Careers & Student Outcomes

Chemical Engineering Junior Earns Entry into National Competition

Isabella Furrick’s research presentation wins her a top spot at the Mid-Atlantic American Institute of Chemical Engineers Conference

A partnership starts in the classroom

Isabella Furrick ‘24 has been working with Chemical Engineering and Materials Science Assistant Professor Alyssa Hensley since the fall of 2022, and the word Hensley uses to describe her undergraduate researcher is “bold.”

The two met when Furrick took Hensley’s thermodynamics class in the fall of 2021 and just 18 months after that first meeting, Furrick’s determination and hard work in Hensley's lab was winning her awards.  

Furrick is a Cooperative Education student and completed a work placement at BP lubricants doing industrial research. She found research exciting, but felt that being in an industry setting limited the direction that one could take projects. She was interested in seeing whether research in an academic environment was different. She had been intrigued by the research projects Henlsey shared when she took that first class with her, and at the end of her co-op placement, reached out to Hensley to see if she had a spot in her lab. Hensley brought her in for the Fall 2022 semester and the two immediately got to work.

“I just really love Professor Hensley’s teaching style,” explained Furrick. “She was able to take these really complex thermodynamic concepts I've never heard of before and make them interesting.”

Photo of Isabella Furrick presenting her research, standing behind a podium and looking at research data on a large projectorIsabella Furrick '24 presents her research at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Conference hosted by Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

In the spring of 2023, Furrick shared her work from Hensley's lab at the Mid-Atlantic American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Conference hosted by Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. These conferences are regional events, usually organized by a school’s AIChE Chapter, that give undergraduates a chance to share their research in posters and speaking sessions, as well as offering networking and socializing opportunities.

At this conference, she was part of a “technical presentation” competition with eight other students to give a 15-minute oral presentation of her work. She came in first place, winning $200. Students who are the winners of the regionals compete at the national level, so this coming November 2023, Furrick will attend the national AIChE Annual Meeting in Orlando, Florida, where she will present her work again along with all the other region winners from other parts of the U.S. As the winner of regional, she will be representing the entire coalition of participating Mid-Atlantic schools at this conference. 

A chemical reaction

The project that Henlsey assigned to Furrick focuses on making hydrogen fuel cells more affordable. Fuel cells are similar to batteries, with an anode and a cathode, but unlike batteries, they won’t wear down — they will continue working for as long as fuel is supplied. Hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity using hydrogen as fuel and generate only water and heat as “waste,” making them a more sustainable substitution for fossil fuel energy.

However, hydrogen fuel cell use is limited because currently they use very expensive platinum catalysts to perform their chemical reactions. Hensley’s research is looking into creating a combination of metals that allow for an efficient hydrogen oxidation reaction without platinum’s high price tag. Her lab computationally models the chemical reactions of various metal combinations to look for potential candidates that could be experimentally tested. 

“At first I was a little intimidated, because it's computational chemistry,” admitted Furrick. “But I knew that it would be fine, because Professor Hensley is a great teacher. I knew that I would get a good learning experience out of it, even if it was difficult.”

Furrick took to the work in the lab very quickly, gaining confidence and suggesting ideas. First, the team had to figure out why the leading replacement for platinum, nickel, doesn’t work as well. “From looking at a pure nickel catalyst, we found that the main reason it doesn't perform as well for hydrogen oxidation is because it binds oxygen really strongly,” explained Furrick. That gave the team the idea to look for a metal they could combine with nickel to weaken the oxygen bonds. 

They looked at 14 different promoter metals (metals that increase, or promote, catalyst activity), adding them to the nickel catalysts at a concentration of 6% — around one promoter metal atom for every 16 or so nickel atoms. Then they analyzed the binding energy of hydrogen, oxygen and hydroxide to see which promoter metals would most effectively weaken oxygen binding. 

The team used computational equations to effectively model the changes that a surface can undergo during a chemical reaction, and account for various environmental conditions such as pressure and temperature. In the end, there was a clear winner out of their tested metals. 

“Our main conclusion was that, compared to all the 14 promoter metals we tested, nickel-gold acted most like platinum for hydrogen oxidation, and it was about a tenth of the cost of a platinum catalyst,” said Furrick. 

This computational work helps people who are in the lab experimentally testing and building these catalysts make more informed design decisions. Explained Furrick, “We have this computational data that says certain promoter metals weaken oxygen binding better than others, so they can test a smaller subset, and that'll speed up the design process.”

Taking their knowledge on the road

This past year, Furrick and Hensley applied to a program called Sustainable Research Pathways (SRP) with the Sustainable Horizons Institute, a nonprofit platform that encourages diversity and inclusion in science and technology. In SRP, underrepresented students and faculty are connected with scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Laboratories for scientific and professional collaborations. The pair were accepted to the elite program. 

Photo of Furrick and Hensley pointing at a computer screen with a poster presentation on the wall behind themElizabeth Furrick '24 and Alyssa Hensley, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials ScienceExplained Furrick, “As these nickel-based systems get more complicated, it's a little harder to model all the different variations. So we're looking at introducing some machine learning into this work which would help us test more iterations of the catalyst faster.” 

Hensley will be at the laboratories for three non-consecutive weeks over the summer, and Furrick will be there for 10 weeks, providing expertise from her research and learning from the professionals at Sandia. 

Henlsey sees the opportunity as a knowledge swap. Said Hensley, “They have a lot of very useful techniques related to machine learning. We're basically trying to bring our expertise on the design of nickel catalyst for hydrogen fuel cells to the lab and learn a little bit of their expertise.” 

This exciting opportunity allows Furrick to gain on-site experience and will help her and Hensley expand their research moving forward. 

Catalyzing the future

In addition to their collaboration with the National Labs through the SRP program, Hensley and Furrick have other events to look forward to within the next few months. 

Henlsey is organizing a symposium at the National American Chemical Society Fall Conference in San Francisco and will be traveling with Furrick and her graduate students to the National Chemical Engineering Annual Meeting in Florida, where Furrick will compete in sharing her work. Furrick is heading into her senior year and beginning to think about graduate school. 

Both plan to continue to perform research together and look forward to continuing to learn from one another. 

“One of the life skills I've learned from Professor Hensley is, always be asking questions,” said Furrick. “Always be curious, and stay curious about things.”

Hensley, for her part, is continually inspired by Furrick. “She's been just a really great addition to my research group. She gets along amazingly well with my graduate students, and at this point I would say that Izzie is performing research at a level that, I say, is comparable to Ph.D. students.”

Although she has only been a part of Hensley’s lab since fall of 2022, Furrick is making waves for the lab and for her own future. She has had the opportunity to travel across the U.S. due to her research, as well as presenting to and learning from a variety of experts. The past year for Furrick and Hensley serves as an incredible example of what can happen when talented professors invest in the success of their hard-working students. 

Learn more about academic programs and research in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science: