Renewable Energy Engineer Wins Prestigious National Science Foundation Career Award

January 9, 2020

headshot of Joshua Spurgeon

headshot of Joshua Spurgeon

Dr. Joshua Spurgeon, Theme Leader for Solar Fuels at the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research at the University of Louisville Speed School of Engineering, has been awarded the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award. NSF’S Early Career Development Awards are among the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of the early career-development activities of teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education in their work. Spurgeon’s research focuses on economically viable approaches to solar fuels, electro-synthetic fuel formation, and low-cost solar cell technologies.

The NSF CAREER Award is a rare honor, with a less than 6 percent award success rate for applicants. Spurgeon, 37, has been with Speed School since 2014. He is only the fourth engineer from Speed School to be granted this major recognition in the last decade. The award is $500,000 over the next five years. The grant money will primarily be used to fund two graduate student researchers who will work side by side with Spurgeon.

“It’s huge,” said the engineer about the award. “To have this proposal come through is outstanding for Speed School because it is not only a good amount of funding but it’s prestigious. This gives us a highlight we can share and say, ‘Look! What we’re doing at Speed School is really making an impact out there now,’” Spurgeon said.

Dr. Mahendra Sunkara, Director of the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research, said the CAREER Award is very significant. “In fact, receiving NSF CAREER Awards represent one criterion for engineering schools to move up in key rankings,” he said. The CAREER Award also has an education component, and dovetails with Sunkara’s recent spearheading of a newly proposed Master’s Degree in Materials Energy Science and Engineering, which is under consideration by the university.

As for Spurgeon’s award, Sunkara said it is richly deserved. “What the NSF looks for when granting the CAREER Award is a teacher-scholar with exceptional promise. “It’s not just a recognition of excellent research being done but about the integration of that research into curriculum.”

Spurgeon, who teaches a solar energy class, will leverage the award and the potential new master’s program “to try to bring in more students who wouldn’t otherwise come to a graduate program,” he said. In addition, Spurgeon said he “plans to involve undergraduates on the front end by expanding the engineering and energy education, and on the tail end get them involved in what it takes to bring this kind of research to commercialization.” Spurgeon will encourage his students who want to bring their innovations to market to participate in a 10-week program, Nucleus LaunchIt, offered through University of Louisville’s Business School.

Meanwhile, with this NSF CAREER Award, Spurgeon and his students will continue to work on the intricacies of solar energy storage. “The challenge with solar energy at this point is its intermittence,” explained the researcher. “Since the sun is not always out and you have seasonal issues, you need a way to store that energy,” said Spurgeon. “One of the things I tell my students is we can do solar on a rooftop or at a utility, but if you want to fly a jet on completely clean and green energy, how do you do that?”

Spurgeon’s approach is to use solar energy to photo-chemically “split” water into hydrogen and oxygen gases, the ultimate goal being to find ways to make commercial solar hydrogen production viable. The resulting discoveries will help advance solar energy technology along a path towards low-cost solar energy storage and sustainable fuel production. Such technologies potentially can revolutionize the energy industry and enhance the energy independence of the United States.

Spurgeon said his definition of success “isn’t doing better than anybody else. It’s about making a difference in the area you set out to make a difference in and not letting setbacks make you give up. It’s finding fulfillment in that.”