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Designed for a Cleaner Future

Designed for a Cleaner Future

When Sarah Arsenault was a girl growing up on her parents’ apple orchard in central Massachusetts, she knew three things: she had a fierce appreciation for the environment, she had an affinity for math and science, and she’d never be a farmer.

'It was part of the reason why I wanted to go to college,' says the WPI chemical engineering alumna. 'Both my parents are really hard workers and they taught me the value of hard work. But I didn’t want to work the land.'

Although she opted out of the family business, she says that in her own way she is working the land—by making sure it has a future.

Arsenault, a senior research engineer at United Technologies Research Center (UTRC), the central research and development center of United Technologies Corporation (UTC) in East Hartford, Conn., is an award-winning researcher in the development of safe, effective hydrogen storage systems for automotive fuel cells. In 2006, she and the Hydrogen Storage team at UTC were recognized by the Department of Energy for the successful development and demonstration of a generation 2 Hydrogen Storage prototype based on complex metal hydrides.

From the day she was accepted to WPI, Arsenault’s goal was to go into environmental engineering (she minored in it). It was therefore no surprise that she interned for Capaccio Environmental Engineering, an environmental consulting firm, where she designed industrial wastewater treatment systems. Although the experience was invaluable, it was not as satisfying as she had hoped it would be.

'I realized I absolutely hated cleaning up after someone made a spill,' she says, referring to accidents such as that of the Exxon Valdez, the tanker that ran aground in Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989, dumping 10 million gallons of crude oil into the sea.

'I wanted to work on new technology that would prevent negative environmental effects from happening,' says Arsenault, who was named one of the 15 New Faces of Engineering for 2007 by Engineers Week, a program that highlights the work of young engineers and their impact on society.

Her viewpoint, she says, is that we, as humans, come up with 'brilliant technology'—from the internal combustion engine to nuclear power—but we don’t necessarily recognize the environmental impact it will have.

'Look at our problems with global warming,' she adds. 'We have developed all of these breakthrough technologies in the past 200 years without awareness of their global cost. If we had understood those technologies better, we would have found a way around the environmental consequences. That’s the essence of my motivation. I wanted to do research that would have an impact upfront by designing environmentally friendly technologies. This was where graduate school made sense as an obvious route to the additional skills I needed to make an impact.'

Arsenault received her PhD from Tulane University in 2003, where she specialized in heterogeneous catalysis. It was the study of how catalysts accelerate chemical reaction rates that eventually led her into the fuel cell field.

UTRC’s research in hydrogen storage is funded through a Department of Energy contract, part of President Bush’s Hydrogen Fuel Initiative. Although it’s still in development, Arsenault says the project has made great strides toward turning the technology into a commercial reality by developing initial system prototypes. The impact on the environment is enormous, she says.

Hydrogen storage is absolutely fundamental to fuel cell technology. There are different ways to store hydrogen: as a high-pressure gas, as a cryo-liquid, or in a solid form—in a solid-state hydrogen storage material, such as a hydride or in a sorbent material. Arsenault’s team developed a method of solid storage that consists of a hydride that absorbs hydrogen. When heated, using the latent heat from the vehicle’s fuel cell, the hydride desorbs hydrogen, allowing it to be used to power the fuel cell.

Although many experts predict the commercial use of fuel cell technology for automotive applications is another 10 years away, Arsenault insists, 'it’s a critical application for the future of energy production.'
Another initiative she believes is as vital to the future as fuel cell technology is the advancement of women in science and engineering. Arsenault, a member (and past officer) of her local chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, has been instrumental in promoting the chemical engineering field to local colleges and hosting middle- and high school girls visiting UTRC.

Arsenault herself had a middle school math teacher who was extremely influential in developing her interest in math and science, encouraging her to take on special projects. In high school, she was one of only three girls in Advanced Placement courses and the only one interested in math and science. She admits to being an oddity. But she found her middle ground at WPI, where she became one of a number of women in the chemical engineering program, and she never looked back.

Although engineering is in her blood, an MBA is in her future. Arsenault is pursuing a degree from Carnegie Mellon University because she wants to be able to influence the business aspects of her research. 'How much influence can you have in an organization if you’re in the trenches?' she asks. 'You have to be able to provide some guidance on the direction the business needs to take.'

Still, her passion for engineering is not likely to wane anytime soon. 'I think that engineering is going to have a huge impact on the future—in energy, the environment, the medical field,' she says. 'I can’t think of another discipline that has such an impact on society.'

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