Making Clean Fuel through Microbes - by Judy Xu '18

Besides offering the two traditional engineering majors  - Mechanical Engineering and Electrical and Computing Engineering - Olin allows students to choose their own concentration in Engineering and design their program accordingly. Among the most popular concentrations are Computing, Materials, Systems, BioEngineering, Design and Robotics. With these programs, students can pursue what they are most passionate about, both at Olin and beyond.

Andrea Lai '11 graduated with an Engineering degree, Concentration: Bioengineering.  She has now begun a meaningful and non-traditional career in sustainability.

Immediately after Olin, Andrea began work as a bioprocess engineer at LanzaTech, which has locations in Auckland and Chicago. LanzaTech is a company "commercializing a carbon capture and reuse technology that converts carbon-rich waste gases into high-quality, advanced biofuels and chemicals"1 through microbial fermentation. Now, LanzaTech is commercializing its technology from lab to large scale production.

Andrea chose to work for LanzaTech because she likes doing hands-on work in the lab. Her work is pretty varied, including mostly process design and plant operations, but also running lab experiments, doing lifecycle modeling, and grant writing. Her favorite courses at Olin were core biology classes such as Microbial Diversity, which relates very much to the lab work that she does at LanzaTech.

Andrea feels that her education at Olin has significantly helped her perform well on the job. Because LanzaTech is a small company, she is often asked to do something out of her comfort zone. Olin's education built up Andrea's confidence in her ability to learn quickly, because she did this so often at Olin in her many open-ended projects. One design course, User-Oriented Collaborative Design (UOCD), was particularly useful because it introduced her to user-friendly thinking, something not emphasized in a traditional engineering education. Andrea put these concepts to work when at LanzaTech, she saw that internal data managing could be improved to be friendlier, and easier to understand and use with the scientists and workers who were running the plants.

  

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Andrea at work in Shanghai making some fermentation media (a mixture of vitamins + nutrients that bacteria need for growth - kind of like bacteria food!) in a big tank

In addition to working in Auckland and Chicago, Andrea had the opportunity to work in Shanghai for 7 months to operate LanzaTech's first pre-commercial plant in partnership with a Chinese steel company. The size of the plant amazed her as she had never seen such enormous machines and operations before. Although she survived Olin without pulling any all-nighters, she gained that experience in Shanghai as well, where she sometimes worked night shifts as the process ran 24 hours.

According to Andrea, it was fun working in a team with other LanzaTech engineers and recent grads from local Chinese universities. LanzaTech also has projects in Taiwan and Japan. Andrea admits that it could be challenging working abroad, but it helped that she was never alone - she was always accompanied by her colleagues. Her favorite thing about her job at LanzaTech is that she met good colleagues near her age that had the same interests and motivations as her and has continually learned new things. 

Posted in: A Broader World View, Alumni Speak