From The Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science: “Electrified Processes at the Intersection of Water, Energy & Climate”

Yale SEAS

From The Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science

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Yale University

8.31.22
Kevin Pataroque

Lea Winter joined the Yale’s Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering this past July as an assistant professor. Born and raised in New Haven, she is excited to continue her career at Yale, where she previously completed her undergraduate degree and a postdoctoral fellowship.

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Lea Winter.

Eleven years ago, she began her academic journey as an aspiring chemical engineering major. Throughout her four years at Yale, she explored different research topics under summer research fellowship opportunities, ranging from immuno-genomics to alternative fuels. She spent part of her academic career under the mentorship of Dr. Menachem Elimelech, whose research centers around developing membranes for water treatment technology. Winter’s involvement in sustainability research fostered her interest in environmentally-focused research to preserve human health.

“I realized that people get sick because of a lack of access to clean water, malnutrition, air pollution, extreme climate events relating to climate change…I wanted to work on these environmental issues to prevent these situations from happening,” Winter said. “I wanted to increase access to clean water, or increase access to fertilizer and ways to improve food security, or try to mitigate climate change to prevent catastrophic climate events from happening.”

After completing her degree at Yale in 2015, she began her Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at Columbia University under the mentorship of Dr. Jingguang Chen, who researches heterogeneous catalysis and electrocatalysis to improve chemical manufacturing processes.

Throughout her graduate career, she developed electrically-driven pathways to generate chemicals from sustainable inputs. Many industrial processes that produce consumer goods are indirectly driven by fossil fuels: for example, conventional alcohol production is reliant upon hydrogen, which is largely sourced from natural gas and coal, as a key reactant. As an alternative, alcohols could be made by reacting CO2 with ethane, an underutilized compound extracted with natural gas, as the hydrogen source to generate alcohols. This reaction cannot occur using heat-driven processes, but it is achievable using an electricity-based plasma process at room temperature and ambient pressure.

“It’s possible that the best way to find electricity-based processes isn’t just to take the same reaction and run it on electricity [instead of heat], but instead to do it in an entirely different way, or even to have different inputs in the process,” she said. “And by changing those details for how we do the process, we might be able to find more efficient routes to making these products.” In her graduate research, she targeted carbon dioxide as a reactant to generate fuels and chemicals widely used in industrial processes.

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Credit: The Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science.

As she was finishing her Ph.D. at Columbia, she began applying for postdoctoral fellowships that complemented her research in energy and sustainable inputs. She soon discovered that researchers in the Elimelech Lab were beginning a project coupling membranes and electrically-driven phenomena. Applying her expertise in heterogeneous catalysis and plasma catalysis, Winter rejoined the Elimelech Lab in 2020 to develop electrified membranes.

Conventional membranes do not break apart contaminants in water supplies, but rather separate these from a target stream. As a result, membranes produce a “waste stream” that must be disposed of, running the risk of recontaminating water supplies. In contrast, electrified membranes are advantageous because they can both capture and degrade contaminants into harmless byproducts.

“It was serendipitous,” Winter said. “I had this idea about making membranes that could do electrochemistry, and there were people in the Elimelech Lab who were thinking of writing a review paper on that topic at the same time. I had read a paper from the Elimelech Lab on using photocatalysts in membranes to degrade contaminants. You need to somehow deliver the solar energy to photocatalysts in water. Imagine coating a membrane with a catalyst: that membrane needs to be exposed to the water, and be exposed to sunlight. The reaction might be limited by how much sunlight can get to the membrane surface under the water.”

Traditional technologies have used photocatalysts, particles that use light to jumpstart electron-based reactions, to degrade contaminants. However, these catalysts are reliant upon light exposure, limiting their use in industrial facilities to the daytime. In contrast, conventional water treatment systems are running at all hours of the day to constantly supply clean water to the general public.

The electrified membranes that Winter is developing decouple the renewable energy capture from the catalytic reaction. By using a conductive membrane, electricity can be transferred from an external source, extending the hours that these membranes can be used in industry.

“I thought — what if we were to decouple the solar radiation capture from where the reaction is happening? In other words, what if we were to separate out the solar panel from where the catalysis is happening?”

Already, the Winter Lab has an ambitious group of researchers who are collaborating with centers both internally and externally, such as The Yale Center for Natural Carbon Capture and the NSF’s Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT), a collaboration that spans across four different universities to improve methods for water treatment technology. Her research will focus on water treatment technologies, a traditional strength of the Yale Environmental Engineering program, as well as energy storage, resource loops, and electrically-driven processes.

As an environmental engineering faculty with a chemical engineering background, she seeks to utilize traditional chemical engineering principles towards challenges that the environment is facing. In the upcoming academic year, Winter is planning on teaching courses such as the Water Energy Nexus and Engineering Solutions to Climate Change to better prepare environmental engineers to tackle issues relating to climate change.

In the span of eleven years, when she began her undergraduate career at Yale, the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering has changed drastically. Many faculty members that taught her courses have left or retired, and new professors with novel research areas have joined the faculty. Still, she notes that the spirit of Yale’s engineering departments, which she hopes to contribute to throughout her future career as a Yale professor, was as she remembers it.

“Something that I learned from my peers when I was a Yale undergraduate: follow your passions,” Winter said. “When I was a Yale undergraduate, people tended to work on things that they were passionate about, and that’s something which I think is really important. If you work on something you’re passionate about, you’ll enjoy it, and you’ll do it well.”

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Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science Daniel L Malone Engineering Center
The Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science is the engineering school of Yale University. When the first professor of civil engineering was hired in 1852, a Yale School of Engineering was established within the Yale Scientific School, and in 1932 the engineering faculty organized as a separate, constituent school of the university. The school currently offers undergraduate and graduate classes and degrees in electrical engineering, chemical engineering, computer science, applied physics, environmental engineering, biomedical engineering, and mechanical engineering and materials science.

Yale University is a private Ivy League research university in New Haven, Connecticut. Founded in 1701 as the Collegiate School, it is the third-oldest institution of higher education in the United States and one of the nine Colonial Colleges chartered before the American Revolution. The Collegiate School was renamed Yale College in 1718 to honor the school’s largest private benefactor for the first century of its existence, Elihu Yale. Yale University is consistently ranked as one of the top universities and is considered one of the most prestigious in the nation.

Chartered by Connecticut Colony, the Collegiate School was established in 1701 by clergy to educate Congregational ministers before moving to New Haven in 1716. Originally restricted to theology and sacred languages, the curriculum began to incorporate humanities and sciences by the time of the American Revolution. In the 19th century, the college expanded into graduate and professional instruction, awarding the first PhD in the United States in 1861 and organizing as a university in 1887. Yale’s faculty and student populations grew after 1890 with rapid expansion of the physical campus and scientific research.

Yale is organized into fourteen constituent schools: the original undergraduate college, the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and twelve professional schools. While the university is governed by the Yale Corporation, each school’s faculty oversees its curriculum and degree programs. In addition to a central campus in downtown New Haven, the university owns athletic facilities in western New Haven, a campus in West Haven, Connecticut, and forests and nature preserves throughout New England. As of June 2020, the university’s endowment was valued at $31.1 billion, the second largest of any educational institution. The Yale University Library, serving all constituent schools, holds more than 15 million volumes and is the third-largest academic library in the United States. Students compete in intercollegiate sports as the Yale Bulldogs in the NCAA Division I – Ivy League.

As of October 2020, 65 Nobel laureates, five Fields Medalists, four Abel Prize laureates, and three Turing award winners have been affiliated with Yale University. In addition, Yale has graduated many notable alumni, including five U.S. Presidents, 19 U.S. Supreme Court Justices, 31 living billionaires, and many heads of state. Hundreds of members of Congress and many U.S. diplomats, 78 MacArthur Fellows, 252 Rhodes Scholars, 123 Marshall Scholars, and nine Mitchell Scholars have been affiliated with the university.

Research

Yale is a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU) and is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity”. According to the National Science Foundation, Yale spent $990 million on research and development in 2018, ranking it 15th in the nation.

Yale’s faculty include 61 members of the National Academy of Sciences , 7 members of the National Academy of Engineering and 49 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The college is, after normalization for institution size, the tenth-largest baccalaureate source of doctoral degree recipients in the United States, and the largest such source within the Ivy League.

Yale’s English and Comparative Literature departments were part of the New Criticism movement. Of the New Critics, Robert Penn Warren, W.K. Wimsatt, and Cleanth Brooks were all Yale faculty. Later, the Yale Comparative literature department became a center of American deconstruction. Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, taught at the Department of Comparative Literature from the late seventies to mid-1980s. Several other Yale faculty members were also associated with deconstruction, forming the so-called “Yale School”. These included Paul de Man who taught in the Departments of Comparative Literature and French, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman (both taught in the Departments of English and Comparative Literature), and Harold Bloom (English), whose theoretical position was always somewhat specific, and who ultimately took a very different path from the rest of this group. Yale’s history department has also originated important intellectual trends. Historians C. Vann Woodward and David Brion Davis are credited with beginning in the 1960s and 1970s an important stream of southern historians; likewise, David Montgomery, a labor historian, advised many of the current generation of labor historians in the country. Yale’s Music School and Department fostered the growth of Music Theory in the latter half of the 20th century. The Journal of Music Theory was founded there in 1957; Allen Forte and David Lewin were influential teachers and scholars.

In addition to eminent faculty members, Yale research relies heavily on the presence of roughly 1200 Postdocs from various national and international origin working in the multiple laboratories in the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and professional schools of the university. The university progressively recognized this working force with the recent creation of the Office for Postdoctoral Affairs and the Yale Postdoctoral Association.

Notable alumni

Over its history, Yale has produced many distinguished alumni in a variety of fields, ranging from the public to private sector. According to 2020 data, around 71% of undergraduates join the workforce, while the next largest majority of 16.6% go on to attend graduate or professional schools. Yale graduates have been recipients of 252 Rhodes Scholarships, 123 Marshall Scholarships, 67 Truman Scholarships, 21 Churchill Scholarships, and 9 Mitchell Scholarships. The university is also the second largest producer of Fulbright Scholars, with a total of 1,199 in its history and has produced 89 MacArthur Fellows. The U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs ranked Yale fifth among research institutions producing the most 2020–2021 Fulbright Scholars. Additionally, 31 living billionaires are Yale alumni.

At Yale, one of the most popular undergraduate majors among Juniors and Seniors is political science, with many students going on to serve careers in government and politics. Former presidents who attended Yale for undergrad include William Howard Taft, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush while former presidents Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton attended Yale Law School. Former vice-president and influential antebellum era politician John C. Calhoun also graduated from Yale. Former world leaders include Italian prime minister Mario Monti, Turkish prime minister Tansu Çiller, Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, German president Karl Carstens, Philippine president José Paciano Laurel, Latvian president Valdis Zatlers, Taiwanese premier Jiang Yi-huah, and Malawian president Peter Mutharika, among others. Prominent royals who graduated are Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, and Olympia Bonaparte, Princess Napoléon.

Yale alumni have had considerable presence in U.S. government in all three branches. On the U.S. Supreme Court, 19 justices have been Yale alumni, including current Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Brett Kavanaugh. Numerous Yale alumni have been U.S. Senators, including current Senators Michael Bennet, Richard Blumenthal, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Chris Coons, Amy Klobuchar, Ben Sasse, and Sheldon Whitehouse. Current and former cabinet members include Secretaries of State John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Cyrus Vance, and Dean Acheson; U.S. Secretaries of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Robert Rubin, Nicholas F. Brady, Steven Mnuchin, and Janet Yellen; U.S. Attorneys General Nicholas Katzenbach, John Ashcroft, and Edward H. Levi; and many others. Peace Corps founder and American diplomat Sargent Shriver and public official and urban planner Robert Moses are Yale alumni.

Yale has produced numerous award-winning authors and influential writers, like Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Sinclair Lewis and Pulitzer Prize winners Stephen Vincent Benét, Thornton Wilder, Doug Wright, and David McCullough. Academy Award winning actors, actresses, and directors include Jodie Foster, Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, Elia Kazan, George Roy Hill, Lupita Nyong’o, Oliver Stone, and Frances McDormand. Alumni from Yale have also made notable contributions to both music and the arts. Leading American composer from the 20th century Charles Ives, Broadway composer Cole Porter, Grammy award winner David Lang, and award-winning jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer all hail from Yale. Hugo Boss Prize winner Matthew Barney, famed American sculptor Richard Serra, President Barack Obama presidential portrait painter Kehinde Wiley, MacArthur Fellow and contemporary artist Sarah Sze, Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Garry Trudeau, and National Medal of Arts photorealist painter Chuck Close all graduated from Yale. Additional alumni include architect and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Maya Lin, Pritzker Prize winner Norman Foster, and Gateway Arch designer Eero Saarinen. Journalists and pundits include Dick Cavett, Chris Cuomo, Anderson Cooper, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Fareed Zakaria.

In business, Yale has had numerous alumni and former students go on to become founders of influential business, like William Boeing (Boeing, United Airlines), Briton Hadden and Henry Luce (Time Magazine), Stephen A. Schwarzman (Blackstone Group), Frederick W. Smith (FedEx), Juan Trippe (Pan Am), Harold Stanley (Morgan Stanley), Bing Gordon (Electronic Arts), and Ben Silbermann (Pinterest). Other business people from Yale include former chairman and CEO of Sears Holdings Edward Lampert, former Time Warner president Jeffrey Bewkes, former PepsiCo chairperson and CEO Indra Nooyi, sports agent Donald Dell, and investor/philanthropist Sir John Templeton,

Yale alumni distinguished in academia include literary critic and historian Henry Louis Gates, economists Irving Fischer, Mahbub ul Haq, and Nobel Prize laureate Paul Krugman; Nobel Prize in Physics laureates Ernest Lawrence and Murray Gell-Mann; Fields Medalist John G. Thompson; Human Genome Project leader and National Institutes of Health director Francis S. Collins; brain surgery pioneer Harvey Cushing; pioneering computer scientist Grace Hopper; influential mathematician and chemist Josiah Willard Gibbs; National Women’s Hall of Fame inductee and biochemist Florence B. Seibert; Turing Award recipient Ron Rivest; inventors Samuel F.B. Morse and Eli Whitney; Nobel Prize in Chemistry laureate John B. Goodenough; lexicographer Noah Webster; and theologians Jonathan Edwards and Reinhold Niebuhr.

In the sporting arena, Yale alumni include baseball players Ron Darling and Craig Breslow and baseball executives Theo Epstein and George Weiss; football players Calvin Hill, Gary Fenick, Amos Alonzo Stagg, and “the Father of American Football” Walter Camp; ice hockey players Chris Higgins and Olympian Helen Resor; Olympic figure skaters Sarah Hughes and Nathan Chen; nine-time U.S. Squash men’s champion Julian Illingworth; Olympic swimmer Don Schollander; Olympic rowers Josh West and Rusty Wailes; Olympic sailor Stuart McNay; Olympic runner Frank Shorter; and others.