Chemist Channels Her Energies Into Developing Sustainable Power

Bentley Drezner

Emily A. Carter
December 12, 2010

At a basic level, the Princeton chemist Emily A. Carter's work is about the fundamental shifts that molecules can undergo when some outside influence acts on them. That kind of major shift can be seen in her own experience, too.

About three years ago, she was hit with her own stimulus—a report that detailed the evidence of climate change. It was at that point that Ms. Carter, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and of applied and computational mathematics, whose research spans multiple disciplines, including physics and chemistry, upended her life's work to focus on what she considers the biggest problem of our time: energy.

"I felt like I had an obligation, a responsibility to use my expertise to solve these big problems," she says. "I no longer had the luxury to just do intellectually stimulating research projects. My research had taken on a purposeful perspective."

Since then, Ms. Carter has shifted her focus to energy issues, like creating lightweight alloys that could improve fuel efficiency in cars and doing research on the materials used in solar panels to make them more efficient.

In September she became founding director of Princeton's Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, an interdisciplinary institute that will seek to bring together scientists and engineers, as well as policy makers and economists, to develop new means of sustainable energy production, energy conservation, and environmental protection. The center is financed through a $100-million gift from a Princeton alumnus.

Pablo G. Debenedetti, chairman of the committee that selected Ms. Carter and vice dean of Princeton's School of Engineering and Applied Science, says Ms. Carter was the consensus choice for the role, despite her initial hesitation about adding the job to a growing list of research responsibilities.

"She's articulate, passionate about the energy issue, and very thoughtful. What more could you ask for in a leader?" he says. "She can also back up what she says with an excellent record of what she's accomplished."

Ms. Carter likes to say that her background in both applied and natural science has made her "multilingual," capable of conversing with researchers in different disciplines and bridging ideas from one department to another. Within her own lab, she has graduate and postdoctoral students in engineering, chemistry, physics, and math.

It will be up to her, as founding director, to bring in researchers. She said she plans to go around the campus asking faculty members to work with the center, as well as inquire about who should be brought in from the outside. She will most likely hire nine new faculty members for the center.

"Anyone who has expertise in an area related to this should be working on these problems," she says.

Ms. Carter began her career as a chemist focused on quantum mechanics—the study of subatomic-particle behavior—and earned a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology.

She spent the next few years studying surface chemistry, winning grants to do research on materials that could withstand the high temperatures of jet engines and energy turbines, and developing computational models to predict the behavior of materials at the atomic level.

"I had been working a lot of different projects and developing software tools to probe the properties of materials, but I hadn't had a laser-beam focus on any one particular issue," she says.

That changed when she read a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in 2007. That report presented clear and convincing evidence that man-made carbon-dioxide emissions were having a significant effect on earth's climate, she says.

Of all the directions in which she could have taken her work, she says, energy issues provided her with the best chance to use her expertise to tackle a pressing need.

"You have to look at your technical strengths and say, Where I can make the best contribution? My expertise is in physical phenomena, and I think that has more applications to the energy field."

Outside the traditional reasons for wanting to combat climate change, Ms. Carter has another argument for reducing the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere.

"Even if you could prove that carbon dioxide has nothing to do with global climate change, it is incredibly stupid as a chemist to continue down the current path," she says. "It makes no sense to be blowing all this carbon up into the atmosphere when we could be using it for useful purposes right here on earth."

But combating climate change will take more than a science perspective, Ms. Carter recognizes. Part of her goal for the new center at Princeton is to bring in researchers from fields such as economics, policy studies, and even the humanities to figure out the best ways to effect change.

And that goal will require Ms. Carter to reach into even more fields, create new bonds, and explore new ideas, three pursuits she has always found stimulating.