. As I look to the future and all this naming represents, I see a bright horizon of hope – a signal to all in the Auburn family, especially our students, that at Auburn we truly are a family united in purpose and devoted to the ideals of the Auburn Creed.”

(Courtesy of Auburn University)

4 months ago

Auburn collaborating to help Rural Medicine Program provide future doctors throughout Alabama

(Auburn University/Flickr, YHN)

AUBURN, Ala. – Auburn University’s long history of helping mold the state’s physicians of tomorrow continues this semester with a talented group of students ready to dedicate themselves to serving their local communities through the Rural Medicine Program, or RMP.

As part of a collaboration with the University of Alabama School of Medicine, or UASOM, Auburn’s RMP serves as a crucial first step for students transitioning from the undergraduate realm to medical school. Now in its 15th year in Auburn, RMP is a sister program of the University of Alabama’s Rural Medical Scholars Program, or RMSP, that dates back nearly three decades.

It provides a year of pre-matriculation instruction and experience that prepares future physicians for the rigors of medical school, while serving as a pathway for them to begin their journeys to life as a rural doctor.

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“It’s a bridge between college and medical school,” said Larry Wit, who oversees Auburn’s program as its academic director. “Auburn has a long history, through the College of Sciences and Math, of preparing students well for medical school.”

Through Auburn’s program, students who want to become physicians in rural areas of Alabama can receive streamlined instruction in key subjects like biology, gain practical experience via lab sessions and by working in clinics and learn what to expect from medical school. RMP is the beginning, with students then moving on to two years at the UASOM in Birmingham before finishing with two years of clinical clerkships in Huntsville.

Wit helps RMP students tailor their pre-matriculation instruction at Auburn to get the most out of their time on the Plains, and not every student’s class schedule looks the same.

“Since these students come from different institutions and different backgrounds, there are some courses all of them take, but not all of them take the same courses,” Wit said. “We plan their studies like we would if they were in graduate school. We look at their backgrounds, strengths and weakness and develop a curriculum around that to try and better prepare them for medical school.

“I help shore up their sciences to get them ready.”

Laura Catherine Cresswell—who earned a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Alabama at Huntsville in May—has hit the ground running during her year at Auburn.

“It really is an awesome opportunity for people who know they want to go into rural medicine,” said Cresswell, who hails from the 8,300-resident town of Arab, Alabama. “When I first heard about the program, what really interested me was the pre-matriculation year, because I thought the year would be good for me to get more biology classes since I was a chemical engineering major.

“I already knew my intentions of wanting to practice rural medicine, and the program just made me realize it more. I think this program is really going to help expose me to a lot more and show me what I need to expect with rural medicine.”

Pre-matriculation-year courses like Clinical Applications—taught by RMP Medical Director Dr. Keith Bufford—give students practical insight into rural medicine and are an integral part of their instruction at Auburn.

Featuring the motto “Preparing You to Help Your Neighbor,” the program’s foundational goal, Wit says, is to help fill a never-ending need for physicians in rural Alabama.

“We all participate in this with the objective ultimately of improving the lot of people who live in small towns in rural Alabama, in terms of the disparity that exists with their health care,” said Wit, professor emeritus and associate dean emeritus of Auburn’s College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM. “One of the great challenges of getting people in rural medicine is not just to produce more doctors, but to produce doctors who will go and practice in those areas. Our desire is that, at the end of the day when they’re done with their training, that they are primary care physicians practicing in some rural area or small town in Alabama.”

Auburn thoroughly scrutinizes its RMP applicants, limiting each year’s group to roughly a dozen. They must come from small towns in Alabama, have an inherent desire to serve rural communities and meet the strict requirements of medical school. Students do not sign contracts to commit to RMP, instead buying into the program’s honor system as they take their first step toward becoming doctors.

“Most people don’t go back to places like that unless they grow up there,” Wit said. “It has to be part of their DNA, and it almost has to be a calling. So, that’s why we’re so particular about who we take.”

Dr. David Bramm—who practiced family medicine in rural Mississippi before returning to his hometown of Huntsville years ago—heads up the state’s RMP program. He agrees with Wit that it takes a special type of student to dedicate themselves to serving the state’s most marginalized populations.

“We want to find the student with the right stuff,” said Bramm, who practiced in Centreville, Mississippi, a town of approximately 1,400. “We want them to have the demeanor, the personality, love, understanding and compassion to be family physicians, but also the intellectual capacity and the stick-to-it-iveness to get through medical school.”

One of those students, third-year program participant Jayci Hamrick, is well on her way toward helping those in need in her hometown of Haleyville, Alabama. She entered the program after earning a biomedical engineering degree from UAB in 2018 and relishes the opportunity to one day return to the town of roughly 4,000 as a family medicine practitioner.

“I really want to go back to my hometown,” Hamrick said. “I loved growing up there and loved being raised in a small town. There are not many physicians that will be left in my hometown after I graduate, because they’re getting ready to retire. So, I’d like to go and give back to the community I come from.”

Most Alabama counties have a significant shortage of physicians, and Wit described the need as “unbelievable” and constant. Bramm agrees.

“Of the general population of medical students nationwide, surveys have shown only about 3 percent of doctors want to or plan to go practice in a small town,” said Bramm, who said Auburn has been a conduit for 114 of the 143 RMP participants through the years.

Wit says the structured collaboration among the state’s educational institutions, coupled with consistent support from state government, has been a boost for the program.

“We’ve done remarkably well, in terms of our students choosing family practice in rural communities or just adjacent to rural communities,” Wit said. “We are committed to try and return the investment the state of Alabama has made in us to do this program. They’ve been faithful in supporting this program.”

Bramm has been inspired by the quality of students who have come through the RMP program.

“They’re so smart, and they have such a capacity for learning,” Bramm said. “They’re exactly what you want your kids to be.

“I should have retired five years ago, but I love working with the students too much. It’s so much fun.”

Wit also finds his role with RMP immensely fulfilling and routinely is filled with pride from seeing the students evolve into dedicated doctors.

“I’ve gone and visited a couple of them, and you feel like a proud papa when you see them in action,” Wit said. “These are good kids who are the salt of the Earth, they really are. They don’t have a sense of entitlement. They’re just hard-working Alabama folks.”

The program—especially the first year at Auburn—is particularly inspiring for the students as well.

“I 100-percent love the program,” Hamrick said. “I don’t know if I could have just jumped right in coming from undergrad to med school, and it really helped prepare me. If I could go back and go through the program again, I’d do it.”

(Courtesy of Auburn University)

8 months ago

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

(Phillip Coxwell/COSAM, YHN)

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.

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“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)