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Dr. Joseph Ranalli

A teacher’s enthusiasm and a bit of curiosity draws student to science

Joseph Ranalli, Ph.D.

Joseph Ranalli, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher with the National Energy Technology Laboratory research fellowship program in Morgantown, W. Va., is looking for ways to reduce the environmental impact of combustion-based power generation systems. Ranalli hopes to become a university professor in the future.

As a kid, Joseph Ranalli, Ph.D., was fascinated with the NASA space program and the hard work it took to successfully send the space shuttle into orbit.

Those early traits of inquisitiveness and curiosity still drive Ranalli to want to figure out how things work. Thanks to an enthusiastic teacher and his on-going drive to “need to know,” Ranalli is now fulfilling his desire as a scientific researcher.

“What made science click for me was my second year as an undergrad,” he said. “I took a thermodynamics class, and the teacher really let his passion for the subject come out in the classroom. His enthusiasm stimulated my own excitement for science, and from there I found my way into a field in which I feel truly engaged.”

Ranalli, a postdoctoral researcher from Virginia Tech, is participating in a three-year research fellowship program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, or NETL, in Morgantown, W. Va. The program, which is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science Education and managed by Oak Ridge Associated Universities, helps ensure that NETL will have an ample of scientists and engineers to fulfill the future needs of science and technology.

“Most energy produced throughout the world comes from the combustion of fossil fuels,” Ranalli said. “Combustion of fossil fuels can result in the emission of potentially harmful products, such as nitric oxides and soot, and releases carbon dioxide. At NETL, we are investigating advanced combustion concepts that have the potential to reduce the impacts of these emissions and provide methods for greener energy generation.”

Ranalli said there are many aspects to this research, but one of the most important is overcoming the problem of thermoacoustic instabilities.

“These instabilities are an obstacle to several environmentally-friendly combustion strategies,” he said. “They occur when the flame couples with the acoustic field of the system, almost like blowing into a musical instrument. The high amplitude pressure oscillations that result can actually shake the system apart. We take measurements then develop models to help understand the coupling that leads to these oscillations so that they can be prevented in advanced combustion designs.”

Ranalli is realizing his passion for scientific research.

“One of the best parts of my job is the variety,” he said. “It takes a lot of hard work in the laboratory to acquire data, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. I also spend a lot of time processing and analyzing the data to understand the significance of the measurements. I feel like I learn something new almost every day.”

Besides the “intrinsic coolness” that he said comes with researching fire, the science requires Ranalli to look at the problem and ask, “Why?”

“Trying to understand things around me is a big part of who I am,” he said. “I consider myself very lucky to be able to say that my ‘job’ is to be curious.”

Now in his third and final year with the program, Ranalli said his NETL research experience has been a positive one.

“I really wanted to get some research experience in a cutting-edge environment that allowed me to collaborate closely with other outstanding researchers,” he said. “The NETL program looked like that great opportunity, and I would definitely say that the reality lived up to the perception.”

After the program, Ranalli hopes to continue his passion for understanding by becoming a university professor.

“I have had some very talented and passionate teachers throughout my education, and the impact they have had on me is immeasurable,” he said. “I would love to be able to say that I had that kind of impact on students one day.”