Determined to making a difference
Above all, Assistant Professor Toni Forner-Cuenca wants his scientific work to have an impact on the world. ‘When in forty years or so I look back at my career, I hope that I will have been able to develop some novel transformative energy technology that will have changed the energy storage landscape. And equally important, I also wish to have had an impact on people more directly: I want my students to regard me as a good mentor who trained a generation of critical thinkers with original views to change the field. Working with students and young researchers and seeing them grow and develop is my favorite part of the job’.
The Spanish chemists’ resume is extremely impressive. After graduating as class Valedictorian in Chemical Engineering from the University of Alicante in 2013, he moved to Zurich to pursue a PhD. His work was recognized with the ETH Zurich Medal 2017 for outstanding PhD thesis and the Electrochemical Society Energy Technology Graduate Student Award 2017. With the Swiss National Science Foundation fellowship he obtained directly after, he went to MIT to work on the development of advanced electrodes for redox flow batteries. In 2019, he and his family moved again. This time to Eindhoven, where he became an Assistant Professor in the Membrane Materials and Processes Group at TU/e’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry.
From solar collectors to batteries
His interest in energy-related research dates from early on, Forner-Cuenca recollects. ‘When I was about twenty years old, I did an internship at the Center for Applied Energy Research in Kentucky on solar collectors and renewable energy. My PhD project was about hydrogen fuel cell technology. The fact that you could use a molecule that contains no carbon atoms at all for very versatile applications, ranging from powering vehicles to chemical synthesis, really fascinated me. Soon I realized though that for the energy transition to become a real success, we cannot do without very large batteries. Not only to store intermittent energy from solar parks and wind mills, but also to power energy consuming applications like datacenters.’
After finishing his PhD, the chemical engineer actively sought for a postdoc position where he could dive into large scale battery research. ‘I knew that at MIT there was a young talented professor, Fik Brushett, working on so-called redox flow batteries, so I decided to take my personal grant from the Swiss Science Foundation and go there.’ One year into his postdoc, Forner-Cuenca bumped into some people from TU/e at the annual MIT European Career Fair. And then things went fast. ‘TU/e has an excellent chemical engineering and chemistry department, and the Netherlands is a science powerhouse. Furthermore, for me as junior faculty, an important consideration was how my expertise would fit in. Since what I do is rather unique for the Netherlands, I felt there was ample room for me to develop my own direction.’
Conductive porous materials
With his team, Forner-Cuenca works on three major applications: redox flow batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, and carbon dioxide electrolysis to synthesize electrofuels. ‘The overarching goal in our research is that we develop conductive porous materials from the bottom up in what I call a predictive engineering fashion. We start by predicting what the ideal electrode for a certain application would look like – so what materials it should be made of, what the pore size distribution should be, and so on. Then we develop the production process to make such a structure, synthesize it ourselves, and also do the testing. We even have actual fuel cells and flow batteries in our lab to test our new structures in the actual environment they are supposed to do their job in.’ Forner-Cuenca’s lab covers the scales from say a hundred nanometers up to application scale. ‘So in our designs we also take into account what methods would be needed to scale up and if the associated costs are not becoming unfeasibly high. This angle enables us to collaborate with companies in the electrochemistry sector.’
Tackling the energy crisis
Triggered as he is by fundamental questions, like why a twenty nanometer pore works better than a thirty nanometer alternative, ultimately the scientist is motivated by the global challenge that is the energy transition. ‘I am committed to help solving the energy crisis with the aid of electrochemistry.’ And that ambition doesn’t stop when his papers are published. Recently, he co-founded a start-up called heratec, which markets a novel material that makes fuel cells more efficient and durable. ‘When I developed this solution during my PhD I immediately thought that it could be commercially interesting. During my time at MIT I took a few courses on entrepreneurship, which expanded my knowledge on how to put a thing like this in the market. Together with a former student of mine, Rik van Gorp, who is a brilliant engineer, we decided to push this idea of commercialization and founded this start-up.’ Since the material harbors the possibility to tune wettability, it can be applied in a wide range of products. ‘However we decided to focus on fuel cells first and demonstrate its added value there.’
Though for TU/e he is one of the new kids on the block, Forner-Cuenca is one of the researchers who stood at the basis of EIRES. ‘I think it is a great platform that brings together different disciplines who look at the same problem from different angles. When tackling the energy crisis, you need electrical engineering to find ways to connect batteries to the grid, mechanical engineers to build the necessary infrastructure, and chemical engineers to understand transport phenomena inside the batteries on all scales.’ In his view, the institute should thus first and foremost help build bridges. They do that for example by supplying seed money for joint postdocs, and by bringing people together during seminars and events.’
Learning from football
And how his equally thriving football career fits in all of this? Very naturally, the creative jack of all trades thinks. ‘Football harbors a lot of values and skills that also apply to science: you need to be resilient to changes, be willing to work hard, and to work together as a team to make progress. Besides that, also on a personal level football brings me a lot: when you want your work to have an impact, it is good to get out of your university bubble and touch base with people coming from all layers of society.’