Black and white photograph of rows of Erlenmeyer flasks.

Ionic Liquids and the National Science Foundation—Andy Horvath at NFW

Editor’s note: Andy Horvath interned at NFW through the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program from August 2020 to January 2021. This interview was conducted earlier this year. He is now finishing his PhD at the University of Iowa.

Andy Horvath in the lab

You could say science runs in the family. 

That’s what Andy Horvath will tell you when you ask him how he got into the field. With a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and as a current PhD candidate at the University of Iowa, it would seem that’s true. 

“I like helping people, and if I can help people through my science, then I’m satisfied.”

Andy came to NFW through the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program which supports its fellows to pursue meaningful research with an emphasis on gaining real-world experience for their futures in both academic and non-academic fields.

We caught up with Andy Horvath to discuss ionic liquids, his work at NFW, and advice he’d give his younger self.

For all the non-scientists among us, what is ionic liquid? What’s all the buzz about? 

Ionic liquids (ILs) are nothing more than salts that are liquid at room temperature. Because they contain no solvents, they have all kinds of strange properties including high conductivity, low vapor pressure, and high thermal stability. They are useful because they are essentially designer solvents, which means they can be customized to solve a wide range of problems. ILs have been used in energy storage, lubrication, drug delivery, and in the case of NFW, biomass processing.

How is your work affecting the future of the energy industry (a topic that is not as apparent from the outside of NFW)?

My PhD work (which focuses on the interactions of ionic liquids with surfaces) has implications for the energy industry because ionic liquids can be used to make energy storage devices. I’m trying to understand the factors that are important for optimizing these devices. ILs behave differently than other materials and form interesting structures at interfaces. I use specialized instrumentation to look at these interfaces to determine what makes ILs behave the way they do.

So ionic liquids brought you to NFW? 

Turns out ionic liquids are mission-critical to NFW’s Fiber Welding technology. So this would be the place to come if you’re studying them. The National Science Foundation has this really cool program to get PhD students out of the university and into industrial internships. The idea is that the best way to learn about an industry is just to work in it for a while. I met Luke when he was in Iowa City giving an alumni lecture in the chemistry department. I mentioned to him that I would like to do an internship with NFW and he agreed to host me. 

What is a normal day at NFW like for you?

I normally split my time between helping to run the recycling plant and doing experiments in the lab. I work on everything from solvent recycling to yarn development, and fabric testing.

What is your favorite book?

Fiction: The Lord of the Rings. Nonfiction: Incognito, the secret lives of the brain.

What is your favorite kind of ice cream? 

Vanilla. It sounds boring, but there are over 200 compounds that make up the flavor we call vanilla — making it one of the most complex flavors. 

What’s next for you?

Back to Iowa City to finish my PhD. After that, who knows? 

What would you say to your younger self/or other people wanting to get into the field?

You don’t have to know everything. Just fake it till you make it. No one starts out as an expert. Just try to do cool things and the knowledge will come later.

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Thank you for your time, Andy, and all your hard work with the NFW team! Best wishes to you.

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