Scientific research is widely recognized as beneficial to society, and some researchers get to see the fruits of their study lead to practical applications across multiple fields. For Robert Pankow, his research into developing new materials could indeed have such wide-reaching application.
Pankow has been interested in functional organic materials -- particularly polymers -- and electronics since the beginning of his academic career. During his undergraduate studies at UC Santa Barbara, he became fascinated by polymer solar cells and later earned his doctoral degree on the subject from the University of Southern California.
While designing and synthesizing conjugated polymers for solar cells during his postdoctoral research, Pankow was encouraged to apply for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) Intelligence Community Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program (IC Postdoc) by his advisor, professor Tobin J. Marks. The IC Postdoc Program offers scientists and engineers from a wide variety of disciplines unique opportunities to conduct research relevant to the Intelligence Community. He and his advisors, professors Marks and Antonio Facchetti, proposed a project for polymer electrochromic devices. Pankow was accepted as a fellow and Marks became his mentor.
Electrochromic devices possess color and tint changing abilities. They can also control the amount of light transmission or wavelengths permitted by manipulating the voltage to the device. The broad utility of electrochromic devices allows them to be applied to many different fields and for various needs.
“Electrochromics not only provide a nice aesthetic through changes in coloration, but also help with thermal energy regulation since many electrochromic materials can absorb infrared wavelengths of light,” explained Pankow. “Additionally, there are potential defense applications, since controlling heat signatures or thermal camouflage could help evade infrared sensors and detection.”
Electrochromics could also be used to manage the temperature or govern the intensity or wavelength of light reaching plants inside greenhouses. This thermal regulation capability is also ideal for controlling the internal temperature of residential and commercial buildings, making buildings “greener” by reducing overall energy consumption.
Additionally, Pankow is researching next-generation electrochromic devices, specifically developing dynamic optical filters that can allow or block out multiple wavelengths of light. Ultimately, promising devices will be subjected to environmental and mechanical testing to assess real-world applicability. Pankow presented his research findings at the fall 2022 meeting of the American Chemical Society and is now helping prepare a manuscript for publication.
As a fellow, Pankow has enthusiastically collaborated with other scientists and laboratories, including Argonne National Labs. The fellowship has provided the opportunity for sharpening soft skills, such as time management, problem solving and teamwork. Pankow says a highlight of the program is attending the annual IC Postdoctoral Community Academic Research Symposium, where other IC postdoctoral fellows share their research from a variety of disciplines.
“I found this program to be an incredible experience, and I would recommend it without hesitation. For me, it bridged a gap between academic and government interests,” explained Pankow. “Working with my academic advisors and IC advisor, I was able to learn how to structure a research program that could address fundamental concerns or knowledge gaps within science, while also working to address practical concerns held by the government.”
After his fellowship ends, Pankow is interested in mentoring other scientists and developing and managing projects. For now, he will continue researching polymers and their many societal benefits.
The Intelligence Community Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program is funded by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between the IC and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.