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Recent Bachelor’s Profile: Jesse Villalpando

HERE participant pumps time, energy into R&D on solid oxide fuel cells

ORNL Intern Jesse Veillalpando

In the Higher Education Research Experience program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Jesse Villalpando contributed to a growing body of research on Solid Oxide Fuel Cells. Above, he is preparing to analyze ceramic samples using thermal digital image correlation. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Knight, ORAU)

Jesse Villalpando will never look at materials the same way again. After nearly seven months studying Solid Oxide Fuel Cells as a research participant in the Post-Bachelor’s Higher Education Research Experience (HERE) program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), he has developed a keen appreciation and respect for material science.  The discipline continuously strengthens the fabric of modern society through its advances in technology, medicine, infrastructure, and transportation, and Villalpando has helped make it happen.

“Solid Oxide Fuel Cells are bound to have an effect on Americans whether they want them to or not,” said Villalpando, a recent graduate of Middle Tennessee State University with a Bachelor’s in Biology. “With a demand for more environmentally friendly and economically beneficial alternatives for regular energy production, SOFCs will have a dramatic impact on our transportation system as they may have the potential to replace combustion engines in cars and conventional power plants to generate electricity. This could mean an improvement in energy efficiency and significant reductions in environmental emissions.”

SOFCs are electrochemical conversion devices that capitalize on the reactivity between oxygen and hydrogen to create electricity from fuel instantaneously, rather than having to convert the fuel to heat first. They operate similarly to a battery, with oxygen molecules passing through a cathode, electrolyte, and anode before reaching the hydrogen-based fuel source, where the reaction occurs. The electrolyte in a SOFC is a ceramic, which is activated only at high temperatures.

Using a 3D optical technique, called digital image correlation, that tracks the deformation of a material, Villalpando assessed the material properties of the ceramics Zirconia and Alumina under high thermal conditions to calibrate the technique itself. Zirconia and Alumina are well studied, and scientists are interested with finding alternative ceramics to use in SOFCs. To do that, they must be able to rely on an experimental setup that generates consistent results.

“We need to tediously confirm our temperature readings of Zirconia and Alumina to ensure our data doesn’t deviate from the data we should be getting,” said Villalpando.

Although Villalpando was guided by his mentor, materials engineer Dr. Edgar Lara-Curzio, much of Villalpando’s research was independently conducted. This aspect honed his critical thinking skills and allowed him to apply his academic, theory-focused background in the real world.

“I always used protocols and guidelines in my classes in college,” said Villalpando. “This experience allowed me to think outside of the box. It definitely made me realize how science, and research in general, doesn’t always go the way you plan based on theory alone.”

Independence is a key aspect of the HERE program, which is administered through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy. The program is designed to improve a participant’s scientific literacy while contributing to the ORNL’s mission of scientific discovery, clean energy, and security.

Villalpando applied to the program to jumpstart a professional skill set he was lacking as a fresh graduate and would recommend the program to others wanting a foot in the door of professional research, as well.

“I would advise others to come with an open and patient mindset because there may be ups and downs when it comes to doing experiments,” he said, “but the feeling of accomplishing the goal is extremely rewarding. The opportunity to research alongside some of the greatest minds science has to offer—friendly people who create an enjoyable learning environment—is also pretty cool.”