The Society of Energy Fellows at MIT gives graduate and postdoctoral energy researchers the unique opportunity to conduct sponsored research in their areas of expertise, with support from MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) member companies. The society has a network of 468 fellows and spans 20 MIT departments and all five MIT schools. Two Energy Fellows, Laureen Meroueh and Erica Salazar, discuss their research and the impact of this program on their time at MIT.
Laureen Meroueh graduated from the University of Florida with a dual degree in mechanical and civil engineering. She is currently pursuing her PhD in mechanical engineering and is an ExxonMobil-MIT Energy Fellow focusing on the conversion of scrap aluminum into hydrogen. Meroueh is also a mentor at MIT’s Sandbox Innovation Fund, which provides support and mentorship for student entrepreneurs, and a member of GradSAGE, the graduate student advisory group for the School of Engineering.
Q: Can you describe how you see hydrogen being used to support the clean energy transition and how your research supports development of hydrogen as a fuel?
A: Hydrogen is an attractive sustainable fuel because it can be used in a range of different energy sectors, including transportation, power, and heat generation, to replace natural gas or other harmful hydrocarbon fuels. Additionally, in contrast to many other renewable energy technologies, the infrastructure already exists for converting hydrogen into power.
One of the challenges posed by widespread use of hydrogen as a fuel is that it is typically produced in one location and then transported to another, which presents a number of logistical issues. My work could provide a pathway to solving that problem. I am studying the materials science behind using scrap aluminum as an energy-dense carrier for hydrogen generation. Theoretically, aluminum should react with water to produce hydrogen. However, aluminum naturally forms a protective oxide layer on its surface that prohibits it from reacting with water. Many years of research have gone into solving this problem, which has thus far limited aluminum from being a safe and economical source for hydrogen generation.
The good news is that we recently discovered a practical method of activating aluminum, meaning that we’ve bypassed the protective oxide layer. The activation method consists of applying a liquid metal to aluminum’s surface. Once a piece of aluminum is activated, you can drop it in water and generate hydrogen. With our new approach, all that is needed is a pile of aluminum and a small reactor next to an industrial facility so that the hydrogen can be created on demand, right on site. I believe that on-demand hydrogen generated from aluminum will be a critical enabler of the clean energy transition because it solves the cost, storage, and transportation obstacles.
Q: How did you become interested in energy studies and what advice would you give to new students interested in the topic?
A: I’ve always been amazed by the vast amounts of renewable energy all around us. We have an entire star shining down on us that could provide enough energy to power our planet for billions of years, if we could figure out how to harness and optimize its use. And there are so many other ways that we can power and advance our world without doing so at the expense of the Earth. That’s what inspired me: trying to capture the natural resources around us without harming our environment.
For new energy students, I would say, first, find the subject matter that most excites you, whether that is materials science, chemistry, physics, or mechanical engineering. Then, based on that subject, you will discover many, many different technologies and specific energy fields to which you can contribute. I highly encourage everyone to pursue energy studies because we need all of the minds we can get to help us quickly transition to a world powered solely by clean energy.
Q: How has being an Energy Fellow impacted your time at MIT?
A: Not only is it great to know that there are industry partners eager to sponsor the research—which reassures you that you’re working on something with potential for real impact—but also, the MITEI community is just wonderful. The Energy Fellowship provides access to a strong network of people who are passionate about working together toward a low-carbon future.
After receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, Erica Salazar worked at General Atomics on ITER*, a multinational research project aimed at creating a large-scale working nuclear fusion reactor. Now she is pursuing her PhD in nuclear science and engineering at MIT, where she is a Commonwealth Fusion Systems–MIT Energy Fellow. Salazar is conducting research on superconducting magnets for the SPARC fusion project.
Q: What inspired you to work in the field of clean energy—especially on such a cutting-edge technology as fusion?
A: My favorite classes in undergrad were thermodynamics and energy systems. My interest and excitement really grew whenever these classes involved combustion engines. I enjoyed learning about the extreme conditions of combustion processes and how combustion applications seemed endless: cars, airplanes, rockets, energy production, and so on. Additionally, I worked with jet engines and other advanced combustion cycles during two summer internships and enjoyed both my technical work and the community. However, I realized that the impact of my work on overall system efficiency remained relatively small: Any improvement would probably be less than 1%. This sparked a search to find an industry where I could make a greater impact.
My search ended when I learned about fusion energy and the long global effort to make fusion energy—a clean, nearly limitless energy source—a possibility. This field had a huge impact factor! Before I started my PhD working on the SPARC fusion project at MIT, I worked on the ITER experimental fusion project as a mechanical engineer at General Atomics. The majority of my job dealt with manufacturing large, low-temperature superconducting magnets, which help contain and drive the plasma current in the ITER fusion device. After working in industry for five years on low-temperature superconductors, I learned about the SPARC project at MIT, which strives to be the first fusion device to produce a fusion plasma with net positive energy generation using advanced high-temperature superconducting magnet technology. I was immediately hooked and quickly applied to the nuclear science and engineering doctoral program at MIT, where I now continue to make an impact on fusion and clean energy production.
Q: What advice would you give to new students interested in energy studies?
A: Although learning and studying different energy concepts, reactions, and processes through textbooks and classes is critical to understanding the scientific fundamentals of energy systems, it is equally important to gain hands-on experience and apply that knowledge in the real world. Gaining research, internship, and volunteering experience on energy projects is rewarding. Finding a passion within an energy studies career occurs when you see firsthand how your favorite energy concepts can directly affect a community you care about. For example, my specific work focuses on designing superconducting electromagnets. Although I find the technical work interesting, my drive and motivation come from the fact that my superconducting technology will be applied in the energy industry to produce clean, limitless fusion energy. On the other hand, others may find their passion in superconductors by working in the medical industry to design superconducting MRIs to save lives, or in the computer industry to design superconducting quantum computers. The fact that there is a large, impactful goal for my individual work is very rewarding.
Q: How has being an Energy Fellow influenced your time at MIT?
A: The MITEI Energy Fellows program is wonderful. The fellows program is a community where we can easily connect with other students, faculty, scientists, and industry professionals with similar passions in energy research. I find it inspiring to talk with current and former Energy Fellows and learn how they have advanced their research at MIT by launching a startup or by continuing as a postdoc so that they can teach younger students about their work.
*ITER means “The Way” in Latin. For more information about the ITER project, visit www.iter.org.
This article appears in the Autumn 2019 issue of Energy Futures.
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