• Podcast
  • Jan 08 2021

'Behind the Blue' — Future of Energy Storage With Chad Risko, Susan Odom

What will the future of energy storage look like? Whether it be batteries for electronic devices like cell phones, laptops, tablets and smart watches, or for electric cars and hybrid vehicles, or for units that play an integral role in the operations of major power plants, researchers at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER) are working to speed the development of the next generation of more efficient and safer battery technology.

The CAER investigates energy technologies to improve the environment. Researchers contribute to technically sound policies related to fossil and renewable energy.

Staffed by professional scientists and engineers, CAER has extensive interactions with faculty members and students and provides analytical services for outside organizations. CAER adds to the teaching and instruction arm of UK by educating students from pre-college to postgraduate levels and being involved in labor force development for the Commonwealth.

On this episode of "Behind the Blue," UK Public Relations and Strategic Communications' Carl Nathe talks with UK faculty members Chad Risko and Susan Odom about their energy storage research and how it connects to students in the classroom and the laboratory.

"Behind the Blue" is available on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and Spotify. Become a subscriber to receive new episodes of “Behind the Blue” each week. UK’s latest medical breakthroughs, research, artists and writers will be featured, along with the most important news impacting the university.

For questions or comments about this or any other episode of "Behind the Blue," email BehindTheBlue@uky.edu or tweet your question with #BehindTheBlue.

To discover what’s wildly possible at the University of Kentucky, click here.


KODY KISER: What will the future of energy storage look like? Whether it's batteries for electronic devices like cell phones, laptops, tablets, and smart watches, or for electric cars and hybrid vehicles, or for units that play an integral role in the operations of major power plants, researchers at the University of Kentucky's Center for Applied Energy Research, or CAER, are working to speed the development of the next generation of more efficient and safer battery technology.

The CAER investigates energy technologies to improve the environment. Researchers contribute to technically sound policies related to fossil and renewable energy. The CAER is a UK unit that is staffed by professional scientists and engineers, has extensive interactions with faculty members and students, and provides analytical services for outside organizations. The Center for Applied Energy Research adds to the teaching and instruction arm of UK, by educating students from pre-college to postgraduate levels, and being involved in labor force development for the Commonwealth.

I'm Kody Kiser with UK Public Relations and Strategic Communications. On this episode of Behind the Blue, UK PR's Carl Nathe talked with UK faculty members Chad Risko and Susan Odom about their work in energy storage, and how this research connects to students in the classroom and the laboratory.


CARL NATHE: We are pleased to be joined on this edition of the Behind the Blue Podcast by a pair of guests, Chad Risko and Susan Odom. And they're working on something I think all of you will be most interested in, a multidisciplinary effort to develop the next generation of batteries and energy storage. And first of all, Chad Risko, let's see who you are, or what you do, and what makes it all go for you. Associate professor of chemistry, but that's not all, right?

CHAD RISKO: That's right, sir. So I'm also an affiliated faculty member at the Center for Applied Energy Research, which is where our research labs are located.

CARL NATHE: All right, and Susan Odom, you're also in the chemistry department?

SUSAN ODOM: Yes, that's been my appointment since 2011.

CARL NATHE: Associate professor of chemistry. Now talk a little bit, if you will, let's go back to Chad for a second. How did all this come together? Tell us a little bit about where you grew up and were educated, and how you got interested in chemistry.

CHAD RISKO: Sure. So I grew up in Kansas, so don't hold that against me, because I grew up a Jayhawks fan. But you know, I grew up in a small farming community outside of Kansas City. And so when I was a kid, I didn't know what a chemist was. And really, the only people that I knew that had college degrees, or sort of professional degrees, were the pharmacist, and people like that in our community, because it was a pretty small community where I grew up.

And so when I went to college I didn't like chemistry. And my first semester there I was in general chemistry, and my professor of general chemistry said, at the end of it, said, you're going to be a chemist. And from that point forward, I added chemistry as a major, and I kind of went from there.

CARL NATHE: What did he see in you, if you didn't-- you didn't initially like it, and he said you're going to be a chemist?

CHAD RISKO: I mean, you know, it's something that I hope that I can do for a student someday, as well, is just kind of see a potential aptitude, right? And I think he just saw that I could do it, and I could do it well, and I had-- I could ask questions that were insightful. And so you know, that's, I think, an important role is somebody that's on the faculty, and--

CARL NATHE: And that was during your undergraduate program at?

CHAD RISKO: And so that was at Baker University, so it's a small liberal arts university in eastern Kansas.

CARL NATHE: And then from there you went to?

CHAD RISKO: So from there I went to the University of Arizona to start my PhD. But my PhD advisor moved to Georgia Tech, and so my PhD is from Georgia Tech. From there I went to Northwestern for a postdoc, spent a little time as a research scientist back at Georgia Tech, and then I came to the University of Kentucky in 2014.

CARL NATHE: Very good. We get back to Chad Risko in a moment. Susan Odom, tell us a little bit about your story, where you were born and raised, and educated, and so forth.

SUSAN ODOM: Well, I was born in Paducah, Kentucky. And I was raised in a rural farming community as well, in Western Kentucky, where the closest cities were Calhoun and Beech Grove, pretty small towns. And I was an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky, and I started out as a chemical engineering major. And that was because my dad told me I had to be an engineering major, because he was an engineer. And I ended up liking the chemistry classes more than the introductory engineering classes, and changed my major to chemistry at the end of my first year.

And I did research at the University, which is what really drove me to choose going into academia as my career. And like Chad, I was also a graduate student at Georgia Tech and we were actually collaborators when we were there and had a paper together.

CARL NATHE: Excellent. And so what came next after that? After Georgia Tech you got your PhD there?

SUSAN ODOM: Yes, I got my PhD at Georgia Tech, and then I was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, before coming to University of Kentucky as an assistant professor.

CARL NATHE: And you came in 2011?

SUSAN ODOM: Yes, 2011's when I started.

CARL NATHE: So you guys knew each other when-- you were here first. And Chad, when you came did you realize when you were interviewing that Susan was here or?

CHAD RISKO: Oh yeah, no, for sure. And that was one of the things that drew me to UK, was one, that Susan was here and we had worked together in the past, and we knew some of the overlap of our chemistry. But then there were other faculty members that were already in the Department of Chemistry, and across campus really, that we knew that our research program, the things that we like to try to do, could fit well within a collaborative environment, which is where a lot of science is going now.

CARL NATHE: We were talking before we had the mics on, and before we started rolling on the recording of this, about collaboration at the University of Kentucky. It seems to be one of the hallmarks of UK, people working together across disciplines. Susan, your comment on that.

SUSAN ODOM: Well, working across disciplines in a collaborative environment is one of the major aspects that drove me to UK. I knew professors before I came here, as a result of being an undergraduate, and many of those professors and I collaborate now, including my undergraduate research advisor, John Anthony, who we now have multiple grants together. And it's really been the collaborative research that secured most of my funding for the research that my laboratory does in battery technologies.

CARL NATHE: And let's talk about what we're here-- I'm going to get into how this relates to the classroom, when you each teach, and so forth. But let's talk about-- what drew my attention was a recent UKNow story by Jenny Wells-Hosley of our office, and talking about developing the next gen, or next generation, batteries and how to store energy for small devices and so forth. So tell us about the background on this project. Chad?

CHAD RISKO: Well so, I mean, it really starts with Susan, and she might be the best one there to kind of tell that story.

CARL NATHE: Well, let's start with you then, Susan.

SUSAN ODOM: Yeah, so I started working on battery research with lithium ion battery technologies, and that's the kind of battery that you find in smartwatches, and portable electronic devices, such as cell phones and laptops. And while those are useful and portable applications, because of their small size and high power, they're not as amenable for grid storage technologies, which is what we're working on with liquid salvation science. And that is a technology called redox flow batteries, which has been the major emphasis of my group in recent years. That technology is a lot safer. It's not subject to fires and thermal runaway hazards of lithium ion battery technologies, so we're really excited to be working on it for safe large scale storage.

CARL NATHE: OK, so in layperson's terms. If I'm in Frankfurt or Washington, DC, and you're testifying before my committee, explain why this is so important.

SUSAN ODOM: Well, working on liquid salvation batteries, or batteries that are operating with liquids, is important for safety concerns. We don't want large scale batteries connected to the grid to catch on fire, and lithium ion batteries pose a hazard for that risk. So we're working with a safer technology that's more scalable, and provides an opportunity for connection to solar and wind power.

CARL NATHE: OK, and when we talk about the grid, we're talking about the energy grid.

SUSAN ODOM: Yes, the nation's energy grid. And these batteries could be connected to things like power plants where they're really large scale, or more medium scale with micro grids, and then on smaller scale with connection to housing units. For example, if you have solar panels on your roof, and you want to store energy, then these liquid batteries can be used for that.

CARL NATHE: Very good. So where do you come in on this? See, she's here first at UK, but obviously this is something that you're very interested in.

CHAD RISKO: Yeah, absolutely. So, you know I preface our science a little bit, because while we are chemists we don't I say, don the goggles and lab coats, right, that you might envision a normal chemist, because we're computational chemists. So we do all of our chemistry on the computer, and we work really at sort of the convergence point of physics, and math, and chemistry, to kind of understand why materials work in certain ways. And so a lot of our research in the past has focused on this area called organic semiconductors.

So you may have heard of an OLED display. So that's organic light emitting diodes. So they're on TVs and cell phones. That's a really nice example of a organic semiconductor technology that's out on the market. So that's kind of the area we play in, but also think about solar cell technologies, transistors, sensors, and other technologies kind of like that. And so, what we were interested in is taking this knowledge that we had developed over the years, studying these kinds of organic semiconductors, and being able to apply that then to the kinds of materials that Susan and her groups makes and studies, because again, they are these organic molecules that are able to hold charge, which is what we need in these liquid energy storage technologies.

CARL NATHE: Another term I came across in the news release, really we're talking about electrochemical energy storage, is a way to sum it up I guess, right?

CHAD RISKO: Yeah. Yeah, exactly, so for those in the audience maybe that remember general chemistry, right. We talked about electrochemistry, which is just using chemistry to store charge, and that's how your batteries work at a very fundamental level. There's a lot that goes on that we have to control when we start thinking about all of the chemical processes that happen, but yeah, in a nutshell that's where things Begin

CARL NATHE: Now you are leading-- you're all part of, if I understand right, a nearly $4 million four year project, which is entitled Data Enabled Discovery and Design to Transform Liquid Based Energy Storage, and you've got a shorter name for that. But really, what we're doing, again, is for the next generation of batteries. It's pretty exciting stuff to be on the cutting edge of this, isn't it? Susan or Chad, whichever wants to take it, go ahead.

CHAD RISKO: Yeah, I mean I think so. I mean so, you know, I will say that, one, there's a few aspects to this proposal, well, to this grant now, that are interesting. One is that it's funded through the National Science Foundation, through their EPSCoR program. And in particular, the program that this was funded through is trying to get universities, and different jurisdictions, and different states to work together. And so we have partners here and in Kentucky. So it's the University of Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University, but then we've also partnered with three institutions in Iowa, so the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and Cornell College, to bring together expertise from a number of different domains.

And here it's pretty exciting because-- not only are we talking about batteries, right? And trying to develop new materials that will go into these batteries. It's not that we're actually trying to design the battery itself, but we're trying to design and better understand the things that actually store the charge in the battery itself. But you know, there are buzzwords, right? Big data and machine learning, and artificial intelligence, and so we're going to try to take advantage of some technologies that are being developed in that space.

We're also going to be trying to design little robotic devices that allow us to do high throughput materials synthesis and characterization. Because if we want to be able to use things like machine learning, again, sort of a big buzzword right now in the materials community, we need lots of data. But we don't have that data yet. And so that's one of the targets here, is just to generate this data, and then also make it publicly accessible-- not just hold on to it but to provide it to the community, so that other researchers at other institutions across the country and across the world can take advantage of the data that we generate, and try to use it to help their science.

CARL NATHE: And doesn't public accessibility also lead to, eventually, commercial viability, with some of these things we're talking about?

SUSAN ODOM: Yes, having access to data is definitely going to accelerate commercial viability of these systems. We've found that materials that we've developed are actually already patented from my group, for example, that are being licensed and sold as liquid energy storage materials. And the more that researchers can access that data, the more likely we are to see these technologies be commercialized.

CARL NATHE: Each of you-- and it strikes me, and I want to stay with you for a second Susan, because you both mentioned you're from rural Western Kentucky, Chad you're from rural Kansas. And this kind of work that you're doing-- you are examples of people who, you know, I can see where if you grew up in Pittsburgh, or Philadelphia, or Chicago, or whatever, maybe more early exposure to some companies that were STEM fields and so forth, science technology, engineering, math, and all that. You don't think of that, you think of rural folks maybe not having as much exposure. So really, coming to University of Kentucky and being exposed to this, and you spoke of Dr. Anthony earlier, it's really opened up a new world for you didn't it, Susan?

SUSAN ODOM: Yes, my undergraduate research at the University of Kentucky is really what showed me a world that was different from what I was used to. I should say that my father was a metallurgical engineer, so I was exposed to material science and metallurgy, when I was growing up. But not through academic research, which is what I do now. And I was a junior at the University of Kentucky when I started doing research on material science type projects, actually with organic semiconductors as well, and that gave me much more of a pathway toward doing the research that I do now, than I could ever have encountered in rural Kentucky.

CARL NATHE: And you are-- one of your goals through this is to get more students, to get undergraduates, get graduate students, interested-- especially from, maybe communities where it wouldn't be automatically available to them, again, open up that new world.

CHAD RISKO: Exactly. So we have-- so again, part of the National Science Foundation sort of mandate in these kinds of programs, is that we have workforce development activities. And one of the ones that we struck on is actually a program that one of our colleagues at the University of Iowa established, which he refers to as the Rural Scholars Program-- so this is Professor Scott Shaw at the University of Iowa. And there the idea-- and we're going to try to bring this not only to the University of Kentucky, but to the other institutions that are involved-- is to get students that come to UK, for instance, that are from rural communities, into the lab in that first semester, and to get them exposed to, again, sort of this convergence of energy research of data science, of chemistry, to really show them things that are available, that again as you mentioned, neither Susan nor I, or at least me in particular, weren't exposed to before we went to college.

CARL NATHE: Your lab is at the Center for Applied Energy Research, which is a short distance, it's not technically contiguous to the UK campus, but it's in Lexington and right nearby. But there's all kinds of exciting projects going on in the area of applied energy, not just what you're working on. There's all kinds of things going on there. What factor does that play in enabling you to be more productive?

CHAD RISKO: Well I mean, so for the research that we do in our group, it's really opened up areas of science, areas of research, that I never imagined that we would work in. So we have collaborated with researchers at CAER on the design of materials to capture carbon dioxide, that's part of the effluent from coal-fired power plants. We are working in collaboration on a project to take-- to try to understand the development of catalysts, where the idea is to take spent vegetable oils, and turn them into biodiesel.

And so you start to look at these different areas of research related to energy. We build new understanding like, through those projects that we develop in our group. And we can take that, and then sort of put those together, and think about, OK, the projects that we're currently working on, how can we make them better? How can we develop our understanding and push things faster? So just being exposed in that environment, for me personally, it's fantastic. I think for our student researchers it's just, it's unbelievable.

CARL NATHE: Susan Odom, a UK associate professor of chemistry, and also you just heard the voice of Chad Risko. But Susan, I want to ask you, how does this connect when you are teaching? You are a student yourself here at the University of Kentucky. But one of the things that being a major research university, a Research I institution such as the University of Kentucky, a land grant institution, you get to take what you're working on and weave it into your-- you're not just taking it from some other professor at some other university, you're living and learning this yourself, and you're bringing that to your students. How is that impactful in your classroom?

SUSAN ODOM: Well, I teach organic chemistry to sophomores and juniors at UK, and we learn to do synthesis of organic compounds in that class. And a lot of those reactions overlap with the same reactions that students in my laboratory, the graduate students and undergraduates are doing, so I have the opportunity to teach the students the same chemistry as what we're learning. I also invite researchers to my classroom to give presentations on their research, as it's relevant to organic chemistry. So these are students who, some of them are going to medical school, some of them are going to pharmacy, and some are going on to material science engineering type graduate programs, or chemistry graduate programs. But regardless of their career path, when I bring in experts and research to the classroom, they're able to get a snippet of these research experiences, whether that's what they want to do or not. And a lot of them end up, regardless of their career paths, going into some research program at UK.

CARL NATHE: Mm-hmm. Now one of the things-- Chad, continuing on that theme that Susan started-- one of the things, it seems to me, is that when you are actually getting to see how these things connect to the real world, to real research that you're working on it, becomes a whole lot more interesting. I know there's some science that I was better at than others, but usually the stuff that I understood better was where you could connect it to something real, like the ink that goes in the pen I'm holding, or something like that.

CHAD RISKO: Yeah, no, absolutely. And I think, in any course you're better off if you can make those connections to real world technologies or applications, whether you're teaching of like general chemistry or organic chemistry. But another area or another way that you can try to make these connections, are in special topics classes. And so you know, right now I'm teaching a course on organic semiconductors, and making connections for the students from the courses that they have had up to this point, so these are generally juniors and seniors, maybe first year graduate students in this course, that have taken general chemistry, and maybe quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics. And so we talk about those principles, but we do that in the context of the development of organic semiconductors.

And then next semester, I'm going to teach a course that will introduce chemists and other students, because we've gotten some students from the engineering department as well, on using computers in data science, right, but taking sort of that, those data science techniques, and applying it to chemistry. And in that case, for me, I find that course to be really interesting for the students, because it allows them to put that line on the CV, right, that I have expertise. And I've developed this new skill set, that again, if they go outside of chemistry in their career path, this may provide them an opportunity to do something completely different.

CARL NATHE: We don't have a whole lot of time left, but I do want to give you, I'll give each of you a chance to add anything you'd like. I'd like to ask each of you, and Susan you go first, and then Chad-- but in the context it sounds like I'm talking to two people who are very happy to be in a field that has the research component, but that you get to bring along the next generation, just as you were brought along, am I reading you right? You're happy with the career path you chose?

SUSAN ODOM: Oh, I'm definitely happy with this career path. I could have chosen a variety of careers with a PhD in chemistry, and I really wanted to give back to society with teaching young minds that can be moldable, and also from not only the classroom setting, but in the research setting. Both of those are on different levels of intimacy and getting to know students, and I want to give students the opportunity to have the experiences that I did, that might show them a realm of possibilities that they wouldn't have otherwise encountered.


CHAD RISKO: Yeah, I think Susan said it perfectly. You know, again, I think about my journey, again, coming out of a small high school and going to a small liberal arts university-- a small liberal arts university that my largest class was 35, and when I came to UK and taught my first class it was over 200. You know, it's pretty incredible, right, to be able to think about working with students, either in the research lab or in the classroom, and watching that light bulb click, right? And when it clicks and you know that they understand what you've been talking about for some time, or they've made a new discovery maybe in the lab, that's really special and that's really cool, and that's something that I think would be hard to recreate in other fields.

CARL NATHE: Here's a chance for you to add-- I know we can't cover everything, but just go back on the project that you're working on. Obviously when you're doing research it never ends. In other words, it's not like you-- you might pass one milestone, but there's always a new endeavor, a new aspect of something. So if you were to call this current grant a success, what would it be leading to? More research, I would think.

CHAD RISKO: Well yeah, new research. I think we'll see success in a number of different ways, I mean. So one, it's going to be, again, in the researchers that are trained, whether they be undergraduate or graduate student researchers, and where they go when they're done here at UK. You know, are we able to discover some new material that indeed hits the metrics that we would like to see, in terms of improving energy storage and continuing to do it safely? Can we really come up with a really nice way, in terms of convergence of bringing together materials chemistry, and robotics, and data science, to drive innovation? Those are going to be the things that we look for in terms of the check-marks for success, I think.

CARL NATHE: Susan, your thoughts.

SUSAN ODOM: Well, I'm definitely more on the application side than Chad, in that my research is what you would call wet chemistry, and we're building and making batteries in my laboratory. So our next steps would be to build battery prototypes using the information that we've discovered on these materials for batteries, and choosing those optimized structures to go into the battery technologies. So we have prototypes in the lab that are already in operation, but they definitely aren't with optimized materials. So these robotics and machine learning will really help us advance our technology in running these battery prototypes.

CARL NATHE: Final thought for would-be students that might be hearing this, or their parents, and thinking about the University of Kentucky. Maybe your thoughts there.

SUSAN ODOM: Well, I would say the University of Kentucky offers the opportunity to be in a large setting with a lot of students, but also an intimate setting where you have the opportunity to get to a smaller group of students and professionals, and work with professors individually to create this more private university feel, that some people might be going for. So even though the university is a large setting, it can be small when you find the right people. So for students who are considering options, I would say the university can be a lot smaller than it might seem from its large enrollment, and it's not as intimidating as it could be.

CARL NATHE: Well Susan Odom from rural Western Kentucky and Chad Risko from rural Kansas. And Chad I'll give you the last word, but along that line, doesn't seem like I'm talking to people that are-- if you were once intimidated by a large University setting, that's no longer the case, you seem right at home.

CHAD RISKO: Yeah, no, I mean, I think UK is a pretty special place. And we've used the word collaboration a lot. And so from the student perspective, I think that having the opportunity to say, to go in learn in the classroom from different-- from instructors from many different fields, work in laboratories where the research isn't just siloed in one area, but again, is picking up information from many different fields. Those are going to be experiences that when the students leave UK and go into a professional setting, that are going to be, I think, real drivers for the gains that they can make as professionals. Because you do, you learn how to assimilate all of this different information to build whatever story of science, in this case, that's what you're looking to try to derive.

CARL NATHE: Well Chad Risko and Susan Odom, pair of associate professors of chemistry, each coming at it in a little bit different way, but all working together in a collaborative setting. I want to thank you for being our guests and wish you continued success.

CHAD RISKO: All right, thank you.

CARL NATHE: All right, we thank you for joining us, and we'll see you next time on the Behind the Blue podcast.