ECS Podcast – ECS President Daniel Scherson

With a robust career in academia, Daniel Scherson has touched many aspects of science and worked with many notable pillars of electrochemistry. From his work on nonlinear, non-equilibrium thermodynamics with Joel Keizer to his work with Heniz Gerischer and Dieter Kolb at the Fritz Haber Institute — Scherson’s career has been shaped by some of the leaders in the field.

He joined Case Western Reserve University in 1983, where his research focuses on bettering device such a fuel cells, batteries, and electrosynthetic reactors. Scherson has been featured by many for the development of the “cyborg cockroach” that produces energy.

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Five questions for Daniel Scherson

In 2015, you published the article “Wireless Communication by an Autonomous Self-Powered Cyborg Insect” in the Journal of The Electrochemical Society. What inspired you to do that work?

It seems that every single person that is of importance in electrochemistry had some sort of close interaction with my career. So I was talking to Adam Heller after he wrote his paper in which there was a grape cut in half, I’m talking about a JACS paper, and there were two little fibers, two little electrodes there were place on top of the grape and he was getting energy out of it. So I thought to myself, “Gee, if you could do that with a fruit, would it be possible to do that with something that flies or walks?” So I talked to Adam and he said, “Dan, we tried that and you better look elsewhere because it’s a really complicated issue.” That immediately was a green light for me to go aggressively in trying to prove to myself that it was indeed doable.

What can we do with cockroach produced electricity?

Science is about what’s possible. When one views science as that, then you say is it possible that you can tap into the biochemistry of a living organism? We normally do not generate electricity that can be used to charge a battery, so you need some form a transducer. The transducer here is the biofuel cell. We believe that we may have been the first ones that managed to integrate all these things together in order to prove that an insect can eat dirt and convert the dirt into fuel and that the fuel can actually be used to power something.

What are some other practical applications that your research has yielded?

One of the areas that is not receiving much attention is on the over fertilization of the land. We need more food so we use fertilizer, then the water runs over into the river and it carries with it the fertilizer that was not used by the plants. All of the sudden with the fertilizer everything grows, so you can get what is called an algae bloom. The algae can produce toxins. In Toledo, OH there was an incident where the water became undrinkable because of an issue of this sort. I am very interested in seeing if one can take, for example, nitrate, which is a fertilizer, and convert that into nitrogen, which can then be released into the atmosphere. Here, electrochemistry can be used to clean up the environment.

What kind of role does electrochemistry have in the future of energy?

In the minds of many, the problem with energy conversion – we can live with it, we can live with the efficiencies – but the main problem is energy storage. We have to come up with ways of harvesting that energy then putting it somewhere and using it when we need it. Electrochemistry in that regard plays an absolutely key role. People think that the sun will provide enough energy to be able to power the planet. There’s no question about that. In my view, what remains is to find efficient energy storage means that will compete, in terms of efficiency, with pumping water uphill. That’s the one to beat. There is tremendous progress being made. In fact, at the ECS meeting in Phoenix we had the Under Secretary of Energy giving the plenary presentation and he emphasized the importance of electrochemistry in achieving this goal.

How important is open access for the future of scholarly publications?

I think that this is one of the most important goals and one of the biggest challenges that we have faced as a Society and I’m fully behind it. There’s nothing more frustrating to a researcher when all of the sudden you come across an article and then you cannot download it because there is a wall and you have to pay for it. Discoverability is absolutely essential in order to make progress in science. The issues is we have to find the means of making all the scientific information available to everybody. I think ECS has taken the lead in showing a path that will lead science in that direction.

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