For Matthew Mulvehill, a recent summer internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) was a transformative experience.
Mulvehill, a master’s student in chemical engineering at Columbia University, spent 10 weeks at ORNL’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences (CNMS) through the Higher Education Research Experiences (HERE) Program.
Under the mentorship of Adam Rondinone, Ph.D., a senior staff scientist at CNMS, Mulvehill contributed to research related to an electrochemical process developed by Rondinone and other ORNL scientists that converts carbon dioxide into ethanol fuel. In this process, tiny spikes of carbon embedded with copper nanoparticles act as the catalysts of the reaction.
During his HERE appointment, Mulvehill studied an intermediate step in the carbon dioxide-to-ethanol process, involving the production of carbon monoxide, which is formed when carbon dioxide is reduced at one of the carbon nanospikes.
To better understand the reduction reaction of carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide, Mulvehill ran experiments using the carbon nanospike catalyst without copper in an electrolyzer cell. This is where electrolysis, the process of using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, takes place.
Additionally, he used a gas chromatograph, an instrument that allowed him to measure the mass ratios of carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas. His experiments provided data on the reaction’s chemistry, thermodynamics and kinetics. This information will be necessary as researchers explore the possibility of scaling up the reaction for industrial applications.
“I would absolutely recommend any ORNL research program to others. Being surrounded by the world’s brightest minds and subject experts all collaborating with the same goals in mind is an incredible environment. Anyone considering a career in research or pursuing a Ph.D. would benefit immensely from one of these programs.”
Mulvehill’s HERE appointment gave him valuable insight into the process of conducting original research and being accountable to a research schedule. His favorite part of the internship was the freedom to focus solely on his research.
“It gets hard in graduate school trying to balance difficult classes and make time for research experiments. More often than not, one gets sacrificed to the other,” he said. “It was a nice change of pace to put all my energy into one specific area.”
After earning his master’s degree at Columbia, Mulvehill plans to explore other internships in the fuels and alternative energy industry before seeking a doctoral degree.
“I would absolutely recommend any ORNL research program to others,” he said. “Being surrounded by the world’s brightest minds and subject experts all collaborating with the same goals in mind is an incredible environment. Anyone considering a career in research or pursuing a Ph.D. would benefit immensely from one of these programs.”
The HERE program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy.