Energized by Trash

by Melanie A. Farmer 

Ah-Hyung (Alissa) Park gets some of her best research ideas from her mother. One of the most recent was about garbage.

Park’s mother, a homemaker and artist living in Seoul, follows a mandatory recycling program that requires all waste—from food to plastics—be separated and sorted into specific trash bags. “My mom says she spends hours sorting garbage and recycling, and asked me one day if there is at least something useful done to all this,” said Park, the Lenfest Junior Professor in Applied Climate Science at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Ah-Hyung (Alissa) Park [Image credit: Eileen Barroso / Columbia University]
Professor Ah-Hyung Park
Image credit: Eileen Barroso / Columbia University

With her mother’s concern in mind, Park began an in-depth look into sustainable energy-conversion systems and carbon sequestration—research that this year won her two National Science Foundation grants (including a $400,000 Career Award) and three Department of Energy grants. Park said she is particularly thrilled about the NSF Career Award. “Anytime you get funding it’s a wonderful thing, but this, in particular, was exciting because you’re judged for how much potential you have for a successful career,” she said, “and you’re competing against very talented colleagues in your specific field.”

Although Park works on several projects at once, the overarching theme of her research is the sustainable conversion of energy sources and the development of carbon capture and storage technologies. “We live in a society which is built on and uses large quantities of carbon,” she said. “Any carboneous sources can be converted into valuable fuels or chemicals. It just takes energy to do so.” To meet this challenge, Park’s award-winning research focuses on developing an efficient, cost-effective energy-conversion system that converts non-recyclable plastics into jet fuel, while eliminating CO2 emissions. Waste-to-energy schemes have been studied by many researchers, but Park’s novel approach will advance this area of the research by providing not only sustainable energy but also environmental benefits through carbon sequestration.

Her research team is also investigating ways to engineer mineral carbonates so that they can be used as carbon-neutral filler materials for papers and plastics. This, again, closes another loop for the carbon cycle.

Park joined Columbia in the fall of 2007 after completing her post-doctoral studies at Ohio State University, where she focused on converting coal into jet fuel. She is also the associate director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy. Professor Klaus Lackner, who is the center’s director, and Park work closely to address three main areas related to sustainable energy: solar energy, nuclear energy and fossil energy with carbon capture and storage. As a chemical engineer, Park has worked on various energy-conversion systems, an interest she developed as an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia. These days, however, she is looking at the bigger picture regarding our energy uses and how they are tied to the environment.

“We know how to process natural resources and convert them into products, from your plastic coffee cup to spaceships. The future is focused on how we can do this in an environmentally friendly way,” said Park. “That’s what motivates me, to design the energy-conversion system from the beginning in such a clean way that we don’t have to clean up our mess at the opposite end.”

For her next project, Park will be working on a way to convert biomass into pure hydrogen, which can then be fed to a fuel cell directly. Asked whether her mom has offered any other new research suggestions, Park replied with a laugh, “Not yet. She’s traveling in Japan and having a good time, but I should talk to her soon.”

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