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Leslie Streicher/MEDILL

Professor Michael Wasielewski is working with Northwestern and Argonne scientists to develop an inexpensive and inexhaustible solar energy system that mimics photosynthesis in plants.

Northwestern chemist pushes at solar energy frontiers

by Leslie Streicher
Feb 16, 2010

Michael Wasielewski was only 8 years old when the first Sputnik satellite launched in 1957, beating the United States into space. He knew in that moment his heart belonged to science.

“I’ve always been interested in gadgets,” Wasielewski said. “I would often dismantle a radio or two as a child to figure out how it worked.” But his interests soon expanded beyond simple mechanics.

A native of Chicago, Wasielewski eventually traded in rockets for chemistry while an undergraduate and Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago.

Now, at age 60, Wasielewski is leading a drive for new ways to harness solar energy through research at Northwestern University and Argonne National Laboratory. One way mimics photosynthesis, an energy powerhouse that nature has been tapping for hundreds of millions of years.

Wasielewski is an NU chemistry professor and the director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne Northwestern Solar Energy Research, a collaborative center drawing on creative and multidisciplinary approaches to science.

This March, Wasielewski plans to submit a proposal on behalf of a team of Northwestern, Argonne and other major solar energy researchers to the DOE in hopes of becoming part of yet another center - an Energy Innovation Hub. The hubs, to be initiated across the country, will provide transitions between research and applications.

“It’s an exciting possibility for research,” Wasielewski said. “It’s a big enterprise designed to take information from our current centers and funnel it into a bigger organization. We need to convince people that we have the best team, and I believe we do.”

Although Wasielewski’s passion for solar energy seems infinite, it actually wasn’t until after college that he became enthralled with the possibility of mimicking nature to create energy for human use.

Following graduation from the University of Chicago, Wasielewski accepted a position as a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University to research electrochemistry, which is essentially the study of energy production through electron processes. Under the mentorship of renowned chemist Ronald Breslow, Wasielewski was introduced to a theory that would guide the rest of his career: bio-mimetic chemistry.

“Bio-mimetic chemistry takes a look at nature to see how it is doing some sort of process essential to a living organism,” Wasielewski explains. “You then see if you can duplicate that in the laboratory with a non-living system which can tell you how the living system works.”

He completed his fellowship and moved back to Illinois to work at Argonne on artificial photosynthesis – a method of designing synthetic molecules that mimic a plant’s natural ability to convert sunlight into energy.

The goal of the research: Develop a solar energy model that can be mass marketed to consumers and is as clean and virtually limitless as energy produced by plants. Basically, it would knock fossil fuels out of the park.

He worked at Argonne for two decades and, 16 years ago, continued his research on photosynthetic solar energy by accepting a position at Northwestern. Wasielewski has won a slew of awards with the most recent being the 2008 Porter Medal, a biennial award voted by photochemistry societies around the world, for his outstanding work in the area.

The award is named for British chemist Lord George Porter and recognizes advancements in physical chemistry, Porter's area of expertise at Cambridge and other universities.

A few years after joining Northwestern, Wasielewski re-established a link between the university and Argonne with the creation of the solar energy research center.

“Most fundamental research today is done in university labs and not corporate-driven labs,” he said. “Centers and teams are the new wave of science. It really has come full circle in a lot of ways.”

And for more than a decade, the Wasielewski Group at Northwestern, working in tandem with Argonne, has been a key player in solar energy research.

Wasielewski’s 25-person research team is dedicated to creating photosynthetic molecules that mimic photosynthesis in green plants to make an affordable, flexible and efficient solar energy model for photovoltaic cells.

In fact, Wasielewski predicts that such solar panels will be so affordable, flexible and efficient that they can be incorporated into clothing. Imagine a jacket that has a solar energy panel discretely woven into the sleeves. Not only do these panels keep you warm, but they also charge your cell phone at the same time.

And although this scenario is not a reality yet, Wasielewski said research is making it a very distinct possibility.

“This whole enterprise is of real societal benefit,” Wasielewski said. “We are focused on contributing to the larger goal of solving the energy problem very soon.”

At the core of this alternative energy research is a well-oiled group that Wasielewski said drives the success. The team members talk about the group like a family, Wasielewski's second family since he and his wife are also the father of a son and a daughter.

“It’s like one big extended family,” he said. “It’s like having 25 children.”

Ph.D. candidate Kelly Lefler, in her third year with the group, said the camaraderie of the team is what helps her push through difficult research periods.

“The group is motivating,” she said. “Some days are tough when experiments don’t go right. But, when you’re working with a group you care about and in a field that you care about, it makes it less tough.”

And after 30 years of experience, Wasielewski knows a few of the ingredients to motivate a successful research team.

“When we have some success we have a little party to try to make it an occasion,” he said. “And besides, if you have a high success rate, you probably aren’t close enough to the edge.”

Walter Salamant, a post-doctoral fellow, joined the group in September. And even though his time with the group has been brief, he said Wasielewski’s mentorship is a big factor in his daily research.

“We face a lot of failures, but Professor Wasielewski wants us to succeed,” he said. “It can be stressful, but that’s life in the sciences.”

And despite a number of successes throughout his long career, Wasielewski still keeps things in perspective.

“One is in a privileged position after a while if you can look at a field and come to the conclusion that, over a period of time, we really have made some progress,” he said. “It really is amazing how science works.”