Daniel Corral | Student Spotlight
"Before attending graduate school, I was passionate about energy and catalysis, but I did not know to what end I would go. It was my experience as a master’s student at Stanford that steered my passion into pursuing a PhD.
As an undergraduate student, I was taught chemical engineering based on principles from the petrochemical industry: power generation from fossil fuels, natural gas, commodity chemicals production, etc. We learned so much about material and energy balances, separations, thermodynamics, which are all exciting, but I always felt that something was missing. I remember seeing a purge stream and asking myself, why would we release that into the air? We weren’t talking about emissions enough.
This encouraged me to continue schooling and seek an advanced degree related to renewable energy technologies. I started at Stanford as a master’s student- which allowed me to take interesting classes beyond the core tenants of chemical engineering. I also served within the Stanford Energy Club as the events chair, hosting panels and connecting industry speakers from various energy backgrounds to fellow students. I was particularly inspired by electrochemistry and catalysis, and how we can utilize these concepts to transform the energy sector. From Prof. Jaramillo, I learned it would take many different efforts working together in concert: energy synergy. Thereafter, I began doing research in his group, studying the electrochemical conversion of carbon dioxide. This would become my angle towards this problem, the way to turn my passions into scientific contributions.
Our research focuses on understanding the governing factors for converting carbon dioxide using electricity. Imagine how many bonds you can make with carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms- we develop electrolyzer systems and tailor electrodes to produce specific compounds with higher selectivity. Recently, we used 3D printing to make reactors that led to improved performance due to a series of design implementations. We also identified and explored mechanisms that influence the changing availability of CO2 for reaction. This has served as a strong platform for probing the effects of other components, like the electrode architecture and catalyst surface. These efforts, along with others in the literature, are pointing towards something other than technology being the determining factor for future implementation.
The prospects of electrochemical CO2 reduction are high if we take the right steps. In combination with renewable energy, we could create relevant value-added chemicals and fuels, all while mitigating emissions. What’s more exciting is the challenge itself- telling electrons and atoms where to go in an extremely complex system that we can’t even see."