The National Science Foundation, in its mission to ensure the vitality and innovation of science and innovation in the United States, recognizes and awards fellowships to graduate students in NSF-supported science annually. This year the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) shines its spotlight on Michael Workman, a UNM Ph.D. student in the Nanoscience and Microsystems (NSMS) program.

Workman describes his research as the “elucidation of active sites in non-platinum energy conversion catalysts.” While that seems like a mouthful, it boils down to some exciting work. Platinum is the most efficient catalyst for energy storage and output but it is also the most expensive. Think energy systems from the ones implemented in electric cars to those charged by wind turbines.

The research group, which Workman is a member, is attempting to do the work of platinum with non-platinum catalysts, and has in fact already achieved the 2015 targets for the Department of Energy. This was done through a painstaking and incremental method of trial and error.

Working under Department of Chemical Engineering Research Professor Alexey Serov, regarded as among the best in the world in his field, and with Kateryna Artyushkova and Chemical & Biological engineering Professor Plamen Atanassov as research advisors, Workman is developing new modeling techniques to get a better picture of how things function at the nano-scale.

“Alexey is an amazing magician, but we want to take that and be able to say we need structures A, B and C so that we can make these things on purpose and get a catalyst that operates at the efficiency of platinum but costs an order of magnitude or more less,” Workman said.

The new modeling and development techniques Workman hopes to help create will have a far reaching and positive impact in a world where energy costs and access are the driving force behind everything from industry to infrastructure and communication.

Workman completed undergraduate work in both chemistry and physics, but like many others, his first run at a college education got off to a rocky start. In an interview, the newly minted fellow candidly discussed how the hedonistic pull of the University of California at Berkley’s famous extracurricular activities proved too much of a distraction. “You may note by looking at me I am not 22, I am actually 41, it was a long route to get here” he said.

Having lost his focus and walking away from UC Berkley, Workman drifted for a time but eventually found his way again, though not at first by returning to academia. He got his life back on track, got married and now has two daughters. Then, working as a drug and alcohol counselor and with the support of his family, he made the decision to return to school.