Sena Wazer ’22 (CLAS) was only 11 years old when the Paris Climate Accord was signed, but it wasn’t until three years later in 2018 when she started to pay attention.
That was the year the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated in a special report that to prevent the most devastating impacts of climate change, the world must work quickly to adhere to the 1.5-degree Celsius temperature rise agreed to in the Paris Accord and must make significant changes to do so before 2030 or face severe consequences.
“For me, at 14, that was really shocking,” Wazer says. “I had known about climate change, but I didn’t realize how pressing it was and that really drove home the importance of acting – and acting swiftly.”
Chase Mack ’23 (CLAS) says his passion for climate action “has been organically growing since high school” when he helped keep chickens in his backyard and could see the Connecticut River from his house on a clear winter day.
“I found my passion originating from my fondness for international relations and international politics, and I realized that the world was having to deal with the ramifications of the fossil fuel industry for the past 100 years,” he adds. “The international world is grappling with this huge issue right now and the division within it is absurd.”
Wazer and Mack were among 14 UConn students who attended the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, known more commonly as COP26, in November. Together, they worked to make headway in their quest to combat climate change and make a difference.
And as they were discussing policy and goals with world leaders in Glasgow, Scotland, UConn students and alumni back in Connecticut were pressing on with continuing efforts to seek solutions in their own fields and with their own strengths – many of them keeping climate action at the forefront of their day-to-day work.
“I worry about the Earth,” Jiale Xing, a Ph.D. student at UConn’s Center for Clean Energy Engineering (C2E2), says. “It’s important for us to protect our climate.”
With skills in electrochemistry, Xing is studying the use of catalysts for hydrogen evolution as a means of harnessing it to power fuel cells. She uses UConn’s patented Reactive Spray Deposition Technology, among other pieces of equipment at C2E2, to maneuver through her work and says she has her “dream job” because “this could change our climate to make our Earth better.”
She adds, “I think hydrogen will be our future.”
Working across the hall in another lab at C2E2 on the Depot Campus, graduate research assistant Alanna Gado ’19 (ENG), ’21 MS is mindful about what her work on electrolyzers means for the environment and explains that the more efficiently hydrogen can be extracted from water molecules the more meaningful to the average person one day.
“Electrolyzers would be very useful in stationary hydrogen production,” Gado says.
Think fuel stations for hydrogen-powered vehicles, with oxygen as their only emission, and powered exclusively through clean energy.
“There’s a lot of potential for the energy field right now,” she says. “There’s a lot of work to do, but in 10 years I can see there’s going to be a lot more infrastructure changes, a lot more development in the scientific community, a lot more awareness, and a lot more reliance on alternative resources.”
Places like C2E2 are where that work starts. It continues at the Innovative Partnership Building (IPB) at UConn Tech Park where businesses connect with the University and its most promising researchers to bring their work in the field into practical application.
Alexandra Merkouriou ’15 (ENG), ’19 MS, ’22 Ph.D., who is a graduate researcher and serves as project manager for UConn’s Project Daedalus with the Air Force Research Laboratory, spends her days in the IPB and speaks passionately about it in her capacity as a unofficial ambassador.
“We have, located in one building, over $45 million worth of microscopy equipment. We have metal additive manufacturing. We have advanced surface analysis capabilities and separations technologies. The capabilities of this building are wide-ranging and apply to automotive industries, insurance industries, energy industries; you name it, we can support it here. And that’s the beauty of the creativity that we’re able to foster.”
At the Eversource Energy Center at the IPB, Sita Nyame ’18 (CLAS), ’21 (ENG) is working on prediction modeling for the New England-based utility company.
I worry about the Earth. It’s important for us to protect our climate. — Jiale Xing, Ph.D. student
“This is really important because it helps them figure out where resources are most needed,” Nyame, who’s now a graduate researcher, says. “If you know anything about Connecticut storms, we have been experiencing some more extreme storms. With these extreme storms, it makes it a little bit harder for utility companies to understand what’s going on mostly because these storms are 1 in a million. We’ve never really seen any of them happen. It’s kind of difficult to figure out what resources you would need in a moment like that. Having our prediction models definitely comes in handy for those situations because we can factor in all these extreme circumstances.”
Nyame says she only in recent years started to take note of climate change and consider her part to curb it, starting with undergraduate research on droughts in Ethiopia and transitioning in her graduate work to wildfire prediction modeling, which was borne one summer when headlines from California and Australia dominated the news.
Even though those events are thousands of miles from Connecticut, Nyame says they’re germane to conversations that happen here and influence how companies like Eversource do business.
“We are experiencing climate change, it doesn’t just happen to one location,” she says. “We’re all affected by all these changes that are going on. Even though we’re looking at wildfires in California, it’s still affecting us. Even if you don’t see it happening, we are affected by it. People there might just be experiencing it a little bit more. It also gives us insights on what we can do better on our end.”
Ryan Ouimet ’14 (ENG), ’21 Ph.D., who works as a research scientist at Nel Hydrogen in Wallingford, is someone who’s trying to do just that though his research on water electrolyzers, technology that’s central to any conversation about hydrogen power or fuel cells.
“It was something I could do to help out using what I know and what I’ve learned,” he says. “I wanted to make a difference with my research. I wanted to at least have what I did impact society in some way. I thought that at least with energy and the energy sector that this is a critical field we should be focusing on.”
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and one of the most versatile. Non-scientists may know it for the way it bonds with oxygen to make water. It also joins with nitrogen to make ammonia, carbon to make methane, carbon and oxygen to make table sugar, carbon and chlorine to make hydrochloric acid, and again with oxygen – just in different parts – to make hydrogen peroxide.
In application, Ouimet explains it can be used for transportation fuel or to stabilize the electrical grid though the use of fuel cells to supplement other clean energy sources such as wind or solar. It’s also being used to make carbon-free steel and, at one Nel plant in Spain, green ammonia for fertilizer.
“I think of climate change often both on the job and off the job, and that sort of motivates me,” says Alex Keane ’18 (ENG), a chemical engineer at Nel. “It’s very important to transition to more green technology.”
Stephen Ekatan ’21 Ph.D., a process engineer at Nel, says Connecticut is uniquely positioned to respond to the call for action because of its investments in clean energy and related research.
“I know at UConn there are initiatives for this; there are facilities that carry out clean energy research,” he says. Because of “the funding and being aware that this is something that we need, Connecticut is better placed to be at the forefront of this.”
For Ekatan it might be work on polymers, just a piece of fuel cell technology, but it’s what he can do to advance clean energy.
“I am passionate about climate action,” he says. “We have to think about future generations, how can we empower them.”
And that’s exactly the message that Wazer, who attended COP26, hopes to convey to those around her.
“Climate change is really intersectional with a lot of different issues. No matter what you’re passionate about there’s probably some way that it connects with climate change and some way that you can get involved with fighting for climate action,” she says. “I’d really encourage people to explore their interests and their interests in relation to climate change and see how they could connect those two.”
The Eversource Energy Center at the University of Connecticut is a partnership between New England’s largest energy provider and the School of Engineering; the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources; and the School of Business, located in the Innovation Partnership Building at UConn Tech Park. The partnership, established in 2015, is dedicated to using cutting-edge research to solve real-world challenges where weather, security, and energy intersect.