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Kelly Nieto

First generation college student researches battery efficiency

Though an early guiding hand can encourage a love of science, the confidence from within oneself can be just as motivating. As a young girl Kelly Nieto lacked the support from those around her, including some of her family. She wanted to break away from stereotypes and the expectations others placed upon her. With this in mind, was set on becoming the first in her family to achieve a higher education.

Kelly Nieto

Kelly Nieto talks about overcoming early struggles and the excitement of being able to prevail over them. With dedicated study and passion for science, she hopes to improve how energy is stored. (Photo Credit: Sarah Bingham)

“Although I had this big dream, I had no idea where to start or what I would be able to do with it. As a first-generation Mexican American and a first-generation college student, trying to reach my dream was difficult without any knowledge on how to achieve a higher education,” she said.

“Despite these obstacles, my passion for this dream involving energy storage is what drove me to where I am now. I’ve taken advantage of the opportunities I’ve found and created for myself and am now in my fourth year of the materials chemistry Ph.D. program at Colorado State University.”

Nieto was looking for ways to enrich her studies while on track to finish her Ph.D, which she found through DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Energy Storage Internship Program. This program, administered through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, offers hands-on, practical research and development projects focused on energy storage at U.S. national laboratories.

Nieto spent ten weeks of her summer assisting her mentor, Dr. Todd M. Alam, and his team with their research. Much of her internship consisted of remotely adding onto existing data and experiments by the Sandia National Laboratory (New Mexico). With a keen focus on the details, Nieto provided an extra insightful eye to Alam’s work.

“Fossil fuels are a major source of energy and fuel worldwide but are being depleted at alarming rates,” Nieto said of her research. “Meeting the energy needs of the growing population and transportation necessitates research in renewable energy and energy storage devices.”

Building upon Alam’s group findings from an ongoing Battery Grand Challenge project at Sandia, Nieto set out to computationally understand how the disorder of materials impacted the performance of characterized layered fluorinated graphite (CFx) cathodes inside lithium (Li) batteries. Her focus was on predicting atomic level energetics of carbon-fluorine interactions in the CFx materials during battery discharge. Using Gaussian 16 software algorithms on Sandia’s High Performance Computer clusters, she and her team were able to pinpoint where these materials broke up and reacted with lithium.

“This implies that specific modes of structural disorder can be used to tune how CFx cathodes behave in a Li primary battery for use as an energy storage device,” she concluded. She hopes this research can be used to positively impact the future of energy storage.

Nieto said she is proud of what they accomplished in such a short amount of time, and looks forward to the upcoming publication of her results.

Her time as an intern also allowed her to expand her skillsets, such as in computational chemistry. Nieto gave credit to her mentor Alam, who taught her a new way of thinking through how to brainstorm solutions that saves time in the lab. Being able to see how a national lab operated was also a plus, Nieto said. The experience encouraged her to consider a career with a national lab in the future.

Having long since proven that she’s able to overcome the hurdles of being a first-generation college student, Nieto now looks forward to applying her skills to further energy-related research after graduation.

“I would highly recommend the EERE ORISE program,” Nieto said. “During this internship, I was challenged to start thinking about energy storage problems through the new lens of computational chemistry. I was able to learn and develop an entirely new skill set and get to know many great scientists along the way.”

The EERE Energy Storage Program is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and administered through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU).