NREL’s McCormick honored by American Chemical Society for innovation in energy chemistry
Bob McCormick, National Renewable Energy Laboratory senior research fellow, was recently recognized with one of the highest honors by the American Chemical Society: the Henry H. Storch Award in Energy Chemistry for his research on alternative and low-carbon fuels, including the chemistry of fuel-engine interactions. The award recognizes distinguished contributions to fundamental or engineering energy-related research and development, as well as education, that addresses the world’s energy and chemical challenges.
McCormick is a world-renowned researcher in fuel properties and engine technology. In 2001, he came to NREL and has spent most of his career studying the chemistry of fuel-engine interactions, specifically focusing on alternative low-carbon fuels.
While alternative fuels have become a top priority for the nation in the past couple of years, the study of low-carbon fuels began decades ago. At a high level, the field involves working to understand how low-carbon fuels impact engines and answering questions like why some fuels work differently than others, explaining how different fuels do not blend together, and understanding why some fuels oxidize in storage and others do not. At the core of these investigations is one thing: molecules.
McCormick’s work brought a significant amount of rigor and insight to the concept of unearthing the molecular structure of fuel and the associated field. In 1998, he began experimenting with applying computational chemistry and quantum mechanics-based calculations to molecular structure and reaction intermediates to explain engine functions.
“We found that while the macroscopic properties of low-carbon fuels might be the same as those of petroleum fuels, the microscopic differences in molecular makeup between the two can cause them to function differently,” McCormick said.
One of many notable outcomes of this work was the discovery of why biodiesel crystalized in cold weather when petroleum did not. McCormick worked with Gina Fioroni, an NREL senior scientist, to determine that impurities could exist in biodiesel, which could cause intermittent cold weather filter plugging, a problem that plagued the biodiesel industry.
“One crystal would form and then rapidly convert to a more stable crystal form, which would need to be heated to a much higher temperature in order to redissolve, causing the crystals to persist in the fuel and plug filters,” McCormick said. “The solution to this was changing the biodiesel fuel-quality standard to limit the impurities that exhibit this behavior.”
This groundbreaking discovery, along with McCormick’s work on biodiesel storage stability, led to the passing of ASTM quality standards for biodiesel blends in 2006 and 2007 that improved the ease of use of biodiesel and ultimately expanded the market from less than 100,000 gallons to more than 3 billion gallons today. The innovative approach also opened the door to developing a scientific and engineering foundation for the biofuels industry, which now impacts transportation across the board, from cars and trucks to boats and planes.
“Bob’s trailblazing research to support the development of low-carbon, alternative fuels provided a pivotal foundation for NREL’s broader transportation-decarbonization strategy,” said Johney Green, NREL associate laboratory director.
In addition to pioneering a new industry, transforming the study of fuels and combustion, and publishing over 140 papers, McCormick was instrumental in the development of the U.S. DOE Co-Optimization of Fuels and Engines (Co-Optima) Program, which brought together national laboratories, universities, and stakeholders to advance engine and fuel research.
“Since coming to NREL, Bob has built his fuels and combustion science group from the ground up,” said John Farrell, NREL vehicle technologies laboratory program manager and Co-Optima co-founder. “His passion and expertise have ignited others’ interest in this work, proving an essential ingredient to launching a successful multi-lab consortium like Co-Optima.”
When asked about the most satisfying part of his work, McCormick answered that he finds “mentoring people and helping them understand the larger impact of his group’s research niche and the set of problems we are trying to solve” incredibly rewarding. “When it comes down to it, seeing someone I mentored come up with their own ideas and pursue their own research successfully is the reason I come to work,” he said.
And while McCormick’s legacy as a scientist is impressive, his impact on peers is just as pronounced as his research. Known for thinking outside of the box while prioritizing a collaborative and team-focused approach that allows for open exchange and exposure to new thoughts and ideas, one of McCormick’s greatest strengths is challenging his peers to lead and approach problems in a fundamentally different way.
“Bob’s expertise in fuel chemistry and engine technology has contributed to lower-emitting engines, which is truly ‘saving the planet,’” Fioroni said. “The best part is working alongside someone that places value on making sure everyone can contribute to that effort.”