Meet Mai-Anh Ha
Mai-Anh Ha likes learning steps—both as a ballroom dancer and a computational chemist. The more, the better. "With ballroom dancing, you have a sequence. Similarly, with chemical reactions you also have a sequence of steps. The more you have, the more complex it becomes, but also in some respects, the more beautiful it is too," says the Director's Fellow postdoc who arrived at NREL in 2018.
Ballroom dancing is part of her family's heritage. Her grandparents and parents danced in their native Vietnam. "Typically, at Vietnamese weddings or large gatherings, everyone ballroom dances," she says. Music can range from traditional Vietnamese to Frank Sinatra classics. As a girl growing up in Houston, Texas, she absorbed this practice in everything from fox trot to salsa style. "I got into the habit," she says, and took classes. Eventually, her husband, also a scientist, joined her in this passion. "We both really enjoy ballroom dancing."
Their teacher at the Lakewood Cultural Center asked them to perform at a public recital. It's not something they do for competition. "It's just fun. Most of our days are devoted to science. Sometimes you need a break," Mai-Anh says. The partners complement one another. "Some dances I remember better than he does. He remembers the salsa. I actually remember fox trot and waltz better." Exploring the dance floor together deepens their relationship. "When you get married to someone, and start taking these classes, it's like re-dating each other." It also highlights their collaborations—which include science research.
A Passion for Research
Her work at NREL involves electrolyzers, in which water is electrochemically split to evolve hydrogen and oxygen. "Fuel cell reactions, electrolyzer reactions, have been around since the late 1800's. The space race in the 1960's and '70's pushed it to the forefront in modern technology," she says. "Now, we're trying to take technology that works very well in space, and have it work on the ground. It's a fuel that has been around for a long time, but the application for transportation is still in development."
Mai-Anh says her research seeks to give a sense of the complexity and understanding of reactions in model materials for fuel cell reactions. "When we say 'model materials',—we're talking about materials that are most commonly used but may be impractical because of their costs. For instance, for oxygen evolution, we typically use iridium oxide. Iridium is a platinum group metal. It's about $1,000 per troy ounce. If you start using that for transportation, then it's going to drive up the cost of iridium."
Cost of fuel cells is a real barrier to market adoption. "The movement here at NREL is always to move away from platinum group metals, or to use as little as possible to make it as cost-effective as possible," she says. Part of her work is to understand why iridium oxide works as well as it does. "In some respects, even in the last five years, experimentalists are finding that depending on the way that they make this material, they will expose different facets and phases of the material. So even though it's the model material that's been used for some time, experimentalists really don't know what it is happening at the surface." That's where she comes in. "I use computers to model these materials, and help to give the atomic and electronic level understanding."
The search for more efficient and less costly materials continues with the help of computational chemistry researchers such as Mai-Anh. "We can screen faster—using the power of computers—and therefore not have to deal with these materials being expensive" in a laboratory. She and others try to find the best versions of the materials to guide experimentalists. "The world is complex," she says. Likewise, chemical reactions and catalysts researchers are complex. It takes collaboration.
That's why she's appreciative of the openness of researchers at NREL, who are willing to exchange information with her on their projects. By setting up a dialogue with experimental researchers, she can move from building a simpler computer model into the greater complexity to match researchers' work. That allows her to tell them at an atomic level, for example, why a certain synthesized material will be optimum, perhaps more durable, stable, or active—and thus better. "Computational chemistry gives you specifics," she says, "and then you can go from modeling into real-world applications."
All of this effort, she believes, will push the field of renewable energy forward. She looks forward to the progress. "When I'm driving, I won't see a plume of opaque smoke coming out of their tailpipe to then choke me in my car," she says. Instead, she envisions a world filled with fuel cell cars. That ideal world may come after many complicated steps—but just like ballroom dancing, it would be a world of more beauty, and one that Mai-Anh would be completely in step with.