Fuel Cell Crusader
Dr Jessica Allen is a self-described greenie. Even back in school, she was very environmentally aware: “I was the one making sure everybody turned off the light behind them!” It’s no surprise then that Jessica, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Newcastle (UON), is working on clean alternatives to coal power.
Jess decided to study chemical engineering because the field “really struck a chord with me: I saw the opportunity to help the environment from the ground up by improving energy technologies”.
After her electrochemistry PhD, she was offered several postdoctoral fellowships, but decided on a different path entirely. “I wanted to experience the wider world, as well as get back to my engineering roots”, she says. She started working at a Central Coast-based startup, which was developing a novel electricity production process using biochar (charcoal). Although the company unfortunately didn’t survive what Jess describes as “the valley of death” for small businesses, she still describes it as an amazing experience which helped her develop many of the skills she uses today.
At UON’s Priority Research Centre for Frontier Energy Technologies, Jessica’s current project involves a commercial model of a direct carbon fuel cell (DCFC) with her mentor, Professor Scott Donne. The DCFC can convert chemical energy directly to electricity without the need to convert to thermal energy first. This makes it much more efficient than coal-fired power, as well as being particulate-free.
Jess is confident that scaling the technology up to the commercial level should be a simple process. “Other fuel cells have been successfully commercialised, and technologies continue to be developed and enhanced after commercialisation.” She believes that “the time for clean coal to be making a difference is now!”
Jess recently took part in Science in Public’s Bright Spark Challenge, which aims to give early career researchers training in communicating their research to the media, government, industry and the general public. “The most important thing I learnt was how to pitch my research to different audiences. It really drove home the potential impact science can have across different industries,” she says. The scientists even shared their research in the pub: first, in the time it takes a sparkler to fizzle out; and second, in the form of a limerick or haiku!
Because STEM careers are incredibly broad, Jess says that it’s an excellent idea to talk to graduates in your field of interest. “STEM is hugely diverse and it’s not the case that you choose your career when you choose your study path,” says Jess. “Keep an eye open for all the opportunities that arise.”
– Larissa Fedunik
Jessica’s path to developing clean energy technologies
>> Bachelor of Chemical Engineering, University of Newcastle
>> Vacation scholar, CSIRO
>> PhD (Chemistry), University of Newcastle, CSIRO
>> Chemical Engineer, Pacific Pyrolysis, Central Coast
>> Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Priority Research Centre for Frontier Energy Technologies
>> Lecturer in Chemical Engineering, University of Newcastle