Next generation lab space boosts energy exploration at Yale’s West Campus

A major renovation at Yale’s West Campus concluded this fall with the expansion of the Energy Sciences Institute (ESI) into consolidated space adjacent to the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage.

Until now, the Institute’s laboratories have been spread across separate buildings, and for the first time the renovation brings together faculty from numerous disciplines under the same 30,000 square foot roof, as well as creating space for incoming scholars.

“The Institute had out-grown our original space, and we needed to expand to bring existing labs together and to accommodate new faculty,” said Gary Brudvig, Benjamin Silliman Professor of Chemistry, professor of Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry and ESI Director. Brudvig’s own lab, along with that of Steve Konezny, relocated to the unified space this year alongside incoming faculty recruits.

Yale’s Energy Sciences Institute was established in 2011 as a hub for interdisciplinary research focused on the physical sciences and a collective focus on scientific approaches to energy. The Institute combines previously unconnected disciplines in a broad effort to tackle one of the grand challenges at Yale and across the world – the need for viable renewable energy and carbon management solutions.

The latest phase of the Institute’s expansion adds over 13,000 square feet and 43 wet lab bench stations to its existing space – all designed to maximize the interaction between people, explained Brudvig. The new mode of lab design appealed to recent hire Peijun Guo, assistant professor of Chemical & Environmental Engineering.

Recruited last year from the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, the Guo lab has set about establishing extensive laser equipment in dedicated space to study solar absorption and the flow of energy in functional materials and heterostructures.

“I’m a laser spectroscopist, so I really benefit from good space along with access to well-maintained lab facilities,” he said. “But the real benefit of the modern lab is that students and PIs can closely interact.”

Though her only visit to West Campus was through a virtual tour, the ESI’s goal of increasing collaboration through shared space and technology is an exciting prospect for Mengxia Liu, who will join Yale as an assistant professor of Electrical Engineering in early 2022. Liu’s research focuses on the design and implementation of next generation optoelectronic materials for applications in energy, sensing, and information technologies, work that is “very interdisciplinary” in nature, she says.

“My research requires electrical engineering but also chemistry and physics,” said Liu, who completes post-doctoral studies at the University of Cambridge this fall. “I’m already thinking about how the new space will stimulate new ideas and collaborations.”

The Institute’s newest faculty join an already diverse mix of scholars who develop future materials and catalysts for solar energy conversion and storage while advancing tools to characterize the functionality of these materials. Scientists from the departments of Chemistry and Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science share open-plan labs with others from Applied Physics, Physics, Chemical & Environmental Engineering and Electrical Engineering.

The watch word in modern laboratory design, this planned ‘adjacency’ of people and resources is an intentional focus for Kim Heard, Associate Director of Research Operations, together with a dedicated network of Yale facilities colleagues who oversee the transformation of lab space at the West Campus.

“Our scientists are eager to collaborate, and we see the connections happen readily in open concept labs and through their shared use of core facilities situated nearby,” she said.

Established in 2016, the Materials Characterization Core is one such facility providing high-value instrumentation and a pool of staff and faculty expertise. Other connected facilities include the West Campus Cleanroom, added in 2017 to enable scientists to manipulate materials at the scale of atoms and molecules. Down the hallway, in-house nitrogen contributes to an optimal environment for science.

Designed with ‘team science’ in mind, the oversized windows surrounding the labs add another architectural dimension intended to let people see what’s happening inside, says Gary Brudvig. Lounge chairs and coffee tables invite passersby to take in the visual ‘science on display,’ a theme mirrored a short distance across the corridor in the labs of the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage.

“In planning the space, we wanted to create an environment where we could have tours of school children coming through without worrying about lab safety,” concludes Brudvig, who foresees science demos going on inside the lab for visitors to the campus.

“Some labs you can’t really see what’s happening inside, but here you can look right into the lab benches and see science in real time.”

For more information about all the Institutes at Yale’s West Campus visit: https://westcampus.yale.edu/

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