Amit Kumar is the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) energy club and a research scientist in the Lienhard research group in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. He works on clean energy technology and sustainable water-energy-bioelectrochemical systems for energy generation and resource recovery. Amit recently published a paper in Nature Reviews Chemistry entitled “The ins and outs of microbial-electrode electron transfer reactions”.
1. What made you want to study chemistry?
Chemistry is unique and plays a huge role in the world we live in, especially with respect to chemical commodities and energy production. I recently completed my postdoctoral studies in the Chemical Engineering Department at MIT, where my continued interest in engineering chemistry evolved – I feel we cannot do any resource recovery or energy science without chemistry. In my view, chemical/biological/environmental engineering without chemistry is like a skeleton without bones.
2. If you weren’t an engineer and could do any other job, what would it be — and why?
I would love to be a full-time world explorer, such as Sir David Attenborough, because exploring unexplored nature is fascinating. My upbringing in a farmer’s family may well be the reason for this!
3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?
I am working on the water-energy interface for the production of chemicals using electrochemical systems. This is fascinating because the world needs access to sustainable clean water and energy. In addition, I am also working on energy-efficient electro-systems to recover resources. I am hoping that my current work will help provide environmentally sound and sustainable solutions to the pressing need for clean water and energy.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with — and why?
If I could time travel I would like to have dinner with the revolutionary Nelson Mandela and would love to learn everything from his struggles for humanity. I have so many questions for him (such as how he felt, what type of energy kept him going for decades, and difficulties he faced… this list is long) which I would not trade for anything, I would rather ask him during our personal conversation instead of reading a third party.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab — and what was it?
A couple of months ago, I was converting leftover fracking gas into biofuels. The experiment involved coupling the oxidation of methane — from reserve fracking gas — to reduction of sulfate in an engineered system as an environmentally sound and sustainable alternative technology. In other words, this work aims to use natural biocatalysts to capture electrons from methane to give sulfides.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?
For the book, I would take The Incredible Human Journey by Dr Alice Roberts. The album would be Radioaxiom: A Dub Transmission by Jah Wobble and Bill Laswell.
7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions — and why?
Prof. Alan Aspuru-Guzik of Harvard University has a unique approach towards materials for renewable energy. Although I have known of his work for some time, last week I moderated a panel discussion including Alan and I realized he is a great human being on top of a great scientist.