Isa Ferrall: Making Solar Energy Economical

NAE Grand Challenge Scholar Profile

  • Major: Mechanical Engineering
  • Sub-Plan: Energy and the Environment Certificate
  • Grand Challenge: Engineering Better Medicines
  • GC Advisor: Professor Jeffrey Glass
  • Project Title: Growing Flowers on Forests: Examining the Electrodeposition of Manganese Dioxide on graphenated-Carbon-Nanotubes for Improved Energy-Storage via Supercapacitor Devices

By Isa Ferrall

I have used the amazing opportunity of being a National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge Scholar to immerse myself in the clean/renewable/sustainable energy field and have pursued research to push the field even farther forward. I worked in Dr. Jeff Glass’s Nanomaterials and Thin Films laboratory on two different projects relating to solar fuels and energy storage. I believe that one of the most effective ways to make solar energy economical is to provide better energy storage. One way of storing solar energy is to produce hydrogen from light by using the surface of certain materials as a catalyst. For my first project, I grew, characterized and tested thin films for their water splitting performance under light. Photoelectrochemical water splitting allows for hydrogen to be produced and stored as a fuel with only solar input.

The Grand Challenge Program has provided a focus for the endless array of things I have engaged in at Duke and has given me a greater purpose for pursuing engineering both at Duke and in the future.

During my second project, I worked on more conventional energy storage by writing my senior thesis on the processing of manganese dioxide on carbon nanotubes to achieve better and more reliable materials for supercapacitors. The project’s goal is to be able to pair the supercapacitors with photovoltaic cells in a footprint design so that the energy can be both produced and stored in the same device.

Thanks to the Grand Challenge Program, I have had access to world-class research instrumentation labs, participated in interdisciplinary and advanced courses in energy, attended presentations and conferences, and engaged in global service, all of which deepened my awareness and heightened my motivation to develop practical solutions for society's energy problems. The Grand Challenge Program has provided a focus for the endless array of things I have engaged in at Duke and has given me a greater purpose for pursuing engineering both at Duke and in the future. I plan to pursue a career in the renewable energy field with a focus on materials for solar energy. I recognize that by the time I have a steady career, the world’s energy landscape will look very different than it does today, but my experiences at Duke have prepared me to tackle both the present and future Grand Challenges of Engineering.