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In the TJ Kim Lab, characterization rules (but character counts)

Kyung-Min Lee

There’s no doubt Dr. Tae Jin Kim is a leader in his field (heterogeneous catalysis) and a man of many talents: cutting-edge scientist, prolific paper presenter, educator.

But Dr. Kim’s best skill may be team-building. His TJ Kim Energy & Environmental Catalysis Lab, knee-deep in fundamental catalysis research, is routinely populated with amazing minds, including talented undergrads and graduate students tracking toward Stony Brook University PhDs.

The lab is also known to welcome exceptional high school students (basic experimentation, advanced experience) and has cheered for a member completing a rigorous SBU doctorate program in each of the last eight calendar years.

Riding that fast lane now is Kyung-Min Lee, who actually holds two master’s degrees – one from South Korea’s Inha University, one from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University – and is steering toward a 2023 PhD in chemical engineering.

With all those chemical-science credentials, Lee, of course, knows that catalysis is the process of speeding up chemical reactions by adding foreign substances, known as “catalysts.” In the TJ Kim Lab, various technologies – infrared spectroscopes, laser-based Raman microscopes and a host of advanced-characterization gizmos available through the Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center – peer deep into the molecular and electronic structures of metal-oxide catalysts.  

One of Lee’s research objectives is to synthesize the catalysts themselves – different powder forms, according to the graduate student, refined from “base metal precursors” – in addition to extensive characterization and catalytic-performance tests.

It’s an essential step in the process for scientists both inside the TJ Kim Lab and out, who are working on reducing carbon footprints and raising automobile-emission performances and otherwise tackling humanity’s biggest scientific challenges. The lab collaborates often with an assortment of domestic and international stakeholders, including Brookhaven National Laboratory, Seoul National University and various U.S universities.

They’re just a few of the partners lining up to work with and support the lab, which has earned more than a dozen grants – from the National Science Foundation, the National Research Foundation of Korea, the New York State Department of Education and others – since opening in 2013.

The international alliances are one of the many benefits of working in the TJ Kim Lab, according to Lee, who notes each of the many international collaborators brings something unique to the table. 

“We are working with [BNL] scientists and with the University of Washington and a company from Korea called Naieel Technology,” he says. “We have several characterization instruments and other institutions have other characterization instruments.

“It’s a mixing of the knowledge that’s very important,” Lee adds. “And we always get good advice from the other aspects.”

Working in the AERTC is another advantage: While he wouldn’t mind his own office, the graduate student rates the facilities “perfect, a 10 out of 10,” noting the Advanced Energy Center is “very clean, very quiet” and packing his weapon of choice: the gas chromatograph, a vital analytical-chemistry instrument that dissects the molecular components of gas samples.  

“It’s the best instrument I’m using here,” Lee says. “We need to test the catalytic activity from the actual conditions, so we flow the gas and see how fast this catalyst is, or how good it is for removing this or that.

“The gas chromatograph is really good to test those catalytic reactions.”

But working under Dr. Kim himself has to be the primary benefit, according to the PhD candidate, who calls his mentor “a really hard worker” who’s always there for his protégés, regardless of age or academic standing.

“He’s very great,” Lee says. “He always gives some kind of information and inspiration, and he cares a lot about his high school students and undergraduate students.”

Lee also cares about those younger students – in addition to his own scientific research, the TJ Kim Lab affords him the opportunity to work closely with those undergrads and high schoolers, who have strong research motivation and need hands-on experiences with state-of-arts facilities, such as the AERTC. 

“They are learning basic concept of catalysis and performing a synthesis of supported metal oxide catalysts,” he says. “They are also reading published papers, preparing research manuscripts – they are studying.

“I am also teaching them, as they are learning how to experiment and how to characterize,” Lee adds. “That’s a good opportunity for them, and for me.”