Meet the Team : Jacqueline Penn
In the first of a series, and to mark the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11th we’re introducing you to one of our researchers: Jacqueline Penn.
Jacqueline is a doctoral student at Newcastle and member of the SynHiSel team. Her work focusses on using membranes for carbon capture and separation, important in the UN Sustainable Development Goals 7 and 13 (affordable & clean energy, climate action).
The blog is created from the transcript of an interview made back in summer 2022. SynHiSel hosted a Year 12 school student for a 2-week Nuffield Research Placement. This scheme supports talented students who have experienced disadvantage. It gives them the opportunity to complete an engaging real-life research project within a host organisation at the point that they are starting to consider options for undergraduate study. Part of our project in SynHiSel was for the student to interview Jacqueline and find out more about what it’s like researching in this area. Thanks to both for sharing their conversation.
From moving out of industry and taking up doctoral studies to the variety of application areas Jacqueline could end up working in- read on to understand more about her journey in Chemical Engineering.
Can you summarise your current research in a single sentence?
Research on supported molten salt membranes for carbon capture and separation.
Why membranes? What about them appeals to you?
The most common method for CO2 capture at the moment uses a solvent to separate CO2. It works, but there are a lot of limitations – solvents can degrade over time and are quite expensive. Some might have negative environmental impacts. We look at membranes because they have advantages compared to solvents, including the potential to be more energy and space efficient. The class of membranes that we are working on is supported molten salt membranes. There is a ceramic support, but the active section of the membrane is made of molten salt. There are different potential applications: at the moment, due to their ability to withstand high temperatures, they’re most likely to be used in post combustion capture systems. Because it’s such a new technology, people are investigating their use different purposes.
If a funding agency has a certain amount of money to spend, why do you think that they would spend it on membranes rather than other competing technologies?
I think that the general consensus with low carbon research is that there are a lot of technologies that need to be developed for us to reach net-zero. I don’t think it’s a case of funding one thing over another necessarily. Some CO2 capture solvents and membranes are already at commercial feasibility stage – there are ones being developed all the time by industry and academia. With our class of membranes, they’re in quite early stages of development. There’s a lot of work that is needed before they will be ready for scale up, but it’s a very exciting new technology with great potential for CO2 capture.
What excites you most about being part of the wider SynHiSel program?
It’s a really exciting project. I think what’s really unique about it is that it brings together a lot of really talented researchers at different institutions who are all interested in membranes. It also has links with industry, and one of the main focuses is making technologies that are scalable and usable in industry, to tackle the biggest challenges of going towards net zero. With most research, I think the end goal is to end up being useful in industry, but I think getting industry involved at this stage so that they can direct research to help meet their needs for net zero is really important.
Do membranes today have more potential than they did ten years ago?
I don’t know, but I would say that we are more concerned about the environment today than we were ten years ago, and we will probably be more concerned about the environment in ten years’ time. I think membranes have the potential to improve sustainability in a variety of industries, whether its reducing energy consumption, in carbon capture and storage, or in hydrogen fuel cells, I think there’s a lot of options to be explored.
How has knowledge of industry informed your academic research, and vice versa?
To give some background, I did my degree in chemical engineering, and then I worked in project management for a consultancy for almost two years. I decided that I wanted to take my career in a different direction, so I started looking at PhD opportunities, and I came across this one at Newcastle looking at membranes for carbon capture. Then I started looking at CCS and the transition to net zero in industry, and I found it all very exciting, and I decided I would like to become an expert in that. So that was what inspired me to apply for the PhD. I have just finished my first year, and it has been great. I also had the opportunity to do a sixth month placement with SSE during my PhD, to work on their low carbon energy projects which has confirmed to me that low carbon energy was the field that I wanted to be in.
How do you make connections with like-minded researchers?
There are lots of events you can go to. Then there are also networks that you can join. I’m a part of a network called UKCCSRC, which is the UK carbon capture and storage research centre. They put on a lot of interesting talks, conferences and webinars, which have been really useful for me to meet other early career researchers. There are loads and loads of organisations like that with different specialities and areas of interest. You can always meet with people who have the same interests as you. The same happens with being a part of SynHiSel: they have held events and meetings, and I’m sure there will be more in the future where I’ll get to meet more researchers like myself.
Do you ever feel that academics or researchers are somewhat protective of their research, or is everyone usually quite keen to share?
My experience has been that everyone is very friendly and willing to help others out. Depending on what your research is in, there might be confidentiality agreements with industry that you have to respect. There might also be commercially sensitive information, so everyone is very good at respecting that part of their job. Generally, for information that is allowed to be shared everyone is happy to share ideas and help each other out, often by pointing each other in the direction of good resources.
I’ve heard that chemical engineers are well suited to management roles due to their ability to evaluate complex systems. Is chemical engineering a field that you’d like to remain in, or are there other careers that appeal to you?
Chemical engineering is a very broad subject, many industries use a small amount of chemical engineering. I find it very interesting and enjoy it, so I would like to stay in the field for the foreseeable future. There are numerous industries that I could work in, in research and academia for example. In industry, there’s energy, water, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, its so varied the number of things you can do while still involving chemical engineering knowledge. There are lots of different opportunities, but for now I’m interested in low carbon energy, whether that’s research or industry in the future I don’t know.
How does it feel to be doing something that no one has ever done before, even if it’s very specific?
Its exciting! Everyone whose doing research is contributing to the overall picture – I’m not the first person to be working on supported molten salt membranes, there have been people working on it for a while. However, there are so many different materials and applications to be evaluated, so my research will be a small part of a bigger picture of this field. I hope its useful to somebody in the future. Everyone hopes that. Even finding that something didn’t work as expected is still useful because you still learn something from it.
What advice would you give to young researchers or engineers?
Take the time to find an area that you want to work in that interests you. People have very varied, long careers these days, so you want to find something that you’re interested in that you want to work on, whether that’s in industry or research. A really good way to decide what you want to do is through placements or work experience, or perhaps what you don’t want to do before you commit to something.