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Spotlight Scholar

Clean Energy Pioneer
Thai Thayumanavan shines spotlight on charge transport innovation
Chemistry professor Sankaran "Thai" Thayumanavan in his lab

Hydrogen fuel cells are an appealing source of clean energy because they have the potential to power anything that uses electricity—from computers and cell phones to cars and ships—without toxic emissions.

Shine a spotlight on the campus’s clean energy research programs and you’ll uncover some of the brightest innovators, like Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan, Professor of Chemistry. His recent breakthrough to improve proton conductivity, or “charge transport,” is helping solve one of the biggest problems holding back development of affordable fuel cells.

Thayumanavan, who is an authority on charge transport and molecular design, was recently chosen as the campus’s first Spotlight Scholar in recognition of his research and innovation in clean energy science.

Thayumanavan co-directs the Massachusetts Center for Renewable Energy Science and Technology (MassCREST). With colleagues Ryan Hayward, polymer science, and Mark Tuominen, physics, he discovered a new material that improves charge transport—a key energy-generating process for efficient and affordable hydrogen fuel cell design. Using a polymer nanostructure that provides an excellent conduit for transporting protons from one side of a fuel cell membrane to another, they demonstrated how to improve proton conductivity under very low humidity conditions, where fuel cells prefer to operate but where few materials perform well.

Hydrogen fuel cells are an appealing source of clean energy because they have the potential to power anything that uses electricity—from computers and cell phones to cars and ships—without toxic emissions. The discovery could lead to commercial development of fuel cell membranes that stay chemically and mechanically stable much longer than current materials allow. The results are so promising that Thayumanavan received $40,000 from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to help demonstrate the technology’s viability. “Our work should lead to a lighter, more efficient and sustainable source of clean power,” says Thayumanavan.

Thayumanavan, who came to UMass Amherst in 2003, earned high praise from Spotlight Scholar nominators for his multi-faceted work, noting that his research in molecular design is also relevant to the life sciences. He’s created a nanoscopic gel that can effectively encapsulate and then release drug molecules inside cells. Such a feature is useful in selectively delivering chemotherapeutic drug molecules to cancer cells. The campus’s technology transfer office and Thayumanavan are pursuing commercial venture opportunities for bringing this technology to clinical trial.

University Relations

September 2010