Mixing teenagers and all-terrain vehicles may lead to no good. But that’s not the case for Christine Lucky. As a high schooler in Alexandria, Virginia, she took a course on integrated systems engineering. During the class, she helped convert a loud, smoke-spewing ATV into a quiet, clean electric vehicle. It was an ah-ha moment for Lucky; not only did she find she really enjoyed the engineering aspects of the project, but she found she was deeply interested in energy systems—both the technical challenges and societal impacts.
Those twin interests in energy and improving society led Lucky to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she’s a third-year PhD student studying chemical engineering in the lab of Marcel Schreier, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering. “I’ve always wanted to merge the things I find intellectually interesting with giving back to the community,” she says. “From all the opportunities I’ve had, I think it’s our social obligation as scientists and engineers to do something that matters to people and benefits society at large. For me, energy is in that intersection.”
Lucky studied chemical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis as an undergraduate before moving to industry, spending two years as a chemical engineer at Barr Engineering in Minneapolis. Much of that time she worked in a partnership with the University of North Dakota’s Institute of Energy Studies. There, she says, she helped take processes from the lab to the bench scale and then to the industrial scale. “We would go from producing 60 grams of material at a time to 20 kilograms per hour. I found that process really fun and that was right at the heart of what I want to be doing with engineering: making discoveries and bringing them to a feasible scale,” she says. “But it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to implement and lead some of those projects without a PhD.”
That’s why she decided to enroll at UW-Madison. In Schreier’s lab, the team is investigating ways to use electrochemistry for chemical production. Typically, industrial plants use extremely high heat and pressure to transform oil and natural gas into an array of chemicals. It’s an extremely energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of fossil fuels.
Lucky, who recently received a prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, is looking at ways to use electricity—preferably produced by renewable energy sources—to transform low-value, readily available chemicals on the molecular level into more valuable chemical substrates that can be converted into chemicals on the industrial scale. It’s an important step in making chemical production a more sustainable process.
Lucky’s brief time in industry has given her a valuable perspective on her research. “It changes how you think about some projects. We work on small reactions that we’d like to see go to the commercial scale someday,” she says. “So, I think about things like ‘How would you clean this reactor between batches? How do we implement this? How many operators might this take to produce?’ You think about what would make this meaningful to people who might want to license this technology or drive this tech to market one day.”
Lucky says she’s not sure if she will stay in academia or return to industry after she completes her degree. Currently, she says working with Schreier to build his new lab feels a bit like both. The lab has the funding and agility to pivot and work on emerging questions in a way more established labs cannot. “Someone compared it to a tech startup, and that’s a pretty good analogy,” Lucky says. “We’re able to adapt very quickly and it’s a very dynamic environment.”