Two years ago, Ryerson University chemical engineering undergraduate Prrunthaa Santhirakumaran joined the CIC Energy Division, fundamentally altering the course of her academic trajectory.
Santhirakumaran – now in her fourth year – was initially attracted to the discipline because it offers a wide range of career possibilities. She had a vague sense she might like to focus on pharmaceuticals or food. But when the division exposed her to the world’s urgent need for renewable energy production and storage in the face of climate change, Santhirakumaran knew she had found her passion.
“There’s a lot at stake for the Earth and a lot of potential in the coming years with electric vehicles and smart energy devices,” she says. “I never thought before about how far you can go in this field.”
Santhirakumaran has already made inroads. Shortly after joining the CIC Energy Division, she met its chair, Ryerson chemical engineering professor Hadis Zarrin, who works with smart materials and membranes for clean technologies.
That meeting would eventually lead to a research assistant position with Zarrin in her Nanoengineering Laboratory of Energy and Environmental Technologies. The lab focuses on engineering different types of nanostructured materials to increase their electrochemical performance, lifetime, mechanical integrity, and thermal stability. The materials are destined for clean energy-storage and -conversion devices, such as hydrogen fuel cells, supercapacitors, and batteries for electric vehicles, wearable devices and other applications.
Santhirakumaran is now working on a wearable self-powered health monitoring platform targeting glucose levels for the start-up company, Sensofine Inc. The device – which is being designed as a wristbandis meant to pick up chemical signals from sweat to reveal blood glucose levels in people with diabetes.
She is helping to design a piezoelectric mat, or fabric, for the device that uses mechanical stress, like biomechanics of the human body, to generate energy. “So, when the wearer generates motion, it produces electricity,” says Santhirakumaran.
She recently leveraged what she’s learned about piezoelectricity to help her student team win first place in a design competition to create an energy-efficient building on campus. Her part involved creating a mat for harvesting energy from the building occupants’ footsteps.
“It was the first time I did something like that and I was really nervous. Now I’m interested in doing a masters and continuing in the energy field – supercapacitors and batteries seem pretty cool to me,” she says.
In the meantime, Santhirakumaran will continue in her role as secretary to the CIC Energy Division – a title she says that only loosely defines what she does: “We all do whatever needs to be done. We promote the division’s work and energy news with students, academia, and the industry. It’s a great group.”