National Nanotechnology Center
National Science and Technology Development Agency
AsianScientist (Jun. 29, 2018) – There are no simple solutions to the problem of climate change, but methods to lower the levels of atmospheric carbon are critical if we are to ensure a sustainable future.
At her lab at the National Nanotechnology Center within the National Science and Technology Development Agency of Thailand, Dr. Pussana Hirunsit is using molecular simulations to discover and develop catalysts that convert carbon dioxide—produced in large amounts during manufacturing and the burning of fossil fuels—into chemicals and renewable energy sources. Her research also reveals fundamental insights into the electroreduction of carbon dioxide by a variety of nanomaterials.
For her contributions to the field of nanocatalysis, Hirunsit received the 2017 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science National Award. She shares with Asian Scientist Magazine about her research, her hopes and her hobbies, as well as the challenges she has faced as a scientist.
- How would you summarize your research in a tweet (140 characters)?
Using molecular simulations to study nanomaterials that will open new possibilities for energy conversion and storage in the era of renewable energy.
- Describe a completed research project that you are most proud of.
Even if a research project is completed within its proposal commitment and funding time, I personally would not consider the research completed per se. There is always room for further development in terms of scientific progress and there probably is no such thing as completion in science.
I’m currently working on developing efficient electrocatalysts for the electrochemical conversion of carbon dioxide into chemicals and fuels, catalysts for conversion of biomass into value-added chemicals and fuels, and carbon-based nanostructured materials for energy storage devices.
I feel most proud of the carbon dioxide conversion project because it was my first project when I started as a researcher at the National Nanotechnology Center in Thailand. The project outcomes have provided important theoretical insights, describing how thermodynamic and kinetic properties of the carbon dioxide electroreduction are influenced by many types of electrode material, and consequently revealing their impact on catalytic performance.
This leads to fundamental guidelines for the design and development of promising catalysts. The project is still ongoing, and it has led to new collaborations. I believe that it makes a solid contribution to the catalysis and nanomaterials scientific communities.
- What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
I hope that our research team’s work will pave the way for a future society that relies on renewable and sustainable energy and is able to protect its environment. I hope to see this happen in Thailand and globally. It is also my wish that my research will help to promote the importance of science in Thailand.
- Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
I like chemistry and I like logic, so I chose to study science in the field of chemistry. I had a chance to perform process simulation as my senior project when I was an undergraduate student. Subsequently, I pursued molecular simulation in chemistry and physics, focusing on materials, during my graduate studies. This choice was inspired by my advisor, Professor Perla Balbuena, and her work.
- What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
I think achieving excellence in research requires many essential components such as funding, research equipment, office facilities, management and most importantly, people. In my experience, the lack of funding for new scientific equipment can be a barrier to being competitive and doing frontier research. But on the positive side, we can cope with this challenge by seeking out collaborative research projects.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?
I think the biggest challenges are a decline in funding rate, reduced commitment by the government to support scientific research and a lack of training for the next generation of scientists to do good science. Government funding agencies must work with faculty and researchers to ensure that the funding programs meet the requirements for the progress of science in a country.
To hedge a country’s R&D bets, they should continue to fund the most deserving research, alongside a broad portfolio of scientific expertise. It is also important to make sure that students at a wide range of universities can be trained by research-active scientists to plant seeds for the next generation of scientists. Faculty and researchers should also be trained on coaching and mentoring techniques that can bring students to their full potential.
- If you had not become a scientist, what would you have done instead?
I would have become a psychologist. I have always been fascinated with the human mind. I think what got me really interested in the human mind was one of my favorite documentaries: This Emotional Life, by Professor Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist.
The documentary provides a glimpse into the lives of real people, exploring social relationships, how humans cope with emotional issues and how they can be extraordinarily resilient. I think we all carry the most complex thing in the world in our heads. It’s ours, yet we can’t truly understand it at all!
- Outside of work, what do you do to relax?
Exercising and hanging out with my good friends. I like running, walking, playing tennis and participating in yoga classes. I also like reading books and watching documentaries and movies. Traveling is also something I enjoy. I am often awed by nature and historic churches, buildings, sculptures and paintings.
- If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
I would like to solve global warming using my carbon dioxide conversion research. I wish to create a neutral carbon cycle in atmosphere by recycling waste carbon dioxide. When carbon dioxide is produced during the manufacturing process or from the consumption of chemicals and fuels, it can be converted back into chemicals and fuels. This will enable us to achieve net zero carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere. Chemicals and fuels could be produced from biomass conversion, and eventually, we would not depend on fossil fuels.
- What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
Get to know yourself, your goals and your passion. Make a good plan to chase those goals and follow those passions. Work with people who bring out the best in you. When you do meaningful things for yourself, others and society, you can find the strength and motivation to keep going forward and overcome obstacles along the way. Importantly, be aware that it’s the path and the people who surround you that make you enjoy each day, not the destination.
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photos: Pussana Hirunsit.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.