Sooner or later, most Cornell students find themselves in a chemistry course, sometimes against their best wishes. It’s not easy to teach Chemistry to a uninterested audience, but one professor is well known for making the most of the endeavor by interjecting a little bit of fun.
Dr. Frank DiSalvo is the John A. Newman Professor of Physical Science and has been a member Cornell’s faculty for over 30 years. He’s well known by his students for taking what he calls “commercial breaks” and blowing stuff up in class.
“We [professors] don’t often tell students what we don’t know or expose them to the reasons why we do things a certain way. I like to help students work on new, more interesting problems to help spark their interest,” DiSalvo said.
Working with students in an apprenticeship capacity is one of the highlights of his research. “I enjoy teaching students about how non-textbook chemistry works. Things are much more complicated and full of mistakes when you try them in the real world. I think Edison said it best: ‘genius is 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration.’”
Teaching isn’t his only forte however. DiSalvo’s group is responsible for breakthroughs in the areas of fuel cell electrocatalysts, thermoelectrics and novel applications of nitride chemistry.
As part of the Cornell Fuel Cell Institute, DiSalvo and his group are working to help bring more efficient methods for power generation up to speed with the world’s growing demand for electricity.
Whereas batteries are closed systems that release a set amount of power based on the quantity of their input materials, fuel cells facilitate electrochemical reactions in an open system, in a continuous feed to the device generating power.
Most modern methods of generating electricity involve taking some form of chemical energy — usually coal, oil or natural gas — and burning it to boil water into steam, which is then used to turn a turbine. With so many steps, this process typically runs at a level of efficiency in the neighborhood of five to 20 percent, at best.
Since most fuel cells do not use heat or mechanical work to generate power, they can circumvent some of the energetic limits imposed on traditional methods by the laws of thermodynamics. “[Our] research is aimed at making a significant impact on energy use by increasing the efficiency of conversion of the free energy of fuels to electricity from 25 percent for automotives or 35 percent for power plants to the 85 or 90 percent that is, in principle, possible with fuel cells,” DiSalvo said.
DiSalvo’s group is working to develop synthetic methods for preparing nanoparticles of more active and more durable electrocatalysts for both the anodes and cathodes in fuel cells.
For DiSalvo, research and hands on learning is essential to teaching students chemistry, but DiSalvo’s own academic development “was hardly a straight line.”
“When I came to college I thought I’d be a chemistry major, but this was before proper ventilation,” he said. “I went into the organic chemistry lab and got a terrible headache from all the fumes. So, I ended up switching to electrical engineering before settling on physics.”
After getting his Ph.D. in physics from Stanford, DiSalvo worked for Bell Labs for several years. “It was at Bell Labs that I got interested in super conductors, which reconnected me with my love of chemistry.” With his extensive science background, students might be surprised to know that Dr. DiSalvo hasn’t taken a single class in organic chemistry.
“In my research, I’ve always had either a student or colleague around to assist with any organic chemistry that needed to be done,” he said. However, he added, undergraduates are not off the hook: “Medical schools want students to take chemistry because it requires discipline, getting your mind around a large body of knowledge and then applying that knowledge to specific concepts. This is good training for the work of a doctor.”
What most excites DiSalvo about research is making discoveries. “You can think ‘I’m the first person to ever see this.’ It’s like being the first man on the moon. Your discoveries often come from places you aren’t expecting,” he said.
Research isn’t always pleasurable, however, and can be quite frustrating at times. “I liken my research to what Davy Crockett said when asked by a reporter if he had ever been lost: ‘Lost? Never. Mighty confused for weeks at a time, but never lost.’”