University of Texas at Austin

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Sustainable Mobility - Donald Siegel Profile

By John Holden

Published Jan. 3, 2022

Donald Siegel

New Chair of the Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering, Donald Siegel, joined UT Austin in August 2021. His expertise in energy storage, coupled with a level of enthusiasm for conducting research at a university he describes as “the epicenter of scientific computing,” has made him a welcome addition to the Oden Institute, Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), and the Cockrell School of Engineering.  

Siegel is a Temple Foundation Endowed Professor holding a Cockrell Family Chair for Departmental Leadership, and is a Core Faculty Member in the Texas Materials Institute and in the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences.

With a resume like that, Siegel is clearly in demand. He chose to come to UT Austin to work toward his goal of cracking the code on one of society’s most important grand challenges — energy storage.

Home to a globally recognized group of experimentalists working on battery materials, including the 2019 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, John B. Goodenough, co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery, UT Austin is an attractive place for energy storage researchers. So, there were more reasons for Siegel to move to the Lone Star State than the addition of new academic titles.

“We focus on three types of energy storage: electrical, thermal, and chemical,” Siegel said. “Batteries fall in the first category, and battery R&D represents the largest effort within my group. One area of emphasis is the discovery of new solid electrolytes that might enable solid state batteries. These batteries would have larger energy densities than today’s lithium-ion systems, yet also be safer than today’s batteries."

Having spent the previous 12 years as a faculty member in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan, Siegel began his career as a technical expert at Ford Research and Advanced Engineering. This prized combination of both academic and industry experience provided Siegel with a broader perspective on the kind of research he was not only interested in, but that was also going to be of use to society more generally.   

“While working as a researcher at Ford, I was introduced to the concepts of sustainability and mobility. I came to understand that the combination of these two ideas into a single concept, sustainable mobility, was a grand challenge whose solution would have undeniable benefits to society. That was all the motivation I needed.”

No university in the world prioritizes computation like UT Austin does. Few have something akin to the Oden Institute, few have resources like those at TACC, and no universities have both. I consider UT to be the epicenter of scientific computing.

— Donald Siegel

As a core faculty member at the Oden Institute, computational science plays a big part in his research. His research team uses computation to understand materials that are useful for energy storage and to discover new materials that might out perform those used in today’s storage devices.

While he was still a student, Siegel was first drawn to Computational Science and Engineering (CSE) in part due to its effective removal of the scientific ‘middleman.’

“One factor in my emergence as a computational scientist was my experience as a student working in experimental laboratories. Experimental equipment always seemed to be either broken or difficult to operate. While writing code and developing algorithms also presents challenges, for me working with computers was more satisfying.”

Siegel believes CSE has the tools required to solve a variety of societal grand challenges beyond his own niche area of expertise.

“I’d like to see high-throughput computation augment experimental screening for new materials,” he said. “It’s expensive and time-consuming to conduct screening experiments — I envision that the screening process could be more efficiently conducted via computation, so that detailed experiments are performed only on the materials that show the most promise.”

Predictive science has always been a source of interest for Siegel.

“The ability to make predictions and to use the power of computational models to strip away complexity are two of the key benefits of computational science. Computational models afford great control over what input to take into account and the ability to see how that input impacts the predictability of the model. This approach helps us to learn.”

Thanks to pioneers like J. Tinsley Oden and Mary F. Wheeler from the Oden Institute, both of whom played central roles in the development of CSE as a discipline, The Forty Acres has grown into a globally recognized high performance computing (HPC) hub, another strong motivation factor for Siegel to leave Michigan winters behind and head south for a more moderate Texan climate. 

“Perhaps no university in the world places as much importance on computation as does UT Austin,” he said. “Few have something akin to the Oden Institute, few have resources like those at TACC, and no universities have both. In short, I consider UT to be the epicenter of scientific computing.”

Siegel is planning to make heavy use of the computational resources available to him.

“We’ll be using the new Lonestar6 machine as well as Frontera at TACC,” he said. “We simulate matter at the atomic scale with techniques such as Monte Carlo, molecular dynamics, and density functional theory. These are expensive calculations that require access to parallel computation and large memory.”

Outside of HPC and predictive science, Siegel loves hiking, cycling, and traveling. An avid outdoors enthusiast, he was forced to hang up his boots during the lockdown leaving him with more time to hone his culinary skills.

“The pandemic switched my time spent travelling to time spent in the kitchen,” he said. “I’m now a much better cook, but I hope to rebalance this equation as the pandemic recedes.”