2 December 2015

Smarter materials require heavy doses of radiation and deep analysis

Chemistry jobs

Climate friendly energy requires smart materials that can produce energy from sunlight or transform heat into electricity and then store it for extended periods of time. In order to develop new and better energy materials, understanding what each and every atom in the material does must first be understood, which isn’t always easy to ascertain. Doing so requires heavy doses of x-ray radiation and a fair amount of computational power to delve so deeply into the energy producing materials of the future. Kirsten Marie Ørnsbjerg Jensen is a new assistant professor at the Department of Chemistry with access to both. And, she has a final and no less important quality.

”I think that it is incredibly exciting to use physics methodologies to understand chemical processes at the atomic level. My research also entails developing new materials in the laboratory, but for me, the most important thing is to understand how materials behave. I typically spend one week conducting measurements and subsequent months performing calculations to figure out what my measurements actually mean. Therefore, much of my research takes place at the computer,” says Jensen.

Structure decides function of materials

Whether we want to make new batteries, solar cells, catalysts or what are known as thermoelectric materials that convert heat to electrical current, it is important to know how materials are built up: to understand their structure. Structure determines what a material is capable of. Therefore, Jensen uses x-ray or neutron radiation to study her materials.

"Now we have completely new possibilities for understanding the structure of materials!

Kirsten Marie Ørnsbjerg Jensen

Assistant Professor

Department of Chemistry

University of Copenhagen

”The advanced scattering techniques that I use have only been used in nanotechnology research for the past 10-15 years, and have only gained a foothold in the last five years. The theory behind it all has been in existence for 100 years, almost since the discovery of x-rays, but they require very powerful radiation sources combined with computational power to produce useful results. Now we have completely new possibilities for understanding the structure of materials,” says the assistant professor.

Smaller is greater

Whether storing energy in batteries, or converting it in fuel cells, it has been shown that efficacy increases as particles become smaller in whatever material is being used. Funnily enough, the opposite is also true. As the structures to be investigated become smaller, the machines required to study them become larger and larger. And in this context, Jensen is an enthusiastic user of some of the world’s largest research facilities. She travels regularly to synchrotron radiation facilities in Grenoble and Chicago among others. But she will soon be able to cut back on her long trips abroad when Europe’s most powerful radiation facility, Max IV, opens just outside the Swedish city of Lund, just an hour away from Copenhagen.

Structural changes during transformation is next step

It’s one thing is to understand the structure of the finished materials, but Kirsten Marie Ørnsbjerg Jensen also wants to investigate the details of the chemical processes that take place while producing them. These processes take place at the atomic level and occur in milliseconds. This places even higher demands upon both the materials and those who calculate the measurements.

Obvious choice for Department focused on smart materials

Kirsten Marie Ørnsbjerg Jensen completed her chemistry studies and earned a PhD at Aarhus University. Postdoctoral work took her to Columbia University in New York City. Throughout, she has refined her ability to investigate materials. This makes her an obvious partner for the Department of Chemistry’s research groups and centres for materials research in solar energy, nanotechnology and fuel cells among other things.