Marta Hatzell joined the George Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering in August 2015.Prior to joining Georgia Tech, she completed a postdoctoral research fellowship in the department of Material Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In August 2014, she completed her Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University as a NSF Graduate Research Fellow. She also earned master’s degrees in Environmental Engineering and Mechanical Engineering and a bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering, all from the Pennsylvania State University. Her research interests include electrochemical systems for waste conversion, water treatment, and energy generation.
What brought you to Georgia Tech?
Georgia Tech’s mechanical engineering department was definitely a great fit for me. Having an interdisciplinary background in mechanical and environmental engineering, I was looking to work in a department that promoted crossing traditional boundaries. The Woodruff school faculty definitely have a long history of working in diverse areas that are not always historically thought of as mechanical engineering.
Describe some of the synergies and trade-offs between water and energy use and food production.
Water, energy and food have an interesting interdependence which has been very influential since the time of the Romans. Water is necessary for food production, but is also necessary for energy generation. Most people are aware that nearly 40% of our water withdrawal daily goes to irrigation, but another 40% of our water is used for cooling at thermoelectric power plants. Additionally, food production is necessary for energy generation. Corn based ethanol is a large percentage of the fuel used to meet the renewable fuel standards set by the EPA. Food production also strongly influences our water systems. Phosphorus and nitrate runoff from common fertilizers dictates what type of water treatment must take place. In terms of energy, energy is critical to maintain our water treatment facilities, and is necessary for the production of fertilizer and food in general.
What implications do these interconnections have for technological development?
Our water and energy infrastructures are definitely going to be shifting a bit in the years to come because of the interdependence between water, energy and food. Traditionally wastewater treatment focuses on removing containments through biological and chemical means. However, there are new emerging containments from agriculture and energy generation sites which our current treatment methods are not equipped to remove. Therefore, new technologies which can remove these new constituents is growing in importance. There is also a growing emphasis to turn our waste treatment facilities into energy neutral resource recovery facilities. New facilities will therefore focus equally on treatment and resource/energy recovery practices. Developing technologies which are capable of extracting or mining waste streams for nutrients, metals, or energy will aid in prompting self-sufficient water treatment.
Describe some of the recent related research focuses of the Waste and Thermal Energy Research (WATER) Lab?
My group is working on electrolysis based systems for clean hydrogen production. We are very interested in hydrogen and ammonia based electrolysis and their influence on fertilizer production. Typically, the Haber-Bosch process which is used to make fertilizer, uses hydrogen made by steam reformation mechanism. These processes are very energy intensive and emissions heavy, so long term we are interested in developing sustainable alternatives. We are also in the processes of developing technologies that use waste-heat as the primary source of energy to deionize brackish water. Most desalination in the United States actually takes place to treat brackish waters rather than seawater.
Most promising developments in energy generation and storage?
Grid scale energy storage through electrochemical means is a very promising approach to integrating renewable energy in the United States. In particular, flow batteries based around low cost and environmentally safe chemistries I believe are the most promising approach that appears to be gaining traction. Implementation of grid scale flow batteries could substantially affect our society.
If you were not teaching/conducting research, what would you be doing?
If I was not conducting research or teaching, I think I would be working at an energy or water based start-up company. I definitely am motivated by the possibility of innovating solutions to tough problems and have always liked working in a team based atmosphere.