Silver and gold have long captivated humanity. Centuries ago, natural philosophers hoped to transform common materials into these precious metals, but no amount of heat, pressure or soaking would work.
Alchemy – a medieval forerunner to modern science – has come a long way, and today, a pioneer at Virginia Commonwealth University is being transformative in prominent ways. From better batteries to hydrogen-powered cars and improved carbon coatings, Puru Jena is applying science in ways that would indeed seem magical to his ancient predecessors.
“I call myself a modern-day alchemist,” he said.
Much of Jena’s research focuses on the design and creation of materials to address 21st-century challenges of life. Jena is a distinguished professor in the Department of Physics in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, and he now serves as director of a new university-level center – the Institute for Sustainable Energy and Environment – that launched in late 2022.
“We all know that time is of the essence when it comes to creating a sustainable energy future,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “It’s vital that we dedicate education and resources to creating realistic and sustainable ways to harness energy. Dr. Jena’s mission to train more students in scientific discovery, innovation and education is crucial to our environmental future and our global economy. We’re fortunate to have him here at VCU.”
The ISEE is a transdisciplinary enterprise, and much of Jena’s work over a half-century is applicable to harnessing alternative energy – a precious resource in today’s world – and supporting environmental sustainability.
A long and distinguished path
Jena, 80, joined VCU in 1980 after a decade in various North American labs and universities – and after a journey from poverty in his native India. As an undergraduate at Uktal University, Jena had a professor who encouraged him to pursue a scholarship underwritten by students at Salem College in North Carolina. The professor helped Jena assemble the application and even paid for the postage.
“I couldn’t afford to buy the stamps,” Jena said. “Then, one fine morning, the postman was looking for me. There was this big envelope with blue and red marks on the boundary. I was just thrilled by seeing a letter in such a beautiful envelope.”
A student pen pal at Salem College encouraged Jena to do his graduate work in the United States, which led to a Ph.D. from the University of California, Riverside. Since then, Jena has authored nearly 650 papers, and he has received nearly $18 million in funding from federal agencies such as the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, National Science Foundation and NASA. In 1999, he was named a fellow of the American Physical Society.
“We want to establish a program in which we look at both energy and environment with a holistic view – not as an individual problem that you need to solve – because energy and environment are interrelated. And to solve this problem is highly complex.”
Jena’s prominence in the realm of sustainable energy is tied to his contributions to the understanding of materials at the nanoscale – wisdom he shares on a large scale. He has organized the International Symposium on Clusters and Nanomaterials, held every four years at VCU since 1982. ISCAN attracts leading scientists and young researchers from around the world to discuss the latest developments in materials and chemical physics.
“Dr. Jena’s extensive and storied career has greatly contributed to the theoretical understanding of nanomaterials, especially the concept of super atoms, and you only have to look at his publication record to grasp the impact of his research on the entire field,” said Angela Reynolds, Ph.D., the interim associate dean for research in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences. “Even after nearly 50 years of scholarly study, Dr. Jena continues to produce innovative research, driven by his curiosity and enthusiasm.”
Huge discoveries from a small scale
The classic alchemists sought to bring together common substances to create precious ones, but “the building blocks of materials are atoms,” Jena said. “And the chemistry of atoms cannot be changed. So, that’s why the alchemists failed.”
He and his fellow modern-day alchemists have an advantage over the old school: They work in nanoscale – larger than atomic scale, but still tiny. Jena’s work takes place in an area that is less than 100,000 times the width of a human hair.
Nanoscale and the even tinier subnanoscale occupy a kind of Goldilocks dimension: It’s just right, in terms of size, to allow materials scientists to manipulate the building blocks, and they can use a large section of the periodic table of elements as a palette to create new materials.
“If you look at the periodic table of elements, we have about 90 elements occurring in nature,” Jena said. “Everything that you see, or will ever see, will be made of these 90 elements – by themselves or in combinations. That’s how materials are made.”
Today, nanoscale science and engineering allows for creation of materials that were unthinkable in the sphere of traditional combinations of elements. One example is super halogens, which can yield better lithium-ion batteries for consumer electronics or cars. Jena helped develop an electrolyte – which transfers energy in a battery – that offered the benefits of halogen without its usual toxicity.
The super halogen, a nearly spherical figure with 20 plane faces, was a molecule containing one carbon atom, 11 boron atoms and 12 hydrogen atoms. Jena and his collaborators attracted international notice.
“We wrote a paper that we have found a halogen-free electrolyte without ever knowing how a battery is made – just using quantum mechanics,” he said.
Jena’s modern-day alchemy extends to various forms of carbon. He and collaborators Joel Therrien at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and Hong Fang at VCU discovered a mechanically stable carbon material – dubbed U-carbon – that Science magazine highlighted as “harder than stainless steel, about as conductive and as reflective as a polished aluminum mirror.” It offers potential use in lightweight coatings, medical products and novel electronic devices. (Jena’s TEDx talk describes the many faces of carbon.)
But among all his discoveries, Jena said his “pet project” is hydrogen storage. Hydrogen shows great promise as a replacement for fossil fuels for cars, and Jena has been working on hydrogen challenges for decades.
Five kilograms of hydrogen contain enough energy to drive a car about 300 miles at a stretch, Jena said, “but to keep that amount of hydrogen, we need a tank that is probably 10 times bigger than the car.” Current technology storage, such as liquefaction and pressurization, presents a number of problems, so Jena is working on a nanotech solution that involves using a substance that acts as a sponge, soaking up hydrogen.
“It absorbs the hydrogen, then you heat it up to extract the hydrogen. Then you fill it up again,” he said.
Envisioning VCU as a leader
The need for alternative energy sources has rekindled interest and research on hydrogen, and Jena’s work is directly in the wheelhouse of the ISEE. The institute is collaborative effort of VCU’s College of Engineering, College of Humanities and Sciences and L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, and its mission extends beyond modern alchemy.
Jena describes establishment of the ISEE as the culmination of dream dating to 2007-08, when he served in the State Department as a Jefferson Science Fellow advising the government on bilateral and multilateral agreements concerning science and technology. He also was a member of the organizing committee of the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference 2008, led by the State Department and Department of Agriculture. He volunteered to lead the research and development collaboration arising from WIREC.
“When I came back to Richmond, I talked to the university administration, saying that this is an area that’s going to be extremely important,” Jena said of renewable energy. “There’ll be a lot of federal resources that will be available to do research and development in this area. I think we should invest in an institute or a center to really work on this.”
“Addressing sustainable clean energy and the environment is a complex issue,” said VCU Vice President for Research and Innovation P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., whose office approved the ISEE as a university-level institute. “Jena has taken on the enormous and ambitious goal to support clean energy and facilitate researchers in developing sustainable solutions and innovations that will help provide us with a cleaner, better future.”
“Dr. Jena’s focus on renewable energy – long before it was fashionable to do so – illustrate his visionary thinking and his commitment to combating climate change,” added Catherine Ingrassia, Ph.D., dean of the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences. “By developing innovative and sustainable practices, Dr. Jena has pursued research and created the Institute for Sustainable Energy and Environment that will play a pivotal role in safeguarding the environment for future generations.”
Invention and collaboration for the future
VCU has secured a number of patents for Jena’s discoveries, and he was inducted in 2022 into the VCU chapter of the National Academy of Inventors.
“Professor Jena is a world-renowned physicist whose pioneering work on the fundamental aspects of material science has moved the field forward,” said Fotis Sotiropoulos, Ph.D., VCU provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “His passion for advancing environmental sustainability through cutting-edge science and technology is positioning VCU to emerge as a leading institution in this area.”
Jena hopes the ISEE will become a global center, involving not only VCU faculty and students but expertise from around the world.
“We want to establish a program in which we look at both energy and environment with a holistic view – not as an individual problem that you need to solve – because energy and environment are interrelated,” he said. “And to solve this problem is highly complex.”
It involves developing clean and sustainable energy sources, storing them, transporting them – and assessing their economic feasibility. It involves scientists, engineers, technologists and economists. And Jena said it is appropriate for the ISEE to heed a version of the physician’s motto “first, do no harm.”
“We need to bring in the environmentalists, to make sure that we are not harming the environment in the process of doing all these innovations,” Jena said. “And we have to bring in people who could possibly suffer from it.”
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