Meet Christina Wildfire

Postdoctoral researcher studies microwave energy to revitalize coal industry

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal makes up roughly 33 percent of the domestic electricity generation. Coal has become less competitive in the energy realm because of concerns about its environmental impact. However, it remains an abundant natural resource that researchers hope to revive.

Postdoctoral Research Program participant Christina Wildfire joined the Reaction Engineering team at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Morgantown, West Virginia. The team’s objective was to convert fossil resources into high value chemicals and fuels and potentially revitalize the coal industry.

Wildfire’s appointment to the program was not her first introduction to research at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) facility. During her doctoral studies in mechanical engineering at West Virginia University, she was part of this research group. She returned to once again connect with researchers at NETL and top universities.

Alongside Dushyant Shekhawat, Wildfire is focused on using microwave energy to create high-value chemicals, fuels or fuel additives from fossil resources. Microwaves have been shown to enhance certain reactions, reduce processing time and heat materials. Her goal is to design catalyst materials that work within a microwave reactor to selectively produce the intended chemicals from the resources.

“My background is material science, so with my team I am using my personal experience and knowledge to help improve technologies for cleaner energy and find new ways of retrieving useful products from coal that are not available on the market now,” Wildfire said.

Being surrounded by experienced scientists and engineers helps Wildfire select the appropriate path for her research while discovering new topics of interest.

“Researching at NETL is beneficial because of the facilities here,” Wildfire said. “I use a world-class microwave reactor, and between the Morgantown site and the Pittsburgh site, I have access to the best characterization equipment and the use of a supercomputer for simulations.”

Wildfire will be in the program for two years and envisions herself becoming a leading researcher involved with multiple projects and a mentor to students with similar backgrounds. She believes her time at NETL is preparing her for the next step in her career as she conducts her own research and experiences various teaching styles.

“I think the ORISE program is a great opportunity for students and graduates to research alongside top researchers in their field and experience how energy-related projects are operated,” Wildfire said. “The more research opportunities you take, the better you understand your field and what you would like to do with your career.”