Entry for:2019 Queensland Women in STEM Prize
1. Project summary (maximum 150 words)
A new approach in the automotive and aerospace industry for reducing CO2 emission is to decrease the overall weight of transportation vehicles by using high-performance rigid polymer foams, like poly(methacrylimide) (PMI). My industrially funded PhD scholarship focuses, in particular, on developing new routes towards the production of rigid PMI foams. While these non-toxic foams are time-proven products, they currently face some challenges in regards to their production. For example, the starting materials are hazardous to the environment. Other disadvantages include the lack of recycling options and the production of highly flammable gases when the PMI foam decomposes at higher temperatures. My research aim is to enhance the current industry standard by investigating new pathways, which utilise sustainable, commonly available starting materials and result in a cost-effective production process. Ideally, these goals should be achieved while improving the existing material properties and yielding a recyclable end product.
2. How does your project benefit Queensland? (maximum 500 words)
Climate change is a worldwide issue primarily caused by human driven emission of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2). As our modern society grows globally, economically and in population CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion increases. As a consequence the average global temperature has increased by 0.8 ºC since 1880.
This dramatic change in temperature has a profound impact on Queensland. In addition to the slow destruction of iconic natural wonders such as the Great Barrier Reef; severe cyclones, flooding events and bush fires are becoming more frequent and causing dramatic environmental as well as economical destructions. To prevent or minimize any further rise in the global temperature, Australia has set a target to reduce emissions by 26-28 % of 2005 levels by the year 2030, to position itself as one of the leading nations in decreasing greenhouse gases.
A critical factor contributing to the production of CO2 is the transportation sector. Queensland is the second largest state in Australia, which means that transportation systems like cars or airplanes are getting used quite regularly. To reach the targeted emissions goal by 2030, the automotive, and aerospace industries have begun investigating “green mobility”, light-weight transportation systems which reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For example a weight reduction of 1 kg in an airplane can save 3 tonnes of fuel in 20 operating years.
A promising approach in vehicular weight reduction is the replacement of metal components in the design of vehicle bodies by sandwiched composite structures. Sandwich structures typically consist of two thin fibre composite plates such as carbon fibre reinforced polymer surrounding a core material (e.g. rigid polymer foam) providing minimum weight with a maximum level of stiffness. In comparison, a standard car utilising sandwiched composite materials instead of aluminium would have an overall weight reduction of 40% while retaining similar mechanical properties. The VW Golf V Diesel® is a prime example of a car utilising this technology.
Although it is an excellent product with outstanding mechanical properties, there is still room for improvement. My PhD project conducted at Queensland University of Technology and in collaboration with Evonik Industries AG, focuses on the enhancement of the environmental impact and the recycling capabilities of the current PMI foam production. My PhD research has a huge impact on Queensland in regards to protect our environment, while simultaneously keeping our high standards in life quality. Furthermore my project shows that an international collaboration between Queensland and Germany can lead to a significant improvement in exchanging ideas and pushing leading technologies to higher levels.
 NASA Global Climate Change – Vital Signs of the Planet_ https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/
 Australian Government-Australia`s 2030 climate change target, 2015
3. What STEM promotion/engagement activities do you do/have you done? (maximum 500 words)
STEM is critical towards developing our understanding of our surroundings as well as improving our quality of life. The enormous breadth of research possibilities within the field of chemistry is what inspired me to pursue a degree in chemistry at the University of Stuttgart in 2009. Early in my career, I was drawn towards industrial chemistry and the opportunities to make large scale, positive impacts. During my Master’s degree I had the opportunity to undertake industrial chemical research as well as partake in paid internships at world leading chemical companies such as Bosch GmbH and Evonik Industries AG. It was through my exploration of chemistry in industry that I became aware of; the majority of my STEM-colleagues were men. It was here I became passionate about engaging young women and encouraging them to pursue STEM opportunities.
During my PhD studies which I started at the end of 2016 at the Soft Matter Materials Group under the supervision of ARC Laureate Fellow Prof. Christopher Barner-Kowollik and Senior Lecturer Dr. James Blinco at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) I became active in STEM in order to encourage young scientists, especially young women, to pursue opportunities within the STEM community. In addition to my PhD studies I have demonstrated several chemistry courses at QUT helping others to gain a proficiency in safe laboratory practices as well as a foundational knowledge in chemistry. Since 2017 I have been a student representative of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) polymer group Queensland. In addition to organizing social events, I was also on the organising committee as well as an invited speaker at the Queensland Annual Chemistry Symposium – QACS 2018 where chemistry researchers are invited to present oral presentations. The aim of QACS 2018 was to connect Australian-based STEM professionals and facilitate the sharing of ideas and building stronger Australian collaborations.
I have also presented my scientific outcomes at several conferences in Queensland e.g. the Queensland Mass Spectrometry Symposium. In April this year I will attend the `Advanced Polymers via Macromolecular Engineering (APME) conference hosted by Stellenbosch University (South Africa). I intend to showcase the new knowledge in PMI foam production I have made here at QUT to a global polymer audience, consisting of both academic and industrial professionals and to extend my STEM network. Aside from my regular attendance to technical scientific conferences I have also contributed to a more general audience via the German week Science and Innovation Day held in Brisbane in 2018. At this symposium I wanted to empower aspiring STEM scientists, especially young women, that studying abroad is an excellent opportunity. I highlighted the benefits, including mental growth, independence, boosting self-confidence and the prospect of meeting new people within the STEM community.
In the future I want to continue to emphasize the importance of women in STEM by contributing to develop solutions for real world problems, to achieve a more harmonized relation between humans and nature.