Burcu Gurkan with a member of her research team, doctoral student Aidan Klemm, in the Energy Lab in the A.W. Smith Building.
A scientist for her times
By Zachary Lewis
Earlier this year, as she addressed the Science Café, a Cleveland public forum on timely science issues, Burcu Gurkan, PhD, set the stage with two alarming statistics.
In the Earth’s atmosphere, she said, the concentration of carbon dioxide – the greenhouse gas driving climate change– is at its highest level in 800,000 years. What’s more, she added, in the last 30 years alone, the concentration of CO2 has risen by 44 percent.
The Nord Distinguished Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering also shared some good news that January evening. She told her online audience that clean, renewable sources of energy are on the rise. What’s more, there’s a plan in the works to purify the air, to filter out and “sequester” carbon dioxide where it can do no harm.
She’s one of the visionaries behind that earth-changing science, which is one reason her lab on Case Quad has become one to watch.
The image of a rising star applies more and more to Burcu Gurkan. In less than six years on the faculty, she has gained a national profile as a highly cited scientist who attracts coveted research grants. In 2021, for example, the National Science Foundation awarded her an Early Career Development grant, considered its most prestigious award to junior faculty. Meanwhile, much of Gurkan’s work addresses challenges of growing importance—like combatting climate change or making deep space flight feasible.
“Her work could impact ours and future generations,” Dean Ragu Balakrishnan said at a faculty gathering in May, as he introduced Gurkan as the winner of the 2022 Research Award from the Case School of Engineering.
Gurkan’s primary focus is carbon dioxide capture, finding new and better ways to purify air. But she’s also at the vanguard of battery research. So on one front she’s advancing renewable energy. And on the other, using related research, she’s addressing indoor environments on spacecraft and global warming on Earth.
Since her arrival at Case in 2016–after training at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Akron—Gurkan has “carved out a really cool niche,” explained Daniel Lacks, Associate Dean of Academics at the Case School of Engineering.
“Some researchers approach these problems at the lab scale, and others at the molecular scale,” he said. “Burcu’s niche is in bridging these approaches, and she is widely seen as a leader in this regard.”
She’s not alone as she explores scientific frontiers. Her husband, Umut Gurkan, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and an esteemed researcher elected to the National Academy of Inventors in 2020. The couple met in college in Turkey and are raising two children in the Cleveland area: Maya 6, and Talya 3.
Student researchers say Gurkan creates a family atmosphere in her lab, the Energy Lab in the A.W. Smith Building. It’s a cavernous room crowded with scientific equipment and testing apparatus. More than a dozen graduate students conduct research under Gurkan’s guidance and inspiration, many of them excited to be applying science with potentially big impact.
“She’s ambitious. She wants to do something important. So we all kind of feel the same way,” said Raziyeh “Melina” Ghahremani, a postdoctoral researcher and a chemical engineer.
“It’s very collaborative here,” said William Dean, a doctoral student specializing in energy storage applications. “She helps you get to where you want to be.”
Solutions for space and Earth
Gurkan’s warnings at the Science Café are tempered by solutions in the works. In Iceland, the world’s largest carbon-capture plant, called Orca, pulls carbon from the air and sequesters it in that nation’s rocky substructure, modeling what might be possible all over the world. Gurkan has what she calls a miniature version of Orca in her lab, where she’s tinkering with the process.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded Gurkan and a team she formed with scientists at other universities a three-year, $3.6 million grant to explore a radically different approach. The team wants to capture the carbon dioxide with high-performance materials, then use microwave energy to release the absorbed CO2 so that those materials can be reused.
The challenge of capturing carbon is two-fold. First, the temperature and humidity in the great outdoors vary constantly, complicating the design of an effective process. Meanwhile, popular “scrubbing” methods–where the carbon is captured in a liquid solvent–require heating, itself an energy-intensive (and polluting) process.
Gurkan’s idea is to use ionic liquid, or salt in a liquid state, encapsulated within polymers to form hybrid materials that capture CO2. The captured carbon can be released with microwaves or converted into other fuels by electrochemical processes–without the need for heat.
“We need to develop high performing materials which should be regenerable with minimum energy,” Gurkan said. “This is the main challenge – how to design to achieve both a high capacity and durability.”
NASA spies potential
The U.S. Department of Energy isn’t the only agency interested in her work. In 2018, Gurkan was one of 11 university scientists to receive a $600,000 grant from NASA for what the space agency called “transformational” solutions to “high-priority” needs in its space program.
It hopes through Gurkan’s research to lengthen the amount of time astronauts can spend in space, making possible journeys to more distant planets or longer stays at one location. Both hinge on the ability to recycle human exhaust—and create fresh air. Just as some scientists are looking to derive potable water from astronaut urine, so does Gurkan seek to capture exhaled carbon dioxide and turn it back into breathable air.
“In space, you don’t want to waste anything,” she said. “You want sustainability.”
The problem is akin to terrestrial carbon conversion, with unique challenges. In space, the primary obstacle is a lack of resources — whether that be materials needed onboard or crew time for maintenance. Current methods of cleaning cabin air demand too much energy and crew time, Gurkan said. Her ionic liquid supported membrane model, by contrast, separates carbon dioxide from air and concentrates it for further use, like to make water and methane fuel.
The NASA grant was to have expired last fall but has been extended by a year. Gurkan said she’s developed a proof-of-concept model of the system that now needs to be further optimized.
“I’m excited to see how they advance these technologies,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, in announcing the grant.
Here on Earth, Gurkan is also fighting global warming by working on batteries that do more with less. She and her lab team hope that by applying the ionic liquid concept in a different direction—with ionic liquid-like concentrated electrolytes–
they’ll be able to improve the safety of lithium-ion batteries and the energy density of flow batteries, the twin energy sources of modern society.
In a double-win for the environment, more powerful and effective batteries also could be used to power the direct air carbon-capture process.
Lacks said he’s eager to see how far Gurkan, her students, and her colleagues in the field will be able to go with ionic liquids. He suspects it will be impressively far. If Gurkan keeps up the pace she’s held winning grants and producing research the last six years, he said, her impact from Case could resonate around the world.
“It’s been nice seeing that growth and transformation,” he said. “She’s highly visible. For her to be leading like this at this stage of her career, it’s incredibly impressive.”
Lewis is a former award-winning reporter for The Plain Dealer and a freelance writer in Greater Cleveland. To comment on this story, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Burcu Gurkan discusses carbon dioxide capture with Aidan Klemm, a PhD student holding NMR tubes with samples to be tested.
Burcu Gurkan displays a lithium ion battery to postdoctoral researcher Eda Cagli and PhD student Aidan Klemm. Her lab develops and measures electrolytes in search of a better battery.
Energy Lab team (from left), 1st row, Sanduni Wijesooriya, Akissi Yao_ 2nd row, Aidan Klemm, Burcu Gurkan, William Dean, Eda Cagli, Saudagar Dongare, Drace Penley_ back, Oguz Coskun, Raziyeh Ghahremani, Ruth Dikki.