The young Pasquale Fernando Fulvio was no stranger to science and engineering.
In the backyard of his childhood home in Volta Redonda, Brazil, he and his youngest brother launched ethanol-powered rockets, assembled kites from bamboo and silk paper, and traded books on science fiction under the South American sky.
“I was always very curious and inquisitive growing up,” said Fulvio, who now holds a doctorate in chemistry from Kent State University in Ohio and is an assistant professor in chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico. “My brother and I would always read science magazines and the science section of newspapers looking for something interesting we could do at home.”
This past summer, Fulvio participated in the Higher Education Research Experiences (HERE) Faculty program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) where he had conducted his postdoctoral research. The program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy and presents opportunities for students of all academic levels, including faculty like Fulvio, to study real-world energy and environmental problems in a top-tier federal facility.
In the Nanomaterials Chemistry Group of ORNL’s Chemical Sciences Division, Fulvio researched porous carbons, materials used in several modern technologies like air and water purification systems and electrochemical energy storage in super capacitors and batteries.
Fulvio’s goal was to prepare carbon materials with mesopores approaching two nanometers, so small they cannot be seen with a light microscope. A sheet of paper, for comparison, measures about 100,000 nanometers thick. Decreasing pore size from tens of nanometers to two or less provides extra surface area that can lead to improved devices, Fulvio explained, including energy storage and greenhouse gas separation and scrubbing devices.
While time-consuming methods already exist for preparing carbons with such small pores, Fulvio and his group members, including his mentor Sheng Dai, Ph.D., attempted to develop a new, more practical method.
Because porous carbons are used in a wide variety of everyday applications, developing a more efficient method for altering carbon structures and sizes could impact the cost and accessibility of modern technologies for the average American consumer.
“The American people should expect continuing improvements on their portable electronics and vehicles. They should also expect this type of research to impact air regeneration and water purification systems, not only in industrial processes, but also at home,” said Fulvio.
Fulvio spent most of his days preparing and characterizing porous carbons in several different lab spaces while interacting with a variety of staff members including postdocs, visiting faculty and graduate students.
“I hardly ever found any of the group members sitting at their desks, as our research was usually that exciting,” said Fulvio. “It was great to interact with so many different group members and learn a little more each day from the interaction.”
By the end of the summer, Fulvio said he and his peers collected promising preliminary data, although they still have a long way to go to explore all properties of composite carbon materials.
Fulvio intends to maintain his collaboration with ORNL and to bring some of his students along with him in the future.
“Most of my research students are undergraduates, and they are now in their teens,” Fulvio said. “I believe that within the next year or two, they will be ready to spend a few months away from home and to fully appreciate their experience here. I will be looking for funding to help support that and have them apply for the summer internships through ORISE.”
Fulvio believes ORISE’s partnership with ORNL is extremely beneficial, especially for faculty or students whose universities offer very limited infrastructure for research.
“ORNL has become one of my references, and the fact that ORISE allows for this collaboration with universities is simply amazing,” said Fulvio. “Dr. Dai and other colleagues from ORNL have always been extremely supportive of my faculty career to this day. There is so much exciting research going on at ORNL, so many leading scientists in their fields and unique infrastructure. I certainly recommend this experience to faculty looking for a summer program or to spend part of their sabbatical year.”