Chemistry Alum's Breakthrough Research Holds Key to Advancing Green Energy

August 10, 2023 (Illinois) - Since graduating with a chemistry degree from Belhaven University, Dr. Sixbert Muhoza ‘15 continues his passion for research. He is now a research fellow at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory and is studying a class of chemical materials which hold promise for use in green energy technologies. 

“The overarching goal of my research work is to develop green energy generation and conversion devices to curb and/or reverse the effect of climate change,” said Muhoza. 

This new class of materials called MXenes are two-dimensional metal carbides and/or nitrides with high electrical conductivity, among other properties. Muhoza and the team at Argonne are studying MXenes from three angles. 

First, they are exploring how they can develop novel ones with tuned and customized composition and complexity. Second, they want to use them to make new and better electrodes for batteries. Third, they are studying how to use them to convert carbon dioxide into useful fuels.

Muhoza’s research has important and practical applications. Since most renewable energy technologies use or rely on electrochemical principles, his research provides a significant contribution to the fight against the impact of climate change. 

“My research spans a variety of topics on applying electrochemistry to develop environmentally benign devices and technologies,” noted Muhoza. “The applications include developing high-capacity batteries, conversion of carbon dioxide into fuels and chemicals, sensors for pollutants, and more.”

According to Muhoza, developing high-capacity batteries is key to achieving wide adoption of electric vehicles and solar power, which will substantially reduce the release of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “One angle to accomplish this is to develop energy devices that do not rely on fossil fuels. If we don’t burn fossil fuels, we don’t emit greenhouse gases, and, hence, undergo no unnatural changes in temperature/climate.”

His work on carbon dioxide reduction provides another method to attack the same problem, but from the opposite end. He is researching ways the carbon dioxide already released in the atmosphere can be converted into useful chemicals such as ethanol or methane.

According to Muhoza, this type of research will have a wider impact on the scientific community as well. “Not only is that going to be beneficial for developing more efficient electrodes for batteries and electrolyzers, but it will also help guide the general scientific community on material development methods.”

The trajectory of Muhoza’s life took a turn after he graduated from high school in his home country of Rwanda (Africa). Initially, he wanted to go to medical school and had even been admitted into one there.

He thought and prayed over his life and career. Muhoza commented, “Being a doctor and treating people is very important, but I became more interested in work that would change how people lived. As I saw it, scientific innovation is the reason why people in this generation are living better than those in previous generations, and I wanted to contribute to that progress.”

His confirmation came when he was awarded a presidential scholarship to come to the United States. He packed his bags and headed to Jackson, Mississippi. 

Belhaven University and its professors had a major impact on Muhoza and his decision toward research. “I had my first research project at Belhaven University, with Dr. Gary Reid Bishop, and everything rolled out from there. It is thanks to my professors and classmates that I was able to pursue this path with enthusiasm.”

Muhoza said that the support he received didn’t stop at the chemistry department. He had much help from people in other departments as well. “I basically had an open invitation to the offices of Dr. John Estes (Chair of the Mathematics Department), Dr. Tracy Ford (Dean of Worldview Studies), Dr. Chip Mason (Dean of the Business School), to name a few. The guidance and advice they gave me have stayed with me to this day.”

By the time he graduated, Muhoza had completed a variety of research projects with multiple professors, which was critical in securing his graduate school admission to Wake Forest University where he earned a Ph.D. in Materials Chemistry in 2019. 

In 2018, Muhoza completed a graduate fellowship at the DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory where he was first exposed to and picked interest in the work of national laboratories. He continues his research work at the Argonne National Laboratory. “I am excited to continue developing/researching these technologies and, then see some of them turn into parts of industrial processes that impact our lives for the better.”   

Photo courtesy of Wake Forest University