Kelsey Stoerzinger is motivated in her work by a desire to help solve the world’s energy problems. But she says it was her own natural curiosity that first led her to an academic career in engineering.
“I’m really fascinated by understanding how things work,” said Stoerzinger, who came to Oregon State this fall as an assistant professor and Callahan Faculty Scholar in Chemical Engineering. “I love digging super deep into problems. The general engineering mindset first took root for me when I was trying to understand how materials work — how they behave and deform. I like understanding how materials work the way they do, how they behave, and how they drive chemistry.”
Stoerzinger’s research focuses on electrochemistry and catalysis. Broadly speaking, her work is concerned with energy storage and conversion, and the many ways that water is used in these processes. In the simplest cases, water is used as a coolant. A lot of processes also generate wastewater, which requires engineers to design processes for treatment and recycling. And, in many reactions, water is either a product or a reactant.
A big part of Stoerzinger’s research involves looking at how to make reactions more efficient using catalysis or electrocatalysis. These processes use a type of material, called a catalyst, which is not itself consumed by the reaction. Rather, a catalyst acts as a sort of broker for the reaction — utilizing the unique chemical properties at its surface to enable a reaction to proceed more efficiently or more rapidly. Catalysts can also be used to determine the selectivity of the reaction, or what products are produced.
“I do a lot of work understanding the details of why catalysts work the way they do, fundamental studies to elaborate reaction mechanisms,” Stoerzinger said. “But the goal is to move from having an understanding about, for example, what is the rate-limiting step of a particular reaction, to figuring out how we can design around that. So the research is both to understand how these materials work and also to design and develop new materials and processes.”
Historically, Stoerzinger’s work has been concentrated in the area of electrolysis; that is, splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Energy is stored in the bonds of hydrogen and oxygen and released when the two are combined to make water. One way to get energy out of hydrogen is with fuel cells, another of Stoerzinger’s interests, and another area where catalysts play a key role.
After completing her undergraduate work in materials science and engineering at Northwestern University, Stoerzinger earned her Master of Philosophy degree in physics at Cambridge University, where she was a Churchill Scholar. From there, she went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to earn her doctorate with a graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation.
From there, she was awarded a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), where she was able to pursue her own research interests full-time. At PNNL, Stoerzinger focused on photoelectrochemistry. Her work involved developing new materials to convert energy from captured photons (as from sunlight) directly into chemical fuel.
“Instead of having a photovoltaic solar cell powering an electrolyzer, you are combining these two processes into one,” she said. “You can make a single material that can do all of that, which is pretty amazing. This enables you to reduce the overall footprint and eliminate a lot of waste.”
At Oregon State, Stoerzinger is interested in looking at different types of reactions, including nitrate reduction for cleaning up groundwater, and methane oxidation for fuel cells. She’s also looking at ways to reuse some wastewater streams and exploring more abundant sources of water for electrolysis.
“Right now when we use electrolysis to make hydrogen, it requires extremely clean water, and that’s a big limitation,” she said. “If we are thinking in terms of a hydrogen fuel economy, it’s going to require more water than we currently consume for drinking. This could potentially be a huge tax on our existing resources.”
In addition to her research, Stoerzinger says she has a real passion for teaching.
“Teaching is just a transformative way to touch so many people and to really shape their careers,” she said. “I remember many teachers throughout my graduate and undergraduate education who have shaped me as a person. They have made me the scientist that I am, and they will continue to influence the things that I do in my career. Being part of that transformation in someone else’s education is just awesome.”