A three months guest stay at DTU Energy reminded Professor Rob Walker why he has dedicated his life to science in the first place. While at DTU, he worked and thought about energy research in the company of other like-minded researchers, striving to find solutions to fundamental questions about energy conversion and material degradation.
Professor Rob Walker has spent the past three months as a guest at DTU Energy thanks to an Otto Mønsted Visiting Professor Fellowship. While here, he has enjoyed the vibrant atmosphere at DTU, which he considers a very special, unique, place within global energy research community, as very few universities have entire departments dedicated research in energy conversion and storage.
Rob Walker's stay at DTU has allowed him to be able to ‘think big’ again. Back home at Montana State University, USA, Rob Walker leads a widely acclaimed research group that has pioneered optical methods for direct operando measurements of the chemistry that occurs in high temperature electrochemical systems. However, his responsibilities also include teaching classes and he is the director of Montana State University’s newly-formed PhD-programs in Material Science.
“Talk with any professor, and they tell you that being a leader comes with a price. You may be able to direct which way the research goes, but your own research suffers from many administrative burdens. I rarely have time to spend more than an hour here or there to think about and do my own research.”
"In DTU Energy you have the experts working in many different but related areas, enabling you to ask the important questions and you also have the right equipment to answer those questions. "
Professor Rob Walker, Montana State University, guest professor for three months at DTU Energy
The three months spent at DTU Energy have reminded Rob why he dedicated his life to research in the first place. For three months he has had the opportunity to immerse himself in research and to talk, live and think energy research and design experiments to find solutions to fundamental questions. He has been able to do so in the company of colleagues and collaborators all focused on the same common goals.
“In DTU Energy you have the experts working in many different but related areas, enabling you to ask the important questions and you also have the right equipment to answer those questions. That’s a good combination. Talk with anyone at an international conference dedicated energy research and DTU Energy always comes up as one the best organizations in the world. I have really enjoyed being at a place with so many people dedicated energy storage, and we have identified many important questions, and we may even have some preliminary answers.”
Professor Rob Walker’s research group in Montana is no novice to energy research. On the contrary his group made a ground breaking advance in 2007, when he and his team developed the ability to study fuel cells in operando using vibrational Raman spectroscopy.
In operando monitoring of solid oxide fuel cells and electrolysis cells (SOFC/SOEC) allow the researchers to monitor microstructural and compositional changes in the cells as they happen, providing clear evidence as to why they happen. A big improvement compared to earlier, when the researchers had to pull apart used cells to find out, why they broke down, destroying the cell in the process. In operando methods developed by the Walker research group allows researchers to pinpoint and adjust for disruption while the process takes place and, more importantly, adjust conditions in real time to stop or even reverse the effects.
Walker attributes much of his group’s success to long-standing collaborations including work done with colleagues at the Naval Research Laboratory (Washington, DC) and other professors at Montana State University. The US-state of Montana is the size of Germany with a population of only one million, but Montana State University thrives and has reached international acclaim within the engineering and physical sciences because, as Rob puts it, “several years ago, Montana State achieved critical mass in high temperature materials research and once you have a good thing going the momentum just carries you forward”.
The collaboration between Montana State University and DTU has developed the same positive momentum.
“As it so often happens here at DTU Energy it was your grand old man, Professor Mogens Mogensen, who found out about our work and made contact with my group in 2010. We have met several times over the years and in 2012 Mogens asked if then-postdoc, now- assistant professor Marie Traulsen could spend several months in our laboratory, using our equipment to study the properties of newly created electrode materials designed for electrochemical NOx remediation. In 2013 I visited Risø for the first time and we put together an international workshop in 2014, drawing researchers to Risø from all over the world. Later, another colleague, Professor Peter Holtappels, suggested that I apply for an OM guest professorship. The application was selected and I’ve been here for three months, enjoying every minute, because it is so much better to work side-by-side rather than communicating while 7000 miles apart talking about important research.”
During his three month at DTU professor Rob Walker and Marie Traulsen have developed and delivered an intensive 5 CTS course on spectro-electro-chemistry for PhD- and master students, with several DTU Energy researchers sitting in. He has co-authored a scientific article, researched in several fundamental questions within material science and put together a joint application for more collaboration between Montana State University and DTU Energy focused on, among other things, deactivation mechanisms in perovskite electrodes and secondary phase formation in ceramic materials that can be used in reversible solid oxide electrochemical cells.
Asked what else he will remember about his time at DTU Risø Campus, Rob is quick to add “I have become adopted by the crazy outdoor lunch group down by the Fjord. Long after I return home, I’ll still remember Risø by Roskilde Fjord in all its appearances: from the uniform gray canvas of water and sky to the blue sky days when you almost don’t want to come back inside.”
Professor Rob Walker returned home to Montana 17 March, but the spirit of good cooperation lingers in his wake.