Meet Dr Emma Lovell, a UNSW Chemical Engineering Lecturer using her degree to help make the future more sustainable. Like many of us at school, Emma didn’t know what she wanted to do. After an offer arose to study Chemical Engineering at UNSW she took it. Fast forward to 2016 and Emma completed her undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering and went onto complete a PhD at UNSW with a Women in Engineering scholarship.

When she is not teaching 3rd and 4th-year students, she is conducting research into how to make clean energy from sunlight or converting waste carbon dioxide into clean fuel. 
We asked Emma some questions about her journey to being a lecturer with a PhD in Chemical Engineering. Check out her responses below.

What were you like at school?

When I was in high school, I really enjoyed maths and science, but beyond that I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. In year 11 and 12 I had wonderful maths and chemistry teachers and so when the opportunity came up to study in the School of Chemical Engineering through the Co-op program, I thought why not!  

I will admit when I started my studies, I was not certain what an engineer actually was, let alone a chemical engineer, but it was the best decision I have ever made!

What is chemical engineering?

Chemical engineers transform atoms and chemicals into products and advanced technologies to solve today’s challenges, and the challenges of the future! Chemical engineers are sometimes called the “universal” engineers, as we work to solve problems across diverse industries, looking to process chemicals into products. This means our knowledge of processes can be applied in the water we drink, the energy we use, the food we eat and the products we rely on every day.

What kind of jobs/opportunities does it lead to upon the completion of the degree?

Because Chemical Engineering is so diverse, you will find us working in so many different industries. Chemical Engineers work in water treatment, food and beverage production, energy, research, and development all the way to consulting. 

Lots of your current research is into catalysts – tell us more about that!

My research focuses on developing catalysts for clean energy and environmental applications. This ranges from converting waste carbon dioxide emissions into fuels using energy from the sun, to making hydrogen from renewable electricity all the way to using lightning to make ammonia (for use as an energy carrier and fertiliser). 

Catalysts are a material that change the rate of a reaction. It does not affect the start or the end, it simply makes a process easier. Check out this video where I explain what a catalyst is!

In the lab, we develop new catalysts by controlling them on the atom scale and use these to solve some of the key problems facing society today.

What excites you the most about your research?

There is so much that excites me about the research I get to do! Most importantly, I feel that the research I do could contribute to a more sustainable future.  
Every day in the lab we work on trying to get CO2 to change into something more useful. We make lightning inside tubes and use that to convert carbon dioxide into fuels. We capture sunlight and use lasers to give energy to the system. We use open flames to make nanoparticles that can turn waste emissions into a vital fertilizer. Being able to contribute knowledge to the research community to tackle global challenges and contribute to a more sustainable world is incredibly exciting. Further, the research that we do is on the edge of what is known. It is exciting to dedicate your career to learning new things and generating new knowledge!