Dr. Jennifer Littlejohns is friendly, open and ready to speak about engineering anytime. She is enthusiastic, energetic and an advocate for young people going into science, especially females. Her journey to becoming a Research Council Officer and Program Technical Lead in the Bioenergy Systems for Viable Stationary Applications program in the Energy Mining and Environment Research Centre in Ottawa is an interesting one, one that shows dedication to the field of chemical engineering and the environment.
Jennifer has always been passionate about applying science to combat climate change. She completed her undergraduate engineering degree at the University of Guelph where she studied biological engineering and focused on bioprocess engineering in such projects as hydrogen production from brewery waste as a renewable fuel. She completed many co-op terms in various areas including research of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in drinking water and analysis of contaminants in fish and brewing. During this time, she identified her passion for research and set off to do graduate work at Queen's University in chemical engineering where she earned a PhD developing a bio scrubber for industrial waste gas treatment. She joined Iogen Energy, where she researched the conversion of agricultural waste into transportation biofuel, then Abbott Point of Care where she optimized bioprocesses for biosensor manufacturing. Here at the NRC, Dr. Littlejohns' work continues to focus on clean energy and the environment by converting biomass into combined heat and power using a thermal chemical process.
"We were a team of mechanical engineers working on internal combustion engines. When the NRC started to focus on bioenergy, we realized that we were lacking expertise in chemical engineering", says Stuart Neill, Program Technical Lead in biofuel and power plant compatibility at the Energy Mining and Environment Research Centre in Ottawa. "Jennifer's expertise in working in pilot plant operations and in scaling up processes was exactly what we were looking for. Her passion for bioenergy was evident immediately and her breadth and depth of knowledge in various aspects of the field is superb."
The topic of clean energy is very prominent in today's discussions, but compared to wind energy and solar energy, biofuel is a lot less understood, primarily because it's not as visible to the public. One type of gaseous biofuel is called syngas which can be produced from biomass and used for bioenergy production. Besides forest materials and residues, residual wood, such as construction and demolition waste, can be converted to syngas via a process called gasification. The syngas can then be used to power an engine that produces electricity and heat. This process can take one kilogram of wood and produce one kilowatt-hour of energy, which will keep a sixty- watt incandescent light bulb burning for fifteen hours. With forestry being one of Canada's largest industries, syngas is a viable alternative to diesel use for remote communities, but one of the biggest challenges is to make a gasifier that is one size fits all. Biomass varies considerably from one batch to another, so you need to develop a bioenergy production system that adapts and is reliable.
"I am really passionate about being an engineer. Engineering is an incredible choice to make as a profession because it is very versatile, it allows you to apply the science you know, keep the big picture in mind, while at the same time sinking your teeth into a problem. When I joined the NRC three years ago I felt confident and at home here, knowing that I was part of a dedicated team that was making a contribution to what I feel is the world's biggest challenge – climate change. It's an important time for biofuels and bioenergy in general, and it's exciting to be part of it!" says Dr. Littlejohns.