How are female engineers, and scientists, helping solve our energy crisis?

Today is National Women in Engineering Day (#NWED2016) which is part of an international awareness campaign to raise the profile of women in engineering.  We’ve been lucky enough to get Zara Qadir of the Sustainable Gas Institute to write another post for us, this time on the impact female engineers (and scientists) are having on the energy sector.National Women in Engineering Day logoEnergy is typically perceived as being a male dominated area, but there have been recent steps to increase diversity within the sector. To mark this year’s National Women in Engineering Day I was curious to find out what energy research is being done around Imperial College London by women. I talked to five female researchers about their research; I wanted to find out what first sparked their interest in energy and engineering, what aspects they enjoy most and why others should get involved in the area.

Printing a power plant

Dr Lisa Kleiminger
Dr Lisa Kleiminger

Dr Lisa Kleiminger, is a Chemical Engineer working on 3D printing fuel cells. “The current challenge with renewable energy use is intermittency but if we could find a storage solution, we could run everything solely on renewable energy” says Lisa.

The ultimate aim would be to convert renewable energy to energy stored in chemical bonds (electrochemical storage), and then if we need the energy back we reverse the process, to generate electricity again, a sustainable energy loop.”

Lisa’s work involves looking at solid oxide fuel cells (and electrolysers) which produce electricity directly from oxidising a fuel improving efficiencies over conventional power plants. The reactor is comprised of three main components (two electrodes and a dense membrane), Lisa is trying to improve the make-up of these individual metal/ceramic components using micrometre resolution 3D ink jet printing. This involves developing different ‘ink compositions’ (using ceramic particles instead of colours). She ultimately would like improve understanding of how best to build and scale-up fuel cells for larger–scale reactors.

I asked Lisa what first attracted her to a career in engineering. She says boldly that ‘engineering combines all the sciences and maths’, and has also given her an opportunity to work at the forefront of technology and do things that haven’t been done before. “While you may not be flying to the moon, you are doing something new that no one else has done before”.

Mimicking artificial photosynthesis

Madeleine Morris
Madeleine Morris

Our second female researcher is actually a chemist, rather than an engineer. Madeleine Morris, is a PhD student in the Department of Chemistry and works also in storage, but on solar fuels. These devices covert the sunlight into chemical energy (such as hydrogen), which can be stored for later use.

Madeleine’s lab work involves using techniques such as spectrophotometry to see what is taking place at a quantum level inside different materials (semi-conductors) when sunlight is applied. “Solar fuels are trying to do what plants have been doing for millions of years, turning sunlight into another form of energy” says Madeleine. They carry out artificial photosynthesis producing a zero-carbon fuel (hydrogen) in a clean way (by splitting up water using solar energy) and also making the best use of CO2 by turning into a useful product.

However, solar fuels are not that effective yet at generating hydrogen (on the order of around 1%). The efficiency of solar fuels are reduced by a process called recombination, which is explained in a lot more detail in Madeleine’s recent blog post for Energy Futures Lab. Special materials called ‘ferroelectrics’ can help to improve efficiencies, and her goal is to provide recommendations on how to build future devices that more efficiently harness solar energy.

“As solar is the most abundant renewable energy source, I think it will have the biggest potential impact,” says Madeleine. She also wants to dispel any stereotypes that scientists work on their own, and enjoys the collaborative aspects of working together in a team that shares a common goal.

“I think it’s important for more people to get involved in this area of research, as it is perhaps the biggest challenge we face. But with this challenge comes many opportunities, and overhauling our energy infrastructure to be low carbon in the near future, will open up a lot of opportunities for entrepreneurs,” Madeleine further explains.

The Social Entrepreneur

Clementine Chambon
Clementine Chambon

My third interviewee is a social entrepreneur. Clementine Chambon balances her PhD in Chemical Engineering on biofuels with being a co-founder of a rural micro-grid electrification project in northern India, Oorja.

Clementine’s experimental work in her PhD involves converting different types of biomass into biofuels. The idea is to use novel low-cost ionic liquids and use them to deconstruct biomass – separating the sugar components from non-sugars to make renewable fuels such as bioethanol, as well as materials and chemicals. Her project is looking at ways to scale up the Ionosolv process, developed in the Hallett research group at Imperial College London, and she is also examining different feedstocks (such as sugarcane bagasse or rice straw) which are often underutilised.

Funded by Climate KIC, the Oorja project will use hybrid biomass/solar PV micro-grids to generate electricity for off-grid communities in India – a country where around 450 million people don’t have access to reliable electricity, particularly in rural areas, which is severely limiting economic opportunities. The project, due to start in 2017, will focus on providing clean energy access to micro-enterprises and cottage industries via a smart grid. Each micro-grid will support 30-50 business and 80-120 households in cluster of villages.

Clementine’s work not only involves technical knowledge, but also understanding the social and cultural aspects of rural electrification, which need to be fully understood in order to meet the needs of the community. She also highlights that you can became involved in entrepreneurship at a relatively young age, provided you inform yourself thoroughly to understand the problems faced by a community, adopting a human-centred approach to build a solution together. Her work involved interviewing women in the community in Uttar Pradesh who rarely get a voice but often bear the brunt of poor energy access, being most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

“Everyone has a role to play in solving climate change. There is a strong link between providing clean energy access and women’s empowerment, and women are critical stakeholders in the low-carbon transition. We need a large variety of skills; and a huge number of people to get engaged. You also don’t have to have decades of experience to contribute as everyone has knowledge from their own local community or experiences,” argues Clementine.

Experimenting with batteries

Harini Hewa Dewage
Harini Hewa Dewage

Harini Hewa Dewage is a PhD student, who works on redox flow batteries which are important for large-scale stationary applications. For redox flow batteries the amount of chemicals stored in large external containers determines how many hours of charge it can deliver while the size of the battery determines the power output, making  them highly scalable, modular and useful storage for renewable and grid applications. She is working on understanding the limitations and loses in half hydrogen-based redox-flow batteries. Harini is combining hydrogen fuel cells with other elements such as vanadium and cerium, and testing the advantages of these hybrids in the lab.

Harini is not an engineer by training and has a very multidisciplinary background in astrophysics and chemistry before moving into electrochemistry engineering. “What I really like about engineering is the hands-on approach, and I like being an experimentalist and applying science to a specific technology. For me, the lab is a playground where you get to work with fellow experimentalists.  Because we have climate targets now, it’s also a great time to be an energy scientist.”

Clearly passionate about her work, Harini advised anyone interested in pursuing a career in the area to just go for it especially if you enjoy science, and believes that there’s nothing wrong with trying and failing and then trying again, something that is not commonly taught in schools, but is an important aspect of working in an experimental field. “People of all genders and background need to get involved as they bring a different approach and insight into a problem. We also don’t want men to do all the fun research”, Harini cheekily says.

Investigating Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)

Dr Sara Budinis
Dr Sara Budinis

Our final engineer is Dr Sara Budinis, who works at the Sustainable Gas Institute (SGI). Her background is as a chemical engineer in the power generation sector. For the past year, she has been working on an evidence-based literature review exploring both the short and long-term potential of CCS technologies in enabling access to, or ‘unlocking’, fossil fuel reserves in a way that will still meet climate targets. CCS can capture up to 90% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions produced from the use of fossil fuels in electricity generation and industrial processes, preventing the carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. The white paper was launched in May 2016, and provides a number of recommendations to the industrial sector.

What Sara finds particularly enjoyable is contributing to an area that has an impact on peoples’ everyday lives. Her work has already informed decision makers at the IEA Greenhouse Gas R&D Programme (IEAGHG). She is currently gathering data to model how much energy the industrial sector may need throughout the century. One of the tips she has for young people who want to work in the area is not too be discouraged along the way.

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