“Time is quickly running out for the world to come up with alternative solutions to the environmentally unfriendly practice of burning or otherwise consuming fossil fuels,” said Michelle MacDevette, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Centre for Research in Computational and Applied Mechanics (CERECAM).
It has been a keen desire of Michelle to be a part of that solution for many years. So when the time came around for her to consider doing a postdoctoral thesis, she immediately set about drafting an outline of a solar collector project involving the much-talked about direct absorption solar collectors (DASC).
DASCs are hopefully the answer to the uneconomical and inefficient solar plants currently in use. The main issues with the current plants stem from poor solar to thermal conversion efficiency and relatively low operational temperatures. DASCs address these shortcomings by absorbing solar energy directly into a carrier fluid, which then transports the heat away to a storage area.
“If nano-particles are suspended in the heat transfer fluid, I reckon we will be able to radically improve the efficiency of DASCs and therefore give the world a desperately needed cheap and efficient renewable energy source,” Michelle explained.
Putting her ideas to the test
Using graphite as the nano-particle, because of its superior heat transfer properties, Michelle is working on a mathematical model. The first part of the model involves the radiative transfer equation. This accounts for the attenuation of solar radiation through the depth of the collector. The second is the heat equation. This describes the distribution of heat in the collector.
A project of this magnitude would obviously require serious funding so Michelle submitted her project to be considered for a Claude Leon Postdoctoral Fellowship. Usually, post-doctoral fellows applying for grants use projects outlined by their supervisors, but not so in Michelle’s case.
“When I first met Michelle I was struck by her enthusiasm and passion for working on “real” problems in applied mathematics and was happy when my subsequent expectations of her were confirmed by the excellent research plan she submitted and for which she received the Claude Leon Postdoctoral Fellowship,” said Prof Daya Reddy, the Director of CERECAM and Michelle’s supervisor.
Michelle said that she thus far has been encouraged by the good results her models are predicting and is hoping that she will eventually end up collaborating with local companies interested in solar energy at a time when policymakers are struggling to implement a change to renewable energy sources because of cost implications.
Counting the cost
At the same time Michelle is counting the cost herself for the research she is doing, putting on hold a waiting lucrative career in industry, so that she can make a difference to the lives of ordinary South Africans.
“I love South Africa and prefer to live here as opposed to any other country in the world,” she said, explaining that her love for SA comes even after having lived in Spain while studying for her PhD and after having travelled extensively on travel grants to further her studies.
It is not uncommon for Michelle to do things that are out of the ordinary simply because she is curious. Several times she has gone on particular diets just to see what effect it would have on her, the most extreme being an ice-cream diet, which she does not recommend. While living in Spain she entered a 105 km ultra-marathon running race, where she ran against horses, on a whim. Although she “lost that race” against the horses she loved it so much that she has ended up participating in several more ultra-marathons.
Michelle encourages women, in particular, to aspire to a PhD. From a family aspect she has found it quite easy to manage because of the flexible time her work allows her.
It is this flexibility that has also given her the freedom to think creatively and to take the time to be curious about things and to ask questions that she is then able to try and answer in her own way.
“Of course solutions don’t always come easily and so the fun may turn into frustration. This is bound to happen, but it is all part of an important process that teaches perseverance. A posed problem must always be solved, but choosing whether to push through until a solution is found or to re-ask the same question in a different way is a skill that one must master.”
Other than solving the world’s energy and environmental crisis, Michelle has other aspirations. One of these that she holds close to her heart is a dream to build Iron Man, a robotic super-being. “Ideas are only farfetched until you start working on them,” she asserts. It is these farfetched quirky ideas that keep her interested in her work and motivated to keep expanding her skill sets.
“The dream of my future formidable self is the biggest influence on my life. I like to compare myself to whom I would like to be and that always makes me realise how much I still have to learn and do.”