Feature Story | 11-Apr-2023

Andrew Ullman, Wigner Fellow, gets a charge out of batteries

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Andrew Ullman had the pleasure of graduating high school not once, but twice.

He had enough academic credits in Delaware, where he grew up, to graduate midway through senior year, and then he graduated, again, from a high school in Adelaide, Australia, where his father, a professor, was taking a year’s sabbatical.

“School started in February; that’s their fall, so I just went straight from finishing my first semester (senior year) in Delaware to doing another full year of grade 12 in Australia,” said Ullman, a Eugene P. Wigner Fellow at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Two diplomas were plenty for Carleton College, where Ullman earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry, and for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he enrolled in the inorganic chemistry doctoral program. He ultimately earned his doctorate in chemistry from Harvard University, where he transferred when his mentor, professor Daniel G. Nocera, moved there midway through his program.

Ullman’s dissertation focused on polynuclear cobalt complexes as models of a cobalt-based water oxidation catalyst. His research provided the understanding needed to further optimize the activity of metal-oxide-based water oxidation catalysts in neutral pHs.

That interest brought him to DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories, where he worked on projects related to metal-organic frameworks for electronic devices and sensing applications after receiving his doctorate. He then went to work for Sepion Technologies, a battery company in San Francisco, before coming to ORNL in 2020.

Ullman was always interested in math and science. “It just came naturally to me,” he said. “I found it interesting, and it challenged me intellectually. Writing a paper for English class was excruciating, but diving into a problem set for chemistry I really enjoyed.”

As a Distinguished Staff Fellow in the Chemical Sciences Division focused on energy storage and conversion, Ullman is using chemistry to devise a better battery. He is broadly interested in electrochemical energy conversion — how electrons are transported and how chemical reactions are controlled by electrochemistry. That interest led him to batteries research within ORNL’s Energy Storage and Conversion group.

Today's batteries do not last as long as people need, particularly for their cellphones or electric vehicles. Ullman also is interested in replacing the materials currently used in batteries with ones that will be robust and allow for the efficient plating and stripping of lithium metal. That change would remove a significant amount of mass and volume from a battery’s anode. “In the end, you get a safer battery that stores more energy in a smaller volume,” Ullman said.

A battery that has high energy density, inherent safety and a long life is the trifecta of energy storage. It could be used, Ullman said, for “anything that moves: cars, cellphones, flights, drones — you could reimagine a whole new industry.”

Ullman himself appears to be full of energy. He is a big fan of ultimate frisbee — he’d play every weekend if he could. Ullman now spends a lot of his nonresearch time with his wife raising three girls, who demand a lot of time. He enjoys rock climbing, hiking and camping with the family. “Anything that makes me a better dad is important to me,” he said.

Working at ORNL is a terrific fit for his career interests. “There is a huge amount of incredibly talented people around,” Ullman said. “As I meet more and more people, I realize there are more and more opportunities for building scientific collaborations. In my experience, that is the true superpower of working at a national lab; you can team up with experts in different subfields, come together and get really impactful things done quickly.”

Although he studied at the University of Adelaide for six months and traveled much of the country, he would not mind returning to Australia’s west coast. “Maybe I could visit a mine where they produce lithium and nickel used in today’s batteries,” he said.

ORNL’s Distinguished Staff Fellowship program aims to cultivate future scientific leaders by providing dedicated mentors, world-leading scientific resources and enriching research opportunities. Fellowships are awarded to outstanding early-career scientists and engineers who demonstrate success within their academic, professional and technical areas. Fellowships are awarded for fundamental, experimental and computational sciences in a wide range of science areas.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science. Lawrence Bernard

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