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Satish Lakhapatri is a chemical engineer in San Francisco, California, investigating ways to get the most value out of natural gas—a domestically produced energy source.
Tell us about your educational background including your doctoral research. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
My interest in both chemistry and engineering began as a high school student, which eventually culminated in my admittance to the bachelors program at the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai, India. Following my bachelor’s degree, I worked in the chemical industry for about a year before moving to the United States for my PhD in chemical engineering (University of Toledo). My doctoral research was centered on maximizing the efficiency of a fuel cell system operated on a liquid fuel. In particular, I was researching the mechanism of how a catalyst deactivates, the knowledge of which can be then used in formulating a better catalyst for producing hydrogen used in a fuel cell powered system. Fuel cells are similar to batteries in a lot of ways, using chemical reactions to produce electrical energy. But unlike batteries, they do not get depleted as far as fuel supply is maintained. They do not make noise, an important feature that finds applications in covert military operations and is one of the reasons why a part of my research was funded by the U.S. Army and U.S. Department of Energy.
Some of the key results from my doctoral research, elucidating mechanisms of catalyst deactivation, were published in the journals Applied Catalysis A: General and Catalysis Science and Technology. I expect this research to benefit others in designing more stable heterogeneous catalysts for application in energy conversion processes.
Do you have a particular teacher or professor who inspired your love of science? Why?
It was one of my teachers of physics in high school who sparked my interest in science in general and he did it in a way that made the whole process of learning enjoyable and exciting. What stands out is that he shared relevant stories and how he connected those to some of the concepts of high school physics.
What is the focus of your current research?
I currently work in a field where my primary focus is in extracting maximum value from one of the most abundant resources in the United States, natural gas which is predominantly methane. It is estimated that there may be more than a 100-year supply of natural gas in the United States in the form of shale gas. Currently, ethylene, the building block of the chemical industry, is produced in a highly energy-intensive, multistep process starting from ethane or crude oil.
A more efficient but not yet commercialized alternative to this method is to convert methane directly into ethylene by a process called oxidative coupling of methane (OCM). In OCM, as the name suggests, two molecules of methane are coupled to make one ethylene molecule. More than 30 years of research in OCM failed to produce a technology that is commercially viable. My research addresses the challenges involved in commercialization of OCM technology and essentially makes the process of making ethylene feasible, both operationally and economically. Ethylene, in turn, can be converted to liquid transportation fuels.
Tell us about something we might see in our daily lives that directly correlates to your work.
The next big thing in the oil and gas industries is the tremendous growth in extraction techniques for unconventional sources of oil and gas, mainly shale oil and gas. As we transition into shale energy sources, which we already are, breakthroughs in renewable sources of energy including solar, wind, and biomass will be expected to lead us into a more carbon-neutral economy. Between shale and renewable energy sources, I expect energy conversion devices such as fuel cells and batteries to become more efficient and their prices to go down.
Give us an example of how multidisciplinary research directly contributed to your work.
Multidisciplinary research is an essential driver to successfully launch a product from concept to consumer. Today’s problems are complex and usually need to be broken down into sub- disciplines. In my short research career so far, I have frequently interfaced with chemists, biochemists, material scientists, mechanical engineers, and the business development sector.
What are your thoughts on the future of STEM education?
Experts say that technological innovation accounted for almost half of U.S. economic growth over the past 50 years, and almost all of the 30 fastest-growing occupations in the next decade will require at least some background in STEM. There is a shortage of highly skilled professionals, which is why there are open positions remaining unfilled in STEM fields. As someone rightly said: “A literate nation not only reads. It computes, investigates, and innovates.”
Describe the patent/publishing experience—were there any bumps along the way for you?
My first submission to a journal took me about six months from submission to acceptance. The manuscript initially lacked clarity and did not properly convey the conclusions of my research. I learned from it and my later publications took anywhere between one to two months for acceptance. I have also learned that identifying the relevant journal is the single most important factor in publishing your research.
What has the honor of induction into Sigma Xi meant to you?
It is an honor to be a full member of a community in which more than 200 members have been recipients of the Nobel Prize and many have earned election to the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. It also gives an opportunity to interact with fellow scientists and expand my horizons.
Has Sigma Xi helped further your career? If so, how?
I am a newly elected full member of Sigma Xi and have already seen the potential for networking. I believe Sigma Xi is a great place to expand your network of research collaborators, both nationally and internationally. It is also a great place to connect with researchers from outside your field of research, thereby creating opportunities for interdisciplinary research.
What advice would you give a young researcher just starting out in your field?
If you haven’t found what you truly love doing, then keep looking. This will be my only advice. If you’ve already found something that you enjoy doing, then don’t be afraid to fail.
What advances do you see in your field of research over the next 100 years?
In the field of energy utilization, which is what I do, I would expect our energy portfolio to diversify into renewable sources of energy including solar, wind and, biofuels. However, I also do expect newer energy resources to be discovered, one of which that is of particular interest for the United States is shale gas. I expect shale gas to play a bigger role in the next 25-50 years after which renewable energy sources should and will play a bigger role as we lead ourselves into a carbon-neutral or carbon-negative economy.