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 Candice 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 minimize startup 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 utilized 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., said. “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 three to four 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. She attended an all-girls school as a child and credits one of her teachers with piquing her interest in science through an experiment involving the chemical compound alum. Later in engineering school, an enthusiastic professor introduced her to research and development while pushing her to think differently.
Today, Muley is exploring the role of electromagnetic heating as a source of energy for carbon conversion. She uses numerical and computational modeling to aid in process optimization, 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 commercialization 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 said.
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 characterization and numerical modeling, which helps the team utilize 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.
Women interested in pursuing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) have endless opportunities, Ellison says. When looking to make a career change or pursue a STEM major in college, Zhou recommends pursuing online resources and networking with other female STEM professionals. “Alumni groups can help guide you in the right direction when making a career change or kickstarting your educational path,” she said.
Wildfire encourages pursuing internships and taking a wide variety of college courses. “Engineering is a very broad degree, and you can tailor it with skillsets you learn on a job,” she said.
“When you are part of a group, especially in research, your status as a minority in STEM really doesn’t matter. Women and other underrepresented groups in science careers are able to present a different viewpoint that is incredibly valuable,” Wildfire said.
Most important is cultivating the right mindset when choosing to pursue STEM. “Don't be deterred by failure,” Muley said. “Failure is a part of the process. Also always ask questions, even if they seem silly to you. The worst that can happen is you will learn what everyone already knew — that's still learning. “
“It is incredibly rewarding to work in a STEM field and know you can help shape the future,” Ellison said.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory develops and commercializes advanced technologies that provide reliable and affordable solutions to America's energy challenges. NETL’s work supports DOE’s mission to advance the national, economic, and energy security of the United States.