Professor: Stephen Sofie, Ph.D.

Area of Expertise: Materials Science and Engineering

Research Spotlight: Multi-functional Ceramics

You probably know that MSU is a big research school, but have you ever wondered what’s actually being researched? Dr. Stephen Sofie sat down with the Exponent to talk about his exciting research on multi-functional ceramics. The goal of his exploration is to integrate mechanical and functional properties into materials for energy conversion processes. He has pioneered a freeze tape casting technology that makes thin membranes out of porous materials from an ice-templating technique. This technology provides a way to create engineered porous materials out of ceramics, metals, or polymers that can serve as supporting layers while also providing functionality into electro-catalytic and catalytic conversion devices.  Two main research projects are taking place under this umbrella: all solid state lithium batteries and membranes that can directly convert CO2 into Formic Acid. These lithium batteries would be completely inflammable, fixing the dangerous problem of batteries catching fire while offering the potential to dramatically increase both capacity and charge/discharge rate. For example the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone that exploded. As for the membrane research, he is working on porous gas diffusion membranes that can support nano-catalysts for converting CO2 waste into a usable product that is formic acid, a potentially carbon negative process, which is an important intermediate in chemical synthesis.  What makes these research directions perhaps more exciting is their commercial potential and endless applications. 

Where is your research taking place?

Barnard Hall 248 and ICAL (Image and Chemical Analysis Laboratory, 3rd Floor Barnard)

Do you have students helping with this?

Yes. Ph.D., Masters, and Undergraduate researchers are all a part of the process.

This is the Year of Undergraduate Research (YOUR), are you excited for this? How are you taking part?

Absolutely, I’ve had a strong commitment to undergraduate research since coming to MSU in 2005. Undergraduates are a vital component to what we do and I’m excited to see this become a bigger focus in the last decade. I love to see what well mentored and properly supported undergraduates are capable of. The undergraduates are not treated like grunts, they take on independent projects, work directly with Ph.D.’s, and even help out with the manuscript and publication process. 

What do you want students and the MSU campus to know about the work you are doing?

We are doing work that makes a difference in our world. This research is advancing environmental and energy sustainability.

What do you think sets Montana State research apart from other university research?

Collaboration across different departments on campus. For example, we work seamlessly with many faculty and students in chemistry, physics, and other engineering disciplines. These collaborations inside of MSU help it function, from a research perspective, like a bigger university without being a bigger university. This is what originally drew me to MSU from where I worked prior at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. Most importantly, both faculty and students really want to be in the region and enjoy the balance of outdoor activities we have outside of the university.