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Female researchers advance NETL’s research in microwave chemistry

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World Coal,

NETL’s Reaction Engineering Team is exploring the next breakthroughs in microwave engineering, which has the potential to create valuable chemicals from the nation’s abundant energy resources. Team members Christina Wildfire, Yan Zhou, Pranjali Muley and Candace Ellison are demonstrating the value of this promising technology through their research and serving as examples for future female scientists interested in making positive contributions to America’s energy landscape.

Microwave engineering offers a novel approach to developing cleaner and more efficient energy technologies. The team is studying the use of microwaves in converting fuels like coal, oil and natural gas into marketable fuels, chemicals and products. Microwaves offer a unique opportunity to researchers because they can provide rapid, selective heating on a molecular scale. While conventional heating works from the outside in, microwaves are able to target specific areas for heating, which can save energy and minimise start-up and shutdown times compared to conventional energy processes. The team is using this method to explore a wide variety of solutions to America’s current energy challenges.

NETL’s Reaction Engineering team is leading research surrounding the use of microwave energy for chemical conversion. Team members are focusing on the fundamentals of why microwaves are providing more efficiency and selectivity to help develop catalysts tailored to particular uses in the energy industry. Microwaves also have the potential to be utilised with renewable forms of energy in areas such as energy storage, which could eliminate the need to transport fuels and chemicals to other locations.

“The team’s research is working to lower greenhouse gas emissions and enhance industrial processes. For instance, we are developing processes to capture carbon dioxide from power plants and convert them to valuable chemicals, upcycling plastic to make clean-burning fuel, and developing methane conversion and ammonia production techniques to enhance their economic viability,” Muley said.

“NETL is truly establishing itself as a leader in the microwave chemistry area,” Team Supervisor, Dushyant Shekhawat, Ph.D., added. “The female researchers on the team are playing an important role in establishing NETL’s competency in this emerging field. They have doctorates in engineering and other scientific fields and started successful careers at NETL within the last 3 – 4 years. They are NETL’s leaders of tomorrow.”

The team’s diverse background helps bring different perspectives and new solutions to this area of research. Muley earned her bachelor’s degree in petrochemical engineering and has a doctorate in engineering sciences with focus on carbon conversion technology.

Today, Muley is exploring the role of electromagnetic heating as a source of energy for carbon conversion. She uses numerical and computational modelling to aid in process optimisation, which is helping create more sustainable energy solutions.

Wildfire discovered an interest in chemistry in high school. She started college as a biomedical engineering major but quickly fell in love with the subject of material science. After two professors encouraged her to write a dissertation for her master’s degree instead of taking the more popular course-only route, she learned she could manage her own research project and enjoyed being in the lab. Along with another professor at West Virginia University, Wildfire cites these influences as integral in receiving her Ph.D. in material science and engineering.

On the Reaction Engineering Team, Wildfire serves as a Research Engineer and assists with several microwave chemical conversion projects. She is the principal investigator on a project with the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E), a government agency tasked with promoting and funding research and development of advanced energy technologies. She also collaborates with other companies and universities to apply microwave technology to a variety of problems and works to move projects into commercialisation so they can begin to provide real-world benefits in the energy industry.

Zhou studied chemistry and earned her Ph.D. from the University of Georgia in 2018. She has always had an interest in science and enjoyed contributing to chemistry research on several projects while pursuing her undergraduate degree. The majority of her work on the team involves catalyst development and studying different forms and coatings to determine the best method for higher conversion efficiency. “Using microwaves could intensify the catalytic conversion process and reduce energy requirements while receiving higher yields and greater selectivity,” she commented.

Ellison initially wanted to become a marine biologist and earned a degree in biological sciences at the University of South Carolina. A research internship in the school’s chemical engineering department sparked her interest in energy research, and she obtained her master’s and Ph.D. in biological engineering at Louisiana State University. As part of her degree path, Ellison studied energy conversion and catalytic processes using non-traditional forms of energy, which included microwaves. Ellison’s current role on the team includes understanding the fundamentals of microwave-material interactions through characterisation and numerical modelling, which helps the team utilise microwaves specific to a particular application in a more advantageous way.

“The ability to transform reaction pathways by microwave reaction engineering is changing the way we look at reaction chemistry. Technologies being developed by NETL’s microwave engineering research can help solve the toughest energy challenges, which will help the development of clean and efficient energy solutions,” she said.

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