Chemist Shannon Boettcher has been named the 2023 Blavatnik National Award Laureate in Chemistry. Boettcher, professor of materials chemistry at the University of Oregon, was selected for his impactful research in electrochemistry — the science that underlies how electricity is generated from, or used to drive, chemical reactions like those in batteries. Boettcher’s work has applications in making renewable synthetic fuels from renewable electricity, like hydrogen, and in capturing emitted carbon dioxide.
Boettcher was one of 267 nominees who do research in the fields of chemistry, physical sciences and engineering, or life sciences and must be 42 of age or younger — representing 134 U.S. universities. The prestigious award includes a $250,000 cash prize.
“It’s a huge award; I’m surprised. It feels a bit like winning the lottery,” Boettcher said. “It really puts the UO on the map though. Every top university in the U.S. is putting their very best candidate forward, every year, for this award.”
His recognition also speaks to the power of persistence: This was Boettcher’s final year of eligibility, and it was his third time applying for the award after being named a finalist in 2021. Boettcher is the first scientist or engineer working in the Pacific Northwest to win the award.
“Shannon is a bright star and being named a Blavatnik laureate only further solidifies his impact on the world of electrochemistry and the future of renewable energy,” said Anshuman “AR” Razdan, vice president for research and innovation.
Boettcher will be honored at the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists Ceremony September 19 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Cleaner Energy, Better Storage
Since returning to UO and joining the faculty 13 years ago, Boettcher (BS ’03) has served as the founding director of the Oregon Center for Electrochemistry (see sidebar) and has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a Sloan Research Fellowship and Camille Dreyfus Award. Boettcher’s research focus on energy conversion and storage is rooted in his longstanding interest in understanding the fundamental science that underlies technology and using that understanding to drive innovation. As he notes, the carbon dioxide levels of the atmosphere are double to what they were prior to Industrial Revolution and are continuing to rise, driving unpredictable climate change that may be devastating.
“Science and technology for renewable energy is the biggest problem for us to work on today,” Boettcher said. “Energy, and particularly electricity, are crucial to our modern society; we just need clean and inexpensive ways of converting and storing energy.”
Modern lithium-ion batteries provide most of the energy storage we use today. But battery-powered Boeing 747s are never going to be a thing with our current tech; the batteries needed to power a flight from LA to New York are much too heavy. Nor can batteries be used to power shipping, taking goods across the Pacific or Atlantic. To keep the pivot to renewables going, chemists like Boettcher are creating better ways to store energy, for example in chemical fuels that can replace the fossil fuels of today.
Hydrogen gas is the simplest fuel and can be created cleanly by splitting water molecules. Boettcher’s lab has pioneered new near-term technologies that split water through a process called electrolysis, using renewable electricity as the power input, but uses only inexpensive and common elements like iron. His team also made important discoveries showing how light can drive water-splitting using semiconductors — a sort of hybrid technology that combines the functions of a solar cell with electrolysis.
Boettcher also invented new “bipolar membranes” that control the flow of ions. These membranes can be used to convert electricity and salt water into acidic and basic water similar to drain cleaners. The basic water can be used to collect emitted carbon dioxide from the air — so-called negative emissions. Another use for bipolar membrane tech is in electrochemical cells that convert carbon dioxide to fuels.
"Shannon is incredibly deserving of this award,” said Chris Poulsen, Tykeson Dean of Arts and Sciences. “He is an innovator and world-leader in electrochemistry, and he and his team are identifying important solutions to the most pressing energy challenges we face in society today.”
Empowering the Next Generation
In addition to his own research, Boettcher and his colleagues in the Oregon Center for Electrochemistry are cultivating the next generation of electrochemists. The University of Oregon boasts the nation’s first graduate degree in electrochemistry; more than 50 master’s degree students have passed through the Oregon Center for Electrochemistry on their way to internships and jobs in industry.
“We are not only doing research, but also thinking in a substantial way about how to impact the world through the people we’re educating,” Boettcher said. “Even a recent New York Times article said it is a great time to have a degree in electrochemistry because of all the jobs. We’re a first mover there while many universities have a hard time adapting to meet demand in new areas.”
— By Kelley Christensen, Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation