My passion, electrochemistry

Her future profession

What do electricity and the molecules that make up living things and inanimate matter have in common? They are made up of small particles called electrons. Electricity is a stream of electrons that move together in a circuit. And molecules are assemblies of several atoms that contain these small particles called electrons. With such a bond, it is not surprising that fascinating chemical phenomena occur between electricity and molecules. It is these phenomena and their applications that interest electrochemists.

Since everything is made up of molecules, electrochemists can intervene in all fields, from the environment to energy production, including new technologies and health. And they can work with specialists in all of these areas.

In health, electrochemistry can be used to make diagnoses or assess medical situations by performing biochemical measurements. For example, analyzing the amount of blood sugar. People with diabetes often have too high blood sugar and they should watch it. To do this, they use a glucometer, a small device that fits in the palm of your hand and measures the amount of sugar in a drop of blood. Inside this device, the enzyme removes electrons from glucose and these electrons are transferred to the electrical circuit of the glucometer. The more sugar, the more electrons removed, the stronger the electric current produced. And the glucometer computer can calculate the amount of blood sugar based on the intensity of the current.

Electrochemical applications also serve the environment. An example? Solar energy! The material that makes up solar panels contains molecules capable of absorbing solar energy. The energy captured then allows the electrons to escape in a circuit. And when electrons all escape together, it produces electricity! The best part is that this electricity, produced by electrochemistry, is clean. The current challenge is to create solar panels that more efficiently transform solar energy into electricity.

Without waiting for a solution to the cost problem, electrochemists are already working to develop thin and flexible solar panels. We could put them everywhere, not just on flat places like roofs. Just think of clothes fitted with flexible solar panels to heat the wearer, while recharging MP3 players, cell phones or batteries.

Using hydrogen or natural gas, rather than gasoline, is also cleaner for the environment. But this natural gas is pumped at the same time as oil in the drilling fields. Electrochemists offer another solution: water. Water is made up of oxygen and hydrogen. By using electricity, we can separate the two and thus produce the hydrogen that could drive cars. Electrochemists are already capable of this. The challenge is to do it on a large scale.

This hydrogen could also be used to generate electricity using fuel cells. In this type of cell, an electrochemical reaction is caused between hydrogen and oxygen in the air. This produces water and electricity. This is how astronauts produced their electricity by going to the Moon aboard Apollo XI and all the Apollo rockets.

Other environmental applications of electrochemistry have a promising future: the extraction of hazardous substances from industrial waste, and of heavy or precious metals, such as copper and silver; the breakdown of toxic products into harmless products, such as cyanide into nitrogen and carbon dioxide, two gases already present in the atmosphere.

In short, electrons make electrochemists a real jack-of-all-trades or almost.

Her choice

I grew up in Donnacona, a small town 30 minutes from Quebec. My parents are not in the scientific field, but that did not prevent me from being interested in it from a young age. I started my “career” by inventing new drinks in the family kitchen. Then, when I was 10 years old, a friend of mine received a chemistry kit as a gift. Happiness ! The experiments in the manual were reproduced. I loved it, I wanted to do it all! I still remember a water purification experiment.

My scientific curiosity grew with me. Over the years, I have felt more and more fascinated by the material that surrounds us. I never knew enough about the elements of which it is made. From secondary 5, I was determined to study science, and in particular chemistry.

I chose pure sciences at CEGEP, then chemistry, at Laval University. But in the middle of my baccalaureate, I realized that I liked laboratory work a lot more than theory. I left the program to do a DEC in analytical chemistry techniques at the Cégep de Lévis-Lauzon. Afterwards, I accepted a job at the Laboratory of molecular endocrinology of the CHUL, in Quebec. This lab is affiliated with a hospital and does breast cancer research there. This is where I fell for research.

I moved to Montreal and got an undergraduate research grant from NSERC. I completed my bachelor’s degree in chemistry at UQAM. Which courses have interested me the most? Thermodynamics and organic chemistry. Very concerned about the environment and green energies, I then chose to do an internship in an electrochemistry and energy conversion laboratory. Solar cells were very unfamiliar to me at the time.

This mixture of organic chemistry and electrochemistry fascinated me so much, that I wanted to deepen the subject at the master’s level. In particular, I attended the fuel cell and electrochemical energy courses. I’m now thinking of enrolling in specialized courses on how to make and install solar cells. I will never finish learning.

Her goal

My goal is to become a rigorous, methodical and persevering scientist. In research, there can be many failures before getting a small breakthrough. It can be stressful. Fortunately, the work is most often done in a team. We encourage each other.

My partner also encourages me – he’s a scientist like me – he helps me to stay confident. I must also thank certain professors who have kept my interest in science, and also Radio-Canada which broadcasts Découverte, a program hosted by Charles Tisseyre, whom I really like.

Electrochemistry is a booming field. And today, women can enter this scientific field in the same way as men – and not only this, it goes without saying. It has not always been the case. My first heroine, Marie Curie, made a big impact on the world of science by winning two Nobel Prizes when a woman in the 1800s could not even do research or teach at university. It’s quite an achievement! My hero is Einstein. His creative and visionary spirit did not allow himself to be constrained or limited by the theories of his time.

I’d like to pursue a career in energy, particularly in renewable energy. It would give me great satisfaction if I discovered new molecules or a material that could contribute to the production of clean electrical energy.

I really want to see a more affordable and more efficient solar cell enter the market… and also electric cars recharged with solar energy. It’s going to become efficient and profitable, I’m sure… someday, solar power will be integrated into our provincial power grid. You will see that my dream is not a utopia.

Her contribution

The era of fossil fuels is drawing to a close. We must urgently review the way we consume them and, as of now, give up flooding large areas to build hydraulic dams. Paying more attention to alternatives that preserve biodiversity is essential.

Clean energy sources – with no emissions or CO2 emissions – must compete with hydro and oil. The first challenge is therefore to lower their cost. Another difficulty is the practical side. Consumers want it to be easy every day! I hope to help demonstrate that several other types of energy are available to generate electricity and operate our various devices, and that there are ways to adapt the sources to the environment in which we live. Personally, I bet on solar.

It is obvious that everything that is alive on Earth benefits from energy solutions that bring us closer to the Kyoto targets. Natural habitats for animals and plants must be protected. It is terrible to see that there are not enough trees and that we continue to cut down.

As a chemist, I can make my contribution to the production of new clean energies and, thus, to the reduction of our greenhouse gas emissions. There will always be an energy demand, but we will have to get used to consuming only what we really need and to produce energy responsibly. There are already promising examples. I think the city of Sarnia has made a remarkable green shift by supplying approximately 6,000 homes with electricity produced by solar panels.

I would love to work in a research center and be part of a research team. I would like to do my part in the field of renewable energies. I am thinking of taking pedagogical courses to help me better transmit my passion to young people. It is also important, for me, to actively participate in efforts to raise awareness of global warming on our planet.

Source: La Science prends le métro