Maneka Roger is a Ph.D student at the Paul Scherrer Institute, in the Catalysis for Energy Group led by Prof. Dr. Kröcher, and Dr. Ferri. Her research is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and well within the scope of the SCCER BIOSWEET. She explains the motivation for her research: “We believe it is crucial to develop technologies today to enable tomorrow’s energy transition. This energy transition concerns land transportation among others. The primary challenge here is to switch from traditional fossil fuels to more environmentally friendly alternatives in order to reduce greenhouse gases and particle matter emissions.”
What are your research topics and what is your role within the SCCER BIOSWEET?
The goal of my research is to develop and optimize a three-way-catalyst (TWC) applied to natural gas vehicles (NGV) (SNSF project 175786). Although the technology itself is already widely used in the automotive industry for gasoline engines, there are some new challenges with regard to vehicles powered by natural gas. Methane being a very stable compound, its oxidation is harder to achieve compared to longer hydrocarbon chains. Also, its combustion results in higher exhaust gas temperatures and the formation of large amounts of water. These factors make the catalyst more prone to thermal and chemical ageing/poisoning. For these reasons and due to increasingly stringent legislation, a TWC used in gasoline vehicles is not suited to NGV applications. Hence, it is necessary to study and develop a TWC suitable for stoichiometric vehicles in order to overcome these drawbacks.
What made you become a scientist?
Both my grandparents were chemical engineers and I was drawn to chemistry from an early age. I used to play with my chemistry set at home and was fascinated by the colorful and sometimes explosive experiments. I remember thinking to myself, ‘how fun and enjoyable a chemist’s job must be’. Since then, the thought of working in chemistry had always stayed at the back of my mind.
What is your biography and career path like?
I spent my childhood in Paris and moved to Singapore with my family as a teenager. After my French baccalaureate exam there, I applied to do an undergraduate program in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne). I went on to do my Msc. in Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology at EPFL, specializing in the environment and sustainability. During this time, I became very interested in the chemical effects of air pollution and the work of the scientific community to come up with sustainable alternatives.
As part of my Master’s program I did an internship at a start-up in Lausanne which was developing autonomous habitats for human space applications. The aim was to conceive a closed-loop system where all nutrients: water, air and waste, would be recycled, revalorized and introduced back into the loop. This experience fueled my interest in the development of sustainable alternatives even further. For my Master’s thesis, I had the chance to work with the Group of Catalysis for Biofuels supervised by Prof. Kröcher. My work entailed investigating the synergistic effect between Brønsted and Lewis acid sites in Sn-Beta zeolites for the production of polyoxymethylene dimethyl ethers. I found the experience very enriching and from then on, I decided to do a Ph.D in the Bioenergy and Catalysis Laboratory (LBK) lead by Prof. Kröcher at PSI.
What do you find fascinating/challenging about the energy transition?
To quote the scientist Mario Giampietro (2002): ‘Energy is the key factor that drives the world economy. […] Energy is needed to power all kinds of machinery, but also for the vital task of supplying the industrial system with the mineral commodities that make it function. Energy is also fundamental for the food production system which can sustain billions of people only because it makes large use of energy coming from outside agricultural sources.’
So, while energy is critical to the survival of the human race, the world’s population is growing by about one percent a year, thereby putting more pressure on the current level of known energy reserves. Our planet can no longer absorb the growing amount of emissions from fossil fuel combustion. So, while there is enormous pressure for energy transition to work, this transition will come with many challenges. For example, most infrastructures are designed for fossil fuels and they require a lot of effort and finances to switch to sustainable energy sources. To succeed, we need to not only develop sustainable energy solutions, but also to find simple and cost-effective ways to implement them. ‘Transition’ therefore is a fascinating subject because there isn’t a single possible solution to replace traditional fuels, but an infinite number of possibilities. Hence, we see people from different fields: scientific, technology, systemic, economic, etc. from around the world, working towards a common objective: to create a better, cleaner, and more equitable future by switching to sustainable energy sources.
Where do you see renewable energy in the next 10 years and what role will bioenergy (or your technology in particular) play?
When it comes to road transportation, I am convinced that by 2030 people will change the way they travel and rely more on public transportation, car-sharing, bikes, etc. This will greatly reduce the pressure on traditional and renewable energy sources.
Hopefully, by 2030 we will see the emergence of natural gas vehicles on the market. Although it is only a short-term solution, it would still result in less greenhouse gas emissions until we find an even more sustainable solution. We will not be able to go from high greenhouse gas emissions to none in one go, hence NGV would be a very good intermediate solution.
For renewable energies to be omnipresent in our daily life in the future, we will need to change our way of thinking. We will need to think in terms of environmental rather than financial and economic gains.
What is your “work-life balance” recipe?
I would say, always challenge yourself in your job so that it never gets boring. Since the projects we work on can take years to complete, it is important to break up this one big goal into smaller ones that can be met on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. This will ensure that there is always some form of accomplishment, which is very encouraging. To achieve work-life balance, I make sure I get enough exercise, (I often go for a jog during my lunch break), surround myself with friends, and make time for the things I like doing such as going hiking in summer and skiing in winter.
Can you provide recommendations for young scientist wishing to pursue a career in the field of (energy) research?
Always believe in yourself and your abilities – this is the most important thing. During your career, especially in science, you will face many challenges and failures, but you always have to remind yourself that you will succeed eventually. Always have a positive mindset.
Always keep in mind why you are doing this, what first inspired you about the project you have chosen. Surround yourself with people who can challenge you, for this will help you grow as a scientist. Learn to appreciate other people’s experience and knowledge because you can build on that and maybe take it further.