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ORNL Undergraduate Research Profile: Evan Hess

Sophomore contributes to real-world research on coal-fired power plants

ORNL Intern Evan Hess

As a participant in the Higher Education Research Experiences program at ORNL, Evan Hess is translating his longtime fascination of materials science into a coveted opportunity to research coal-fired power plants among the nation’s best scientists and engineers.

The past few months at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have been some of Evan Hess’ best. A sophomore in corrosion engineering at the University of Akron in Ohio and a participant in the Higher Education Research Experiences (HERE) program, Hess is using his longtime fascination of materials science to contribute to cutting-edge research on coal-fired power plants. 

It is an experience he never thought he would have so early in his career.

“My fascination with the Manhattan Project made ORNL somewhere I hoped to research, but the opportunity arose way sooner than I expected,” said Hess. “The first day I heard I was being interviewed for, let alone being offered, an internship at ORNL was a bit like Christmas morning.”

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

As part of the Materials Science and Technologies Division at ORNL, and under the mentorship of group leader Dr. Bruce Pint, Hess is helping engineers find the best-suited materials for a novel power plant concept called “staged pressurized oxy-combustion,” which uses pure oxygen to combust coal rather than air.

During the oxy-combustion process, the coal is mixed with water to create slurry that is burned in a high-purity oxygen environment. Any exhaust gases like carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide are filtered out before exiting the coal facility, significantly reducing the power plant’s negative impact on the environment.

Hess is specifically tasked with exploring how metal composites, or alloys, of iron and nickel react under the high-temperature, high-pressure conditions of the power plant, with and without sulfur dioxide. The goal is to find alloys with a resistance to high oxidation, or corrosion, in order to minimize operational risks and improve the longevity of the facility.

“All metal alloys form an oxide layer on the surface of the material. Some alloys form protective layers that grow very slowly over time. Some alloys form oxide layers that never stop growing rapidly. I’m determining what effect the sulfur dioxide has on these materials and their oxide-forming behavior,” explained Hess. “The best material for the job will reduce maintenance and long-term replacement costs and increase reliability of the plant, which will in turn reduce the cost of electricity for the average consumer.”

Hess spends a majority of his days weighing, measuring and observing alloy samples under high-magnification microscopes to analyze any changes in form. It is a process Hess values greatly, not only for its raw, irrefutable significance to science but also for his own growth as a scientist.

“What we are capable of doing with the equipment at ORNL is nothing short of amazing,” said Hess. “I have developed technical skills with a wide range of advanced equipment that I could take to any job or research project. It is one thing to understand what I have been taught in school, but it is another thing entirely to put myself through the experimental process from start to finish. The analytical skills needed to solve real problems are irreplaceable.”

After graduation, Hess plans to pursue an industrial job for high temperature corrosion or to study it further in pursuit of a doctoral degree. Until then, he is making the best of his time at the lab by forging friendships, honing skillsets and asking questions. He knows being a scientist means trying to expand his knowledge every day, and he is grateful to have found such a nurturing intellectual environment.

“I enjoy the research I do. I enjoy collaborating with the people in my lab. I enjoy experiencing what Oak Ridge, Knoxville and eastern Tennessee have to offer,” said Hess. “I’ve recommended applying to the ORISE program at ORNL to quite a few friends. These months have been some of the best in my life.”