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Meet a Participant: Charlene Lawson

Researcher helps carve path for monitoring trace-level contaminants through the development of next generation sensors

Charlene Lawson
While at Sandia National Laboratory (Sandia) as a Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship Program participant, Charlene Lawson had the opportunity to join a team in the development of a new tool that effectively monitors hydrogen chloride in the exhaust plumes of coal-fired plants. (Photo courtesy of Sandia)

As a mother of two, a part-time fashion consultant and a doctoral candidate in atmospheric chemistry at Howard University, Charlene Lawson knows how to keep busy. Given her busy lifestyle, Lawson’s days are anything but typical.

“As a mother and someone concerned about what we will leave behind for our children, I am a strong advocate for protecting the environment,” she said, emphasizing her passion for protecting air quality. “More hazardous pollutants are discharged into the air each year than are released to surface water, groundwater and land combined.

As a participant in the Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship (MLEF) Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Fossil Energy (FE) and administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), Lawson was able to act on her passion. She assisted with developing new technology that will provide more effective monitoring at coal-fired plants. ORISE is managed by ORAU for the U.S. Department of Energy.

The MLEF Program provides the opportunity for female and minority students who are pursing degrees in STEM majors to engage in a 10-week summer internship focusing on FE mission-relevant research projects. All eligible candidates are encouraged to apply for the program.

Along with her mentor, Scott Bisson, Lawson used computer modeling available at the Remote Sensing Division at Sandia National Laboratory to examine spectral signatures. These signatures can be used to uniquely identify an object, such as the presence of hydrogen chloride (HCl) in the flue gas, or exhaust gases of coal-fired plants. From this information, they aimed to develop a new tool, called a dual-etalon cavity ring-down spectrometer, that can effectively monitor HCl and other trace-level gaseous pollutants emitted from these power plants.

These sensors can provide utility companies critical data that could help them in both controlling and monitoring emissions of HCl, mercury, and other effluents and, ultimately, lead to fewer pollutants released into the atmosphere.

In order to develop the new spectroscopic-based method for sensitive detection of HCl, Lawson and her team used a custom-built light source similar to a laser, to generate wavelengths in the infrared (IR) spectral region. They used this instrument tuned to a certain wavelength to investigate the HCl present in the flue gas.

“The MLEF program has a great reputation, and I felt that its goals and missions were in line with whom I am, an African-American female scientist,” Lawson said. “It provides opportunities for women and minorities pursuing degrees in STEM majors that might not exist otherwise. Additionally, the research projects are focused on enhancing environmental protection and offer an inside view of the federal government, so it really allows students to have a well-rounded, valuable experience.”

Lawson valued the experience she gained with the MLEF program. It provided her with the opportunity to expand her knowledge of remote sensing techniques as well as gain new experience conducting research with high-tech lasers.

“It’s very important to be a well-rounded, multi-disciplinary scientist in the research world today,” she said. “I feel that the new concepts, lab skills and professional skills that I have acquired will be beneficial to my current field of study and future work opportunities.”

Whether she is taking care of her two sons or donning her goggles in the laboratory, Lawson takes advantage of her busy lifestyle to foster positive relationships, gain insight into what types of jobs and research her future could hold, and branch out to discover new research interests.