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Interview of Janice Steckel by David Zierler on December 4, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
This is an interview with Janice Steckel, research scientist at the National Energy Technology Lab and visiting scientist at the University of Pittsburgh. Steckel recounts her childhood in Maryland and what it was like to grow up learning from her father, who was a physicist at the Naval Research Lab and then at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Steckel explains that she was not interested in science growing up, and she describes her major in dance at the University of Maryland and then at Ohio State. Steckel explains her decision to pursue a degree in chemistry in her late 20s and how this developed into her academic specialty in physical chemistry at the University of West Virginia. She discusses her graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh to focus on density functional theory with Ken Jordan. Steckel describes her postdoctoral research at the Vienna Ab initio Simulation Package Group, and she explains the opportunities that led to her initial appointment at NETL. She discusses her initial research on mercury and its impact on coal burning for power generation. Steckel explains her transition to the carbon capture group at the Lab and she describes the different options available to capture and sequester carbon emissions. She describes NETL’s role in the larger federal framework for national energy policy, and she shares her views on how carbon-based energy sources will play a role in an increasingly de-carbonized future. At the end of the interview, Steckel explains the value of computational integration to her work and the promise that machine learning offers for the future of energy research.
This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is December 4th, 2020. I am so happy to be here with Dr. Janice A. Steckel. Jan, thanks so much for joining me today.
Thank you, David. Thanks for having me.
To start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
I am a research scientist, and I work for the Department of Energy National Energy Technology Lab.
Now the title Research Scientist versus Physical Scientist, as you note on your CV, is there any substantive distinction there?
Well, my PhD is in chemistry, so, I don’t have a physics degree. [laugh] My diploma says theoretical chemistry.
And are there any clues in your title as to your rank in the federal government, your supervisory capacity, your seniority, anything like that?
No, not at all. I'm not a supervisor.
Oh, wow. So you get to do science all day.
I do, yes. I'm a PI, mostly.
Now, do you have an ongoing scholarly relationship with the University of Pittsburgh?
Yes, I do.
When did that appointment start?
When I started at NETL or shortly thereafter.
Yes, about 18 years.
Oh. Is it considered a joint appointment, or this is separate?
No, it’s really—it’s a courtesy appointment, I guess. It’s called Visiting Scientist. And it’s actually through—I have an extremely warm relationship with my former PhD advisor, Professor Ken Jordan. He’s in the Department of Chemistry. I collaborate with Ken and also with other people at the university. Ken offers me this appointment as Visiting Scholar, and it provides me with a desk, and a place to be there, so it’s easy for me to spend a day at Pitt.
And so pre-pandemic, I would work at Pitt—maybe twice a month, I would spend the day there. So it was great for collegial relationships and forming new research alliances with members at the university. Not just Pitt but also Carnegie Mellon. You're probably aware that the two universities are within walking distance.
So that has been really fruitful for me in my professional development, and I always learn something when I'm at Pitt. I always end up having a water cooler conversation with someone that sparks an interest, and then I go back and look up a couple of papers. So it has been wonderful.
Now, have you had the opportunity to bring graduate students from Pitt to NETL? Have you operated in a mentor capacity at all like that?
Not directly myself. I haven't personally brought a student, but there has been a lot of group fertilization. Another person at NETL, I might bring them together with a student that I know that’s graduating. There have been a number of relationships of that nature. One student who just finished in—I think he defended in April—we brought him in as a contractor employee at NETL about a month ago. But he wasn’t with Ken, and I'm not his direct supervisor. I am working with him, though. So we are working together on projects.
And have you had opportunity at all to act in a professor capacity, teaching classes, seminars, things like that, at Pitt?
No, not really. No, I haven't taught. Ken mentioned it early on once, and I was at a busy point, and I said, “You know, I don’t think so. Not right now.” And it hasn’t come up since then. I mean, it’s something I would like to do. It just hasn’t—I've been really busy. That’s part of it.
It’s always nice, after finishing graduate school, to remain connected, in any way that you can, to academia.
I agree. I like the academic environment. I like the idea that anything that is solvable, that is interesting, is worth doing. It’s a really nice point of view—that if it’s scientifically interesting, that is justification. It doesn't have to align with program goals that are headquarters-approved.
Jan, let’s take it all the way back to the beginning. I want to start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them.
Well, my father was a physicist.
He had a Bachelor of Arts in physics. He graduated during the Second World War. In fact, they let them out a semester early. So, he only ever had three and a half years of formal education, and not even a Bachelor of Science. But in those days, they really needed people to get in there and figure out how radar worked, which is what my dad did. So he was—in the War, worked for the Naval Research Lab, which is in Anacostia. I guess—is it still in Anacostia?
I believe so, yes. What’s your father’s name?
John K. Steckel. He tested radar. We and the Germans had radar; the key was, would it function in a storm. With a lot of movement, a lot of moisture, things like that. There was a lot of research going on at the time to improve it, make it more robust. I asked my father one time whether he thought that it made a difference, and he referred me to a battle in the Mediterranean where there was an unexpected storm, and that the radar did indeed make a difference for the Allies.
So that was pretty cool.
Was he enlisted, or was he a civilian scientist?
[laugh] Funny question. They got them deferments. They were all civilians, he and these other fresh-out-of-college people with degrees in physics and engineering and so on. And they kept getting them deferments. After about the seventh deferment, the government said, “You gotta do something with these guys.”
So they brought them all into the Navy, and they gave them a bunch of uniforms. According to my father, twice a month, somebody from the Navy would show up, and they would all have to leave their labs and go out into the courtyard and march around in the courtyard for a while, and listen to somebody trying to get them to march in step—
—and they were bad at it, and—you know. [laugh] So evidently, that’s what it amounted to. But I do have the flag.
Now, was this a classified—
They gave us—after my father’s death, we got a flag! Because he was a veteran. And I have it. It’s treasured.
Was this a classified environment that he worked in?
Good question. I don’t even know. He never talked about it as—it must have been, during the war. It must have been, certainly, I guess.
How long did he stay in this position?
That was the Naval Research Lab. As you know, after the War came the interest in space, and Sputnik, and the race to get to the Moon. NASA was formed. And my father’s entire group, structure intact, was moved to Goddard Space Flight Center—
—in Greenbelt, Maryland. So all his colleagues stayed the same. A lot of what they were working on, it was still radio communications. Radio frequency technology, the design of antennas. And that’s what he did, until he retired in the eighties.
Oh, wow. So he was there for all of it, from the birth of NASA, through all of the Apollo missions.
Yes! They used to go down to Wallops Island in Virginia for launches of communications satellites.
How involved were you? His style as a parent, would he involve you in his career? Did you have a good sense of what he did, when you were a girl?
Oh, yes, absolutely. Absolutely, yes. I mean, I used to go to Goddard—in those days, security was really light, and so the car, when I became— later in high school when I had access to the family car, it had a little NASA sticker on the windshield, and you just drove up and the security guy would just wave you through—[laugh]—so I used to go see my dad at his workplace. So yeah, —he was always happy to introduce me to people that he worked with, and show me around the lab, and things like that. It was fun.
Did he ever think of going back to graduate school? Was that ever something—?
He did. And he told me that—I'm trying to think how he put it, but I think he took one class, and he felt like—I think he had been out too long, and he couldn't remember, you know, the quadratic equation or something. Something with math, probably. And he just felt rusty, so he didn't do it. So yeah, he had that whole long career on three and a half years of physics.
Yeah, I mean, talk about on-the-job training. He probably got all that he needed just from being there.
Well, he was born to be an engineer. He was a Mr. Fix-It, and he—everything that was interesting to him was something that you could take apart, and figure it out. He was just that—I think—my father-in-law, my husband’s father, also was an engineer, and I feel like they have that in common.
I don’t know if that was a generational thing. These were kids who grew up in the late twenties and the thirties and the forties. And you think about all of the different inventions that were coming onto the scene in the United States, cars, things like that—they were still so simple that you could literally take them apart and put them back together.
I think that generation really had a lot more hands-on experience. Now, you buy something—a radio, for example—you would never dream of [laugh] taking it apart.
Sure. What about your mom? Did she work outside the home?
No. She was an intellectual, for sure. She had an amazing education. Multiple languages. She, for example, studied Latin. She had kind of a classic, liberal arts education. An incredibly well-read, very astute woman. Her thing was politics. She was very active in the League of Women Voters. She was a lobbyist, but she was not a paid lobbyist. She was lobbying for things that were for the good of society, the good of citizens.
One of the things she was active in lobbying in the State of Maryland was the Open Meetings Bill, which was a foundation to what became the Ethics Laws of Maryland and the Ethics Commission. She was actually appointed to the Ethics Commission in Maryland, and she served on the Ethics Commission for 20 years. And I remember when they came out with the stationary, I was so impressed, because there were five people, and they were all men except my mom, and they all had a lot of letters either before or after their names. And then there was just “Barbara M. Steckel.” Yeah, nothing. No doctor, no—[laugh].
Jan, where were your parents when you were born? Were they in Silver Spring at that point?
They were in D.C., still in D.C. They lived in an apartment downtown in D.C.
And then when did the family move to Silver Spring?
By way of Prince George’s County. They had a starter home in Prince George’s County for a few years, and then I believe they moved to Silver Spring around the middle sixties.
So most of your schooling was in Silver Spring.
Public schools throughout?
Yes, public schools.
And were you interested in science as a girl? Was that the career ambition?
Not at all! No! I mean, I think I was always a curious person. But no, I didn't even like it. In high school, I didn't even—I did like my physics class. I did like that. I feel like that was a good class. But no, I had no interest in it. Typical 15-year-old, you know. Just anything your parents think is good, then you just go the opposite direction.
And so going to the University of Maryland, this was not—the plan was for you not to major in science and become a scientist?
No, well, and I didn't, at Maryland. I got a degree in dance. Yeah.
[laugh] Yes! [laugh] Yes. Yeah, I'm sure my parents—my parents were probably having agonized discussions behind closed doors, but kids are going to do what they—
Were you active in dance in high school?
Yes, I was. I was a professional dancer in Washington D.C.
Before you went to college.
What kind of dance did you do?
Modern dance. I was a modern dancer. Yeah! I mean, I kind of reached the pinnacle of success in that I got a W-2 form.
Because in the dance world, if you get paid to dance, that’s it.
Unbelievable. I mean, I wanted to frame it. Yeah. I was like, “Wow, I have to pay tax on this! That’s amazing. Never thought I would get that.” Because most dancers, especially modern dance, you just work as a waitress or you work at the department store. I did all of those things.
And then you went on to graduate school for dance as well.
I sure did. I went to Ohio State.
Now is the idea there to go to graduate school for dance to become certified to be able to teach dance?
Right. And most of the people that I became friendly with, in that program, did go on and became professors of dance at various universities around the country. So one or two of them—I'm not really in touch with them, but I've noticed—I've kind of followed them—that “Oh, Pedro is the chair of his department now.” So that’s what they did.
But I had been accepted there, and they gave me a university fellowship. And I thought, “Okay, I've got it made.” And then I was sitting in a choreography class, and somebody had presented a two-minute piece, and they talked about it, and then they talked about it, and then they kept talking about it. And [laugh] I was just sitting there going, “Okay, this is just like a dance, you know?” Like—
And I realized that that I would go crazy if I had to try to pick apart dances like that for the rest of my life. I started casting around for other things to do. And I thought, “Well, I've got this free ride.” I'm sure they were very sorry afterwards that they gave the fellowship to me, because I used it to—I did all the requirements for the dance degree but I took every other class that I could. And that’s how I ended up in chemistry. I took chemistry, I took math, I took biology, and I took a neuroscience class that was fascinating. I was in my late twenties, and I saw everything differently. It’s very different when you're on your own.
Was this a long process for you, or did you wake up one day and say, “Wait a minute, I'm going to be a scientist. I'm going to switch altogether”?
I think it was more of a process. My first idea was that I would go to medical school. I mean, it’s a great—you can work anywhere. You can work in any state. You can work in a rural area or a city, whatever you want. I had actually ended up in chemistry class because you need that to go to medical school. I was taking everything one step at a time. You know, just, “Let’s see if I get through this class.” And from the mindset of “I'm a dancer” to the mindset of “Yeah, I'm going to get the best grade in this entire chemistry class of 200 students”—that’s a big change.
You don’t see yourself—when I entered in that class, I sincerely did not know if I was going to be able to pass it. I had continually, over and over, I had that kind of a confidence issue, where I would think, “Okay, I did fine in general chemistry, but this is organic chemistry, so surely I'm going to fail this class.” And lo and behold, I would again not just succeed but be at the top of the class. You would think you would get it through your head like, “Wow, you're really good at this.” But you don’t. You just still—the next—P-Chem, I thought, “Oh my gosh. This is a whole other world.”
And really that’s when I had to choose, because I had actually got accepted to medical school, and I was in P-Chem. And the reason for that was I already had a degree. To get into medical school, you need to have a bachelor degree, and you needed to have certain courses. And by that point, I already had the courses. I had applied to medical school while I was taking—that was that same year, that I was taking P-Chem. And you know the bumper sticker, right—“Honk if you passed P-Chem.” And so here I am in P-Chem, thinking, “Wait, this stuff is very interesting.” We were doing quantum. In the school where I was, they did the quantum in the fall, and the stat mech in the spring.
And so I was in quantum, and I thought, “Wow, I got into medical school. Look, I got the letter! They've accepted me.” And then I had to choose. I thought, “Well, if I go to medical school, I'm going to have to pay tuition, but I'm going to have this fantastic job. I'm going to be able to be a doctor, and it’s a very secure—it’s a very good profession. But if I do that, I'll never get to really understand this quantum stuff!” [laugh]
So you got the bug.
[laugh] That’s really what it came down to. I just thought, “No, I really—this stuff is really interesting, and I want to know more about it.”
Now, what’s the timing? You finish up at Ohio State in 1992, and you get your bachelor’s from West Virginia in 1995. So this must have been an accelerated undergraduate diploma for you?
I think so, because I think I was able to use some transfer credits. I didn't have to—
Now, did you think of yourself as an adult learner at this point?
Yes, a non-traditional student. In fact, I think one of the recognitions that I received at that time, it was for a non-traditional student, a student who was older, who had left school, or never gone in the first place, and returned to school.
I think those kind of commendations are really important to everyone who is going to go into something that’s hard. Let’s face it—physics is hard. Most people are not going to put the time in that it takes. You really have to look at something, and take that problem, and you might solve it, and it doesn't work. I'm working with my kids right now—my daughter is in Algebra 2, and she—I have to kind of let her know, it’s not—you don’t just get it right the first time. You're going to maybe have to play with it a little. I think that’s fun. You probably think that’s fun, too. But not everybody is like that.
So I think having a recognition like that—as an undergraduate, I think having different types of recognitions for people who are studying—it really helps them to feel like somebody notices what you're doing, and how hard this is, and how—it would be much easier to do—there are so many other professions that are so much easier, when you're in school.
Jan, at what point did you realize, “Okay, I'm not going to do medical school, but I am going to go for the PhD”? Is that essentially two sides of the same coin?
Yeah, yeah. It was when I thought, “You know, I think I want to stick with this. I think I would like to learn more about quantum mechanics.” I had an undergraduate mentor at WVU named Charlie Jaffe. And I was speaking with him about medical school versus graduate school in chemistry, and he recommended University of Pittsburgh. There were several really—at the time, there were three people doing theoretical work there—David Beratan, who ended up leaving University of Pittsburgh; Rob Coalson; and Ken Jordan. And he said that all three of these people have fine groups and that it would be a good place to go to graduate school. So that was why I applied at Pitt. In fact, I don’t remember—I think I didn't apply anywhere else. [laugh]
What were some of the major research questions that you wanted to pursue as a graduate student?
When I entered graduate school, density functional theory was being used, using plane waves, so on periodic structures. At the time, they didn't really have good ways to find transition states. People were doing grid searches in various dimensions to find transition states. And of course, as you know, in chemistry, transition states have an incredible importance, because if you can know the activation energy, then you can relate some of what you're studying theoretically to experiment. So this is really very important. I was interested in that.
I remember coding up in Fortran a couple of— there was this methodology at the time called nudged elastic band, and I was really interested in that. I can remember exploring that with Ken’s help, and maybe talking about it with other graduate students. Now, this is easy, and everyone—all the different codes have really good—they have gradients, and so everything—all the optimizations are much more robust. But at the time, they weren’t.
Jan, to the extent that chemistry has a similar divide in physics between applied and theoretical and experimental, where did you see yourself as a graduate student on that spectrum?
More applied. But not black-box applied. Applying it to interesting problems so that you can relate to something that has been proved experimentally and has real-world importance. I always—still—feel like if you don’t understand how something works, you really don’t have a lot of business using it. So I like toy problems where you can code something up a little bit yourself just to see how it works, even if you don’t necessarily use that version of the algorithm to solve your real-world problem. It’s pretty scary how easily you can get a nonsensical answer by misapplying a methodology.
And how much was laboratory work part of your curriculum as a graduate student?
I was a TA, so I was an assistant for the—P-Chem classes, most of them were. And I wasn’t that good at it. [laugh] I mean, I think I was a fine TA, but I didn’t necessarily have a lot of experience with different lab work. As an undergraduate student at West Virginia, I was in the inorganic chemistry class, and there was—the lab portion was the spring semester. I had finished as the top student in the academic portion of it in the fall. And I got into the lab in the spring, and I remember the teacher at one point stopping me and saying, “Have you ever set up a distillation before?” [laugh]
I was like, “No, not really. I haven't spent much time in the lab.” [laugh]
Who was your graduate advisor, and how did you develop that relationship?
Ken Jordan. He was my quantum teacher when I got to Pitt.
And what is Ken known for? What’s his main research?
He does electronic structure theory. He is very interested in quantum Monte Carlo at this point. But I would say he’s also very well-known for a lot of work over many, many years about water. The behavior of water in small clusters. Charged clusters, negatively charged water clusters.
How did you go about developing your dissertation topic? Was it related to Ken’s research at all?
Yeah, it was. But I was also really interested in the plane wave density functional theory. And at the time, I don’t—I know after me, there were many more students, but at that time, I think I was the first of his students that went in that area, went into that direction.
And what role did computers and computational power play in your dissertation research?
Oh, yeah, they were important, because—I mean, everything in the dissertation was computation. I used mainly density functional theory. One of the things that Ken stressed, and I think I learned from him as a student was, every theoretical approach has a set of assumptions. You have to understand the degree to which those assumptions have impacted your answer.
And so Ken has a way of taking a specific problem and you treat it with a specific level of theory. Now, if you can take that problem, and take a smaller problem that still has some aspect of the bigger problem, and you can treat that with a more accurate level of theory that has smaller assumptions, and then you sometimes you can do that three times, you can then get estimates that you can propagate through to understand if to what extent you can trust the answer that you got for your bigger problem. Does that make sense?
Did I do justice to that?
I think so! I think so. [laugh]
So it’s not enough to know a certain type of theoretical approach. You kind of have to know all of them, and you need to understand how, for certain problems, you really shouldn't use certain approaches.
Jan, during graduate research, of course everyone is so focused on getting the dissertation done. But to the extent that you were planning your future with career ambitions, were you thinking that you would go into academia? Were you considering industrial type jobs? What were the things most compelling to you as a possible career?
I never really thought that I would try to go into academia. I was ten years older than everyone else, and—
With tenure, that’s just too long a clock, you're thinking?
Tenure, and I think I just was recognizing that the demands that are placed on a young professor to get funding, to start up a group, to care for and feed every graduate student, it’s just mind-boggling. They really don’t sleep much. So yeah, I felt like I was just too old. [laugh]
Given that you were close, were you aware of NETL? As a graduate student, did you have any idea what was going on there? No idea?
I had never heard of it.
What kind of post-graduate opportunities were available to you, and what were you considering?
Again, similar to Pitt, I had heard about Pitt. That’s the only graduate school I applied to. I think it was about eight months before my intended graduation, we got an email—Ken got an email from the VASP group—the Vienna Ab initio Simulation Package Group—that they were going to be hiring a postdoc. And he forwarded it to me, and it immediately—I was just—that’s what I really wanted. I really wanted to go to Vienna, [laugh] big-time. I really wanted to see what it was like to live in Europe.
Plus, I had at that point been—I had used a lot of density functional theory codes, but the one that I had used more at that recent time was VASP. I was really excited about the prospect of working with Georg Kresse, who is really efficient, and he’s accomplished so much I just thought it would be a really exciting group to be in. And I wasn’t wrong. It was very exciting. I learned a lot there. So that’s the only postdoc I applied for.
How was your German before you got to Vienna?
I didn't have any German, and I really—[laugh] I asked— the group was actually led by Juergen Hafner at that time. He retired at some point, and Georg leads the group now. But I asked him if I could take an intensive German course upon arrival. I think it was about three weeks. And he said, “Sure, fine.” They're really easygoing. I mean, Austrians are wonderful, wonderful people.
And I went, and I really—I was very sincere about trying to learn German, so I would go to this class, and then I would go to a shop or a restaurant, and I would try to speak German. And immediately, the Viennese—they all speak English. They would just switch to English. It was really impossible to become fluent in German because everyone in Vienna switches to English. [laugh] I did try. [laugh]
What did you learn about the field in Vienna that you might not have gotten at Pitt?
Well, there’s a huge breadth of awareness of the density functional theory, of condensed phase physics, that’s in that group, that I would never have gotten at Pitt. I gained an awareness of the entire periodic table thinking in terms of solids. They have a different point of view. At Pitt, copper is maybe—it’s complexed, right, by some organic molecule. And it’s not that way [laugh] in the group in Vienna. Copper is a solid. And copper is treated well by density functional theory.
Did you see your postdoc as a natural intellectual progression from your graduate research, or was this a whole new field for you?
I think it was a natural progression, yeah.
This is sort of a pet interest of mine—it has nothing to do with science—but what was 9/11 like for you, when you were in Austria? What was that day like?
Everybody was asking me if my family was okay. Initially I think there was a real outpouring of sympathy for Americans. And then yeah, that dried up really fast, about three or four weeks later, when the USA dropped bombs on Afghanistan. The sentiment really changed. I went—there was a demonstration against it at the American Embassy. The American Embassy was pretty close to where the Institute was. It was maybe a matter of a few blocks. So out of curiosity, I went there. I was just curious to see what would the signs say, and what would people be saying in their speeches, and things like that. There’s a long tradition of free speech in Vienna. It’s very accepted. So everybody is used to it. It was a big demonstration, very crowded, lots of people. But it was very orderly. The Viennese are nothing if not orderly.
Very, very orderly. So yeah, I was just really sorry that all that good will was destroyed so quickly.
Was this a one-year postdoc? Could you have stayed longer if you wanted to?
It was a two-year postdoc with the opportunity to renew for two years. So hypothetically could have been much longer. My father became ill, and was diagnosed with cancer, and I asked to cut it short, because I wanted to get back to the States, because I knew that my father wasn’t going to be around for much longer.
So your first work at NETL, this was a separate consideration, in terms of coming back home?
Karl Johnson had some involvement with NETL. Karl Johnson is a University of Pittsburgh professor in chemical engineering. I knew him. He was friendly with our group. And he had been on my proposal committee. He knew me, and had been friendly with me. He was involved with NETL. He wrote me an email—I was in Vienna at the time—and he told me that there was an opportunity for an NRC postdoc at NETL. National Research Council postdoc, at NETL. I applied for that, from Vienna. I wrote that application there, sent it in, and I got it. I had a place to go. I had this possibility to go to do a postdoc, a second postdoc, at NETL.
Was this just a funding arrangement? Was there any particular way that you were representing the National Research Council at NETL?
I believe the way it works is the different national labs can write up an area that’s in alignment with their programmatic needs. And then I think people who apply for the postdocs can look at this and write their application to be consistent with the programmatic needs.
Looking at it from the perspective where I am now, after having been at NETL and gotten to know a little more about how programmatic needs are, I would say, looking back, that they're a little more flexible. That it’s a little more open-ended, compared to normal government field work proposal, which is pretty strict. It has to be very aligned. And they really want to know—the funding managers want to know, “How is this going to help us solve this technological problem?”
Now, physically, were you exclusively at NETL, or were you in Washington at all, as being a postdoc for—?
Just at NETL.
Did you have contact—was there an overseer or a supervisor with the National Research Council at all?
What were your initial impressions?
I had a mentor at NETL, actually.
And what were your initial impressions of NETL?
Yeah, it was really confusing. I don’t know how much you know about it, but the site used to be a Bureau of Mines research center, I think? And so there are these mines—there are these little openings, you know, and then there’s little tracks. Like, you know, you can imagine the mine, like with the little car that goes down there?
Yeah, yeah. That had been around for like a century.
Yeah. It has been around forever, and it looks really like that. Like there [laugh]—there’s some NIOSH area there, and there’s some CDC research. And then there are these two different areas that are both DOE. So one side is the program management side, and the administrative side, and the other side is called the Research Plateau. I was on the Research Plateau. And we called the other side The Dark Side. [laugh] But you go in, and it’s just kind of mystifying, because there are these old buildings with various types of old equipment—you don’t know what they—I don’t know what they are.
They're from experiments that are loooong ago—you know, who even knows. Like, was this [laugh]—? There are all these pipes going everywhere. [laugh] What are they for? I don’t know! [laugh]
How did you connect with Bradley Bockrath? How did that connection start?
He was listed as the mentor. And he promptly retired. [laugh]
Oh, okay. [laugh] So you really didn't get to work with him?
Not too much. I mean, we overlapped. He was there. But his interests were moving on.
Was your impression from your first days, “This is really—"? Like, “I can make a career for myself here”? This is going to work for you?
[pause] I didn't know. I really didn't know. I was only a postdoc. I didn't have any golden pathway.
And what was your initial work? What was the research that you were there to do?
Mercury. I landed on mercury. And it wasn’t really—it wasn’t what I had written for the NRC, but it was suggested to me by the person—he was heading up the onsite research at the time, and he later became the director of NETL. His name was Anthony Cugini. I had just arrived and he invited me to come have a talk, and he presented about three or so directions that he thought would be useful. But he sort of kept emphasizing this mercury thing. And I thought, “I guess that he really wants me to choose that.” So I tried to see what I could do.
I mean, when I look back on it, it was really very naïve, because NETL is very applied. And not only that, but they're not really doing super fundamental experiments. The experiments have to do with—they're really at the macro scale in terms of solving environmental issues that have to do with coal.
So the question that they wanted to look at, at the time, was if you burn coal in a power plant, what’s the best way to get mercury out, without costing too much money? So I can remember doing these calculations using really fine electronic structure theory and making sure that I was—I remember being very concerned about relativistic effects, and talking about relativistic effects when I was at a meeting where they evaluate your work.
And the question that I got from one of the subject matter experts was, “Well, how much would this cost to implement at a power plant? And I'm thinking—"I mean, I'm doing electronic structure calculations on these molecules. How can I possibly get so many—get so far up that I would begin to understand the process?” I've really come a long way, because the kind of calculations that I did, I could publish them, but that’s not really what NETL is looking for.
Jan, on that note—and again, as a postdoc, this is probably literally above your pay grade in terms of thinking about these things, but perhaps retrospectively you can answer the question—so if NETL is applied and it’s really considering these macro social questions about how to get coal to be cleaner, my question there would be, who is providing the impetus for NETL to approach this problem? Is it going to be coal companies that are looking for ways to remain viable in an environmentally conscious future? Is it going to be Washington D.C. because of the various political pressures? Is it going to be environmental groups? What are going to be the sources that are pushing NETL to say, “We're going to use coal, but we're going to make it as clean as possible”? Where does this entire process start?
Congress, I would say. NETL has a budget, and the budget is fairly specific about what can be funded and what can’t be funded. And you're right; it is above my pay grade, so I don’t exactly know how that process works at headquarters. But I know that that is what they do, which is to interpret the budget and to allocate the money in the spirit that it should be allocated. They try to look at projects to see whether they're aligned with the budget priorities, and also to see whether they look stupid and risky, or whether they look like they could actually help.
So to be clear, as a postdoc, you're dealing with the mercury issue, not as a basic science kind of approach; you’re specifically looking—?
[laugh] I came at it from a basic science approach. [laugh]
You came at it from a basic science approach, but the job is how do you deal with mercury as a problem insofar as it is being used in coal-fired plants.
Yes. And I tried to look at the way that mercury interacted with aromatic molecules or with different metals. And indeed, metal actually—I think the activated carbon with platinum or with various noble metals in it, that is to some extent somewhat practical. I can’t say that any of my basic research—I don’t know—I don’t think it really played too much role. [laugh]
Now I'm barely just old enough to remember mercury thermometers, and old enough to remember to be taught to be careful around mercury. But I wonder if you can explain to our broad audience, what is the problem with mercury as it relates to coal-fired plants?
Well, elemental mercury—I mean, the periodic table is in coal. Coal has everything, and mercury is one of the things that are in there. And when you burn the coal, the mercury goes up the flue, if you don’t do something to keep it out of the atmosphere. And it might be at very, very, very low concentration in the atmosphere. But when particulates have mercury attached to them, and they settle down into areas with water, they become transformed into an organic form that’s very, very, very toxic. And they bioaccumulate, particularly in fish.
So this is a food chain problem, mostly.
So to understand this, this has nothing to do with carbon emissions and climate change. Mercury is a separate problem.
It’s a separate problem. I mean, if the concentration were high enough, you wouldn't want to breathe it either. But in general, I'm not aware that that is the worst aspect of it. I think the worst aspect of it is that it does tend to bioaccumulate. So it goes into the fatty tissue of the little fish, and then the little fish gets eaten by another fish. And there’s nothing to get it out, so it bioaccumulates, and becomes more concentrated.
And in terms of your scientific expertise at this point, and in terms of the available technology, what are the solutions that you saw as a postdoc for dealing with the mercury issue in coal-fired plants?
At that point, as a post-doc, my knowledge was electronic structure theory. So, instead of contributing to the practical evaluation of mercury removal technologies, I contributed some ab intio studies on the fundamentals of how mercury interacts with aromatic molecules such as benzene and furan, and on how mercury interacts with metal surfaces such as platinum.
[laugh] Jan, at what point do you transfer from postdoc to contractor at NETL?
I think I was only a postdoc for a year. I was a postdoc only for a year. And then I was hired on by the contractor, and I worked for the contractor for about seven years.
Was this a continuation of the mercury work, or you were doing new stuff at this point?
Yeah. Initially, I think. Then I worked on some ionic liquids. I've been with the carbon capture group for quite some time now.
When did the carbon capture work start?
I think it has been about ten years. I’d have to look back at the exact time.
What was the initial impetus to get into carbon capture? Is it basically the idea that fossil fuels are inevitably a part of the energy equation, so let’s look for ways to make them less of an issue with regard to climate change? Is that the basic approach that NETL takes?
Yeah. I think—well, first of all, NETL—it’s really Congress [laugh] and then DOE headquarters that really has to dictate this overall direction. So we aren’t really the ones who are making those decisions. So if the mandate is from headquarters that we should spend—from Congress and then to headquarters—"We want to invest this much money into figuring out how to remove carbon from flue gas”—then NETL’s job is to respond.
There’s different ways that you can try to capture carbon dioxide. You can do it post-combustion, which is where you say, “Well, we've already got a power plant. We're trying to figure out how—we're going to leave the power plant the same, the boiler as the same, and we're going to try to get the carbon out of the flue gas, after it’s burned.” Or, there’s pre-combustion carbon capture, which is when you say, “Well, we're going to build a new power plant, and the new power plant, we're going to separate the carbon dioxide before we burn it.” And it’s more of a gasifier approach. So that’s a big initial investment in burning coal, and that’s happening less and less now.
You can also look at removing carbon dioxide from industrial processes. So we don’t just create carbon dioxide in energy production. We also create carbon dioxide in a steel plant, or a cement plant. The CO2 separation can happen in a bunch of different possible processes.
Now, I'm not an engineer, so I'm not doing the process design, but I have worked with many of the process designers. And some of our most recent work I think has been more successful because we are working more closely with process designers to help understand better what are the materials that are needed in order to make this process work or not work. Or how would the cost be reduced for the process, if the material—if we could make the material different. If we could have a higher-performing material, if a certain part of the process depends on the performance characteristics of a material, how does the process cost change if you change the material? So the more we can work together with people who are looking at the macro process, the better off we can be.
Jan, is there a meaningful distinction between carbon capture and carbon sequestration?
For me, yes, because you first have to separate the carbon, and then you have to do something with it. We have two really big groups at NETL. The one group is looking at the separation part of it, and the other group is looking at what to do with it once you separate it.
At what point did you transfer from contractor to federal employee?
It was around ten years ago.
Did your workaday change at all?
Not much. [laugh]
It’s such a common story with government contracting. It’s just you keep doing the same stuff.
Yep. Not too much.
Now, are you more involved in the capture side or the sequestration side?
I'm only on the capture.
You're only on the capture. In what ways has the technology improved so that these top-line goals of carbon capture are more realistic? They're a greater piece of the climate change puzzle?
Well, I think there has been two big changes, one of which has really nothing to do with carbon capture research. There’s the shale gas, which has really changed the landscape. So because of the abundance of cheap natural gas, many coal-fired power plants in the United States have switched some of their—like if they have four boilers, two of those might actually have been switched over to burning natural gas. So the separation process is essentially the same, but the flue gas composition is a little different. So the temperature, the process might have changed a little bit, but essentially it is sort of the same separation. So that’s one change.
So initially our mandate was to look only at coal. So now we've got a wider mandate, more recently, in the last few years, to study natural gas—carbon capture from natural gas. So there are designs for natural gas carbon capture. Personally, I think—and this is just me, my opinion; this isn’t really a programmatic view—but it seems to me like that would be the best place to look. I mean, just from—and I'm speaking as a private citizen reading the newspaper, that I think the shale gas is abundant and less expensive. It’s the best separation, is this IGCC. The gasifier. So that’s one thing—I guess the market force is driving this.
As far as the separation, frankly, there are viable ways to remove carbon, and there have been, since I joined that group. It’s just that the cost is too high. So that’s really more of a regulatory or a societal decision. Like, what are we willing to pay to actually do this.
So let’s say in a totally hypothetical world where budgets were no option, are you saying that if we pour all of the resources that we need to into this field, that we could have our cake and eat it too, essentially? That we’d have access to these abundant carbon-based energy sources, we can use them, but not necessarily pay the climate change price for that?
I guess I am saying that. I mean, I don’t—I'm not an economist, too, so it could really—that could be a big disruption, right? If everybody was suddenly willing to have their electrical bill doubled, then we could capture carbon today. But people aren’t willing—that’s extreme. That’s an extreme jump in price. There are three materials for the separation. So you can separate using solvent, you can separate using a sorbent, or you can separate using a membrane. And they have their strengths and weaknesses, depending on which process you're looking at.
So for processes where the composition of the gas is a little higher in CO2, the membrane performs pretty well. The membrane does not perform well in a process where the CO2 is very low in partial pressure. So if you already have partial pressure that’s very low, there’s no driving force across the membrane. So if you have a membrane that’s CO2 selective, in other words it wants to let more CO2 across, but you've got very little CO2 to begin with, you're going to have to have seven membrane units in a row to actually get a meaningful amount of CO2 out. It makes sense.
So in a situation where you have a higher amount of CO2 in the flue gas to begin with, this membrane process actually starts making a lot more sense. It starts looking a lot more technologically affordable. Because instead of having seven membrane processes in a row, you could maybe have one or two. Cement plant and steel manufacturing both have a flue gas that’s pretty high. I don’t remember off the top of my head the exact proportion, but the CO2 is at a higher concentration in those. So these industrial processes actually start looking like maybe a little more like low-hanging fruit, in terms of low-cost way of getting some of that CO2 out, instead of just putting it into the atmosphere.
I know this is far afield from what you're doing, but on the sequestration side of things—again, to get back to this hypothetical scenario—best case scenario, we can capture all of the carbon that we want—what technical challenges would arise from the issue of, well, what do we do with all of this stored carbon, and how do we ensure that it is not a carbon emissions time bomb in the future for it rapidly under some circumstance to be released into the environment. Maybe not ten, 20, 30 years down the line, but a century down the line. Because isn’t one of the goals with climate change mitigation that our kids and our grandkids and our great grandkids are not going to live on a planet that’s 140 degrees in the summer?
So what might be some of the macro social technological challenges with capturing all of this carbon as we continue to burn it?
Well, I think your question is a really good question for a geochemist, which there are many at NETL. I'm actually not involved in that group. So anything I say is really more from me reading the paper [laugh] than any kind of technical expertise.
But I guess my question is, these are issues that NETL is dealing with?
Oh. Yes, they are. You're absolutely right. That is true. It’s just that it’s a pretty big group, and also mine’s a pretty big group, so we aren’t trying to be masters of each other’s area. I don’t really know, other than that they are absolutely very much—that is exactly the questions that they are asking, is where can we put it, how can we be positive that it will stay there. I mean, certainly, it’s underground. It has everything to do with what they're studying—the geology, the chemistry that’s happening, as the CO2 is being injected.
I know that they have pilot projects in various places——Texas and Illinois—where they are testing. They're putting CO2 down and they're monitoring. There’s a trace gas that they put in with the CO2, that they can measure literally from an airplane. So they can put it in the ground and then kind of fly a plane around, and they can tell if any of it is escaping.
So theoretically, in the future, we could have something like a Yucca Mountain for carbon.
Yeah. As I said, I could only answer that question from the standpoint of a private citizen. [laugh] Just from what I read in the paper. But it’s logical, right, that—just putting it another way, so oil companies are actually interested in sequestration of CO2, and CO2 can be used for enhanced oil recovery. So you've got an oil well, it’s not giving up as much oil as it used to be, you can actually force CO2 in on one side, in order to increase the oil coming out from another opening. So that’s being done, as I understand it. I can’t tell you specifics on where.
From your perspective, from your area of expertise, the real top-line item to convey is that if the budget were no issue, we really do have the technology to capture all of the carbon that we want to.
Okay, so CO2 has to be removed from natural gas before you use natural gas in a pipeline. So the technologies exist. It’s called natural gas sweetening, and it’s a solvent-based process. That process is mature. The problem is if you take that process and you apply it to these other spots—you know, like a pulverized coal power plant—it becomes incredibly expensive. The process for natural gas sweetening wasn’t developed—so it’s not necessarily technologically optimized in terms of cost. But it would work. it would just cost too much.
So our job in my group is to find cheaper ways [laugh]. And I guess what I meant to convey with—that you can do it with a solvent, you can do it with a membrane, you can do it with a sorbent—is that for each type of removal, it might not be the same process. It shouldn't be the same process. If you want to make it cheap, you have to optimize the process for the specific application. So a lot of the price estimates that we have now are based on taking this mature process that’s tested and used and sold for natural gas sweetening, and applying it to other carbon dioxide removal processes. And it’s really costly. So that’s what we don’t want. We want it to cost less.
Just to bring our conversation up to the present day, so give me a sense of like—first of all, with the pandemic, are you going in? Are you able to do your job remotely?
I'm able to do my job remotely. It’s amazing how much hasn’t changed from working from home. I mean, a lot has changed, but the work really hasn’t. A lot of our work processes really have hardly been affected. I think that has been—
So just to give a sense of your current day-to-day, what are some of the things that occupy a regular workday for you?
Oh, research. So we are looking right now at porous materials called metal-organic frameworks. We're really interested in those. We think they could play a role in CO2 capture in situations where—so the materials themselves aren’t cheap, so we wouldn't necessarily envision using like a big block of metal-organic framework, as much as tiny particles of metal-organic framework infused into a cheaper polymer membrane, so that this would—but it can radically improve the properties of the membrane itself.
And so my research has to do with modeling the specific shapes and sizes and the identity of the metal, the identity of the organic linker, in the metal-organic framework. One of the things that we're concerned with is how to model this accurately. You have to have a tradeoff between the speed of the calculation versus the validity of the answer that you get. And some of the ways in which these metal-organic frameworks are modeled in our large screening calculations that we've done in the past, we've really had to skimp on some of the accuracy in order to really do a huge screening and screen—they're very varied, [laugh] these metal-organic frameworks. They change a lot. Their properties can vary widely between one and the next. And so you want to screen a lot of them to find good ones.
But now we're at the stage where we want to model them more accurately. I'm working on methodology development for that accuracy. So yeah, that’s pretty—yeah, it’s pretty far away from the actual big process, but I think what has changed now is that we are much more—I don’t do that process modeling, but we're collaborating. So that helps me a lot. I know what I'm looking for. And I can put my work in context.
On that note, who beyond NETL—within academia, within industry, perhaps within other even national labs or other government research agencies—who are some of your most important collaborators?
So, at NETL, the process engineers, for sure. So we have a group, Systems Engineering and Analysis, and they do the baseline report. They call it the bituminous baseline. They take kind of a hypothetical poster child power plant, and then they do extremely detailed modeling of, you know, “It has this. It has a baghouse. It has—” And you see these process flow diagrams. And the temperature, the pressure, the gas identities, are all specifically labeled. And then they price it all out. You know, based on 1970s dollars, or some economic models—it’s beyond me—that’s what they do.
But the result—their work product helps me, because basically what you need to do if you want to look at a carbon capture process is you need to take the baseline and then say, “If you put another process—if you split the pipe right here, and you stick another process in, what happens to everything? What happens to the gas compositions downstream? What happens to the pressure? What happens to the cost? How do you model that?” They do that modeling, but if I don’t understand it, then my work isn’t in context. So those people are really important to me, very much so. That has really helped me a lot. Just gaining an understanding of what they do has really directed us. I would say not just me, but everyone in our group.
Before we get to the last part of our talk where I'll ask you about some future endeavors and what your own professional goals are—because NETL is playing and has played and will play such a vital role in these tremendously complex macro social questions about carbon emissions and climate change, I want to ask you a few broad questions on that level, with the full caveat that you're talking as a private citizen, you have your area of expertise and you know what it is and you know what it’s not, but still, you're in that mix, and so your perspective is a very valuable one.
So the first one I want to ask is sort of a broad historical question. Given that you've been at NETL for almost 20 years, and you've been there through many Congresses and many presidential administrations, given that NETL has that unique relationship within the DOE national lab infrastructure as the only DOE-official GOGO, as we call it, relationship, I wonder if you can reflect on some of the different ways that the shifting political winds in Washington have filtered down to NETL and to the kinds of things that you've done over the years.
It really hasn’t, and I think that’s really good. Initially, when I first started there, I used to kind of be excited when I would read the paper, about the president’s budget, or the House marks, or the Senate marks. And I've learned to just—
Tune it out.
—not worry. Yeah. Because it doesn't usually—[laugh] the actual budget that gets passed bears very little resemblance to these initial—one is in Kentucky, and the other one is in California. And by the time it actually gets passed, it’s very much like the previous year.
So we also I think are fortunate in that we are not high enough pay grade that we are buffeted by the political landscape. Maybe a little bit. You know, the opening lines of various websites might have to reflect a little bit the sensibility of the current administration. I'll give you an example. [laugh] So instead of saying we have to understand better how to separate carbon so that we can sequester it, we might say we're separating carbon so that it can be used as a product, as a raw material for more high-value products. Carbon can be a feedstock for the chemical industry.
Make my next bike out of carbon.
Exactly. So you—but that’s—I really think that in a larger sense, having an apolitical civil service is pretty important. You need to have people who know—like I know my—what I am doing. And I'm applying my work. The same could be said for somebody in the IRS, whose job it is to, I don’t know, figure out an algorithm that catches fraud or something like that. I'm just making something up. Or maybe it’s somebody in forestry who knows exactly how to find a certain invasive pest, or is implementing a way to stop an invasive pest that’s bad for killing off a certain tree. I think these people’s jobs are apolitical, and that’s really, really important. I've actually been very happy that it has been, still, apolitical, this whole time. The whole time I've been there.
That’s clearly a credit to NETL’s leadership—
—that they've created that buffer between the changing political landscape and the science that needs to be done.
Yeah. Well, it’s really how it should be. There isn’t any reason why somebody at my level, that it should be in any way politicized.
And this is true—just to take an extreme example—like for example, in the run-up to the Paris Climate Accord—even in a moment like that, even then, you wouldn't necessarily feel like the proverbial ground shifting under your feet? Not even in a case like that?
Well, certainly as a private citizen. [laugh]
Sure. But I'm asking as a workaday kind of at NETL. Not even then?
Well, there can come a day when Congress—when the budget that eventually gets passed decides that we shouldn't do this research. But it is a federal lab. One presumes that there are usually going to be other areas of research. I mean, it’s just like if I was in academia. I know people build a career on a certain type of research in academia. If grants are no longer going to be available in that area, they have to switch. It’s the same for me. So we would have to find ways to use our expertise in a way that’s relevant. And that’s going to be the same no matter what type of research you're in.
It’s so interesting right now—I mean, this is happening, as we can see in the transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration, the way that certain realms of the Democratic party are treating fossil fuels as a purity test, so to speak. Like “Can we allow somebody to be in this administration if they have ties to the fossil fuel industry?” Right? To which those people would say, “But carbon needs to be part of the solution to decarbonization.”
And again, I'm asking you in your capacity as a private citizen—what are your feelings on these things in terms of the long-term transition to a decarbonized economy? First of all, from a practical matter, do you think that that’s simply a pipe dream? And if it’s not, what is the most efficacious and climate-change friendly way to incorporate fossil fuels into a decarbonized future?
Well, I'm a pretty realistic person. I mean, do you have a car parked in your driveway?
I sure do.
Yeah. Are you running a furnace in your house?
What is your furnace burning?
Natural gas. I mean, we actually don’t [laugh]. We got rid of our natural gas furnace six or eight years ago, and we got a geothermal, and we have photovoltaics. So I have two Tesla batteries down in my basement, and we're going to be net zero for 2020.
In our household. My husband has a plug-in. I still have a regular—it’s a hybrid, but it is a regular car, and it has a gas tank and everything.
And I would surmise that your energy—
That’s just as a private citizen. So like I started by saying I'm a practical person, because not everyone is going to be where that is even possible. I mean, that’s not necessarily—that being said, those people who—I guess what I was trying to say, and it sounds like a—I'm a little uncomfortable saying it—but if that’s something that you think is important, and I do, then you should make personal choices about it.
And it wasn’t at all the question you asked. I think you asked more in a sense of where do I see the right direction for government and society to go. I'm very reluctant to speak about that, even as a private citizen, just because it’s not my area of expertise. Obviously, I think you can’t just stop burning coal overnight, or burning natural gas. And we have abundant natural gas. It’s very inexpensive. And there’s a lot of people out there that are really hurting. So certainly it would be kind of political suicide for anybody to—I don’t know the answer.
But there’s no doubt that the reality is, as a society, we're still reliant on these energy sources, and NETL has an incredibly important role in playing to make sure that we use them in the wisest way possible.
Yeah. NETL is working hard to find technologies to mitigate climate change impacts of burning coal and natural gas. Like I said, with this industrial carbon capture, that actually seems much more doable price-wise from my standpoint. It’s not 100% of what we're emitting in terms of carbon dioxide, but steel plants and cement plants do produce a lot of CO2, and if we could at least capture that, at least as a step in the right direction—
So many scientists are working on these issues. It’s such a valuable insight from you to get the idea of—what is the infrastructure that NETL provides that allows you to do your work effectively that you might not be able to do if you were dealing with these issues from an academic infrastructure, or an industrial infrastructure?
I think it’s the proximity to the process design engineers, for one thing. And also NETL is really—seeks input and seeks collaboration with stakeholders like power plant companies, and energy companies like Exxon-Mobil, Chevron. So I don’t necessarily personally have a lot of interaction with them, but I get the benefit of a viewpoint, of an understanding.
I'll give you an example. There’s a way to make the CO2 fraction a little higher in the flue stream of a power plant if you route some of the—to go through the first membrane—if you route some of that gas back into the boiler. But the truth is that no power plant wants to mess with their boiler. They do not want to make—that would be so expensive, if it would reduce the efficiency of the boiler. So there’s some kind of knowledge that is available from these stakeholder relationships that NETL has, that would not be available if I was in academia. And likewise, I would say when I am collaborating with my friends in academia, that seems to be some of the questions that they have, too, is “Well, how would this work in the power plant?” Or, “What does the power plant say about that?”
Maybe this is two separate answers depending on how you think of these things—is there a scientific discovery or an advance that you have been a part of whose societal value you're most proud of, in looking back over the course of your career?
Well, it remains to be seen, because nothing has progressed beyond talk of patents, but there is a solvent, kind of a class of solvents that we identified through a screening process, that could potentially—I mentioned earlier that there’s a process that was matured from natural gas sweetening. That solvent is hydrophilic. And because of its hydrophilic nature, it has to be run cold.
Hydrophilic means it likes water?
Likes water. So if you run it cold enough, then it doesn't take up water. But if you want to run it warmer, it starts taking up water. And whenever it takes up water, it doesn't take up CO2 anymore, because the water goes to the favorable interaction spots, that would—and so it doesn't take up CO2 as well. So it loses its selectivity for CO2. And consequently, that process has to be run cold.
So put that in your mind, into a power plant situation. They're not cold. [laugh] It’s warm. So you have to cool it down in order to use this process. So through computational screening, we identified not one but basically a class of solvents that have comparable properties to this other one, but they're hydrophobic. That could be a game-changer. Now, things move slowly, so nothing is commercialized or anything of that nature. But obviously that is the goal, would be for that to move out. Out of the research stage and into commercialization or a pilot type of study.
If this was fully implemented, what would it look like, and what would the effects be, societally?
I think it would bring the cost down. These things take time, but we’d need a full technoeconomic analysis. We have not really a full technoeconomic analysis, but we have some evidence that the process could be cheaper using this, because the temperature does not have to be brought down so low. It can run at a warmer temperature. Just logically, you can assume this is going to be cheaper. So we don’t know; it’s too soon to tell. But if that makes it, that would be something that I think could be very important. It could bring carbon capture a little closer to a price that maybe society would be willing to pay.
Kind of an intellectual history question—looking back to your undergraduate and graduate work, and all the classes you took in physics and chemistry, what are some of the baseline science concepts, like from a textbook, that are most relevant for your day-to-day? That you really rely on to understand the world that you work in on a daily basis.
Wow. Probably integration. Just knowing—I mean, integration is underlying many of the programs that we run. And so just knowing when a program—what it is doing when it’s taking too long. [laugh] You have a lot of dials that you can turn, and knowing what dials are okay, and what dials are not okay.
And integration is a computational concept?
Yeah, taking an integral.
And this is something that really informs your work? You rely on this.
I mean, I'm struggling to—it’s just there’s so many things that you—I don’t necessarily do an integration, but I need to know what would make it—not work. [laugh]
Well, here’s another one. So in my recent work, we’re looking at trying to get a little more accuracy in modeling metal-organic frameworks. And all of us recently kind of needed to understand a little bit about, when you model a solid, there’s different parts of—you use a model to represent the interactions between the particles. And so you can represent this in terms of the physics. So you can represent the Coulomb part of the interaction. You can represent the non-bonded or Lennard-Jones type interactions. You can represent the bonded interactions in various—they can be various terms like a harmonic term, for example, for a bonded term. I was recently just looking at all this, and we were trying to improve the accuracy. Those are all things—like solving the long-range electrostatic and the short-range electrostatic separately, via an Ewald summation. So that’s something that comes up. These types of things come up.
To go all the way back to your graduate training in computational chemistry, I'm curious in what ways the vast increases in computational power have been useful for your research over the past few decades?
Yes. Definitely just having faster computers, it has increased the size of the problem that we can attack. But I'll tell you something that has come up that’s really changing everything, and that’s machine learning.
I was going to ask you about that. Is that something that is going to be relevant for you?
Absolutely. We're using it ourselves. It’s very interesting. We have a project right now on polymers. We want to do a screening for polymers. It’s a little different, because polymers, as a molecule, usually have, I don’t know, a million atoms? You can’t really just do a molecular dynamics simulation on 7,000 polymers.
[laugh] It’s a bit much.
It’s a little too much. But instead, we took a step in the other way, and we assembled a database of experimental properties, so gas permeation through polymers, and we made this database, and then we just fit it, using a neural net, using machine learning. And now, we use a little encoding for a repeat unit of a polymer. We can feed it into the machine-learned model, and we can spit out an estimate for the gas permeability. So now we have a way to screen polymers that we didn't have before, based on machine learning.
Now, the assembling of all that experimental data was brutal. I mean, that was—like we all just—we divided it up, everybody took a number of lines, and you had to go back to the original sources and read these papers, and convert the units. That was not fun. [laugh] But it’s worth it, now.
That’s such a great segue for my last question, thinking about machine learning and going into the future. So as you think about the remainder of your career, what are the things that are most exciting to you, and that you're most optimistic about, both as a scientist who continues to be a part of such important discovery, and somebody working in an applied environment where your work is of such tremendous value to society at large? Between both of those things, what are the things that are most exciting and optimistic for you?
On a personal nature, I feel excited about the connections that I've made and the opportunities that I've had to learn from people that can help me—I know so much better now how to not waste my work, to make my work actually matter. And that’s so different from the start of my career. So that’s on a more personal nature.
I would say science as a whole, I'm discouraged and I'm encouraged, for two reasons. I'm a little concerned about science in this country, that we need to—that we might have lost a little bit by trying to be so applied. And we've been a little too customer-oriented. I think we need to make sure we haven't lost the ability to fund work that’s just basic, and for the sake of learning and for the sake of discovering. People seem to be so concerned as to whether work is going to accomplish something. But if you look back at the basic research that led to something like the laser, nobody said, “Hey, let’s figure out the energy levels that would enable you to get your groceries through the grocery line faster.” Nobody was thinking of an application. This was just metastable states and—right.
So I really hope that as a society, we can continue to value basic science. I'm hopeful about it. I mean, people seem to still think that, well, there’s a good reason to go to Mars, or there’s a good reason to do these things. And maybe that’s similar. I can’t think of a real [laugh] practical reason why [laugh]—so maybe there’s some cause for optimism there. But even from my academic collaborators, it seems like things are very focused right now—focused on solving a specific problem.
I mean, I know why my job has to be that way. It’s the nature of where I work, and I'm perfectly fine with that. I just hope that as a community of learning—as physicists, chemists, engineers—that we still have the opportunity to pursue things simply for the sake of knowing how will it come out, what will the answer be.
I can’t help but think back to the beginning of our conversation with you talking about your father, and the opportunities that he had because of these macro social challenges like World War II and Sputnik, which created the impetus for supporting basic science on that level.
He used to comment that, yeah, they could—that they did not have a lot of oversight in terms of—they really—[laugh] there was just this assumption, as just, “Tell us what you need.” [laugh] Nobody was—now, it’s—and rightly so—it is very hard to spend money, at a government lab. And it should be. It should be hard. There should be a lot of oversight. That’s taxpayer money. It should be hard. I'm fully fine with that. But I would say just stepping back— National Science Foundation, places like that, I just hope that they are still funding research that is just because it is groundbreaking.
That’s such an important perspective to share. I really appreciate that.
Yeah, because you can’t know. You can’t know how it’s going to—
—ultimately impact day-to-day life.
That’s right. That’s right. Jan, it has been so great spending this time with you. I'm so happy that we were able to do this. And thank you for sharing all of your perspective and insight. I really appreciate it.
Okay, great. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much, David.