A few questions for Dr Jessica O’Brien

Jess O’Brien is one of CSIRO’s most newly-minted PhD graduates. Her thesis, which was about making hydrogen fuel using solar energy and water, was accepted earlier this year after she wrapped up three years of research co-supervised by the University of Newcastle.

Although she’s working for another organisation now, she returned recently to talk to current graduate students at CSIRO and pass on some of the experience she gained during her studies. While she was here she kindly opened up to the solar blog about her PhD research – and about how she came to follow science as a career.

How would you describe the work you did for your PhD?

I was part of a very small research group working on a large-scale renewable method of hydrogen production. Hydrogen has high energy density and can be produced with no greenhouse emissions by splitting water into its components – hydrogen and oxygen.

Hydrogen can then be used in a fuel cell where it recombines with oxygen to make water and electricity. This makes hydrogen a great storage medium for renewable energy since it can be produced when the resource is available and used when required. Our cycle (the hybrid sulfur cycle) utilises solar energy inputs in a thermo-electrochemical cycle to split water in two separate steps with sulfur species used as chemical intermediates. My PhD was focused on catalyst development for one of these steps involving an electrochemical reaction (a chemical reaction involving electrons, that is electrical current).

What was it about solar energy research that appealed to you as an area of research?

“I loved that I would be working on a (possible) future solution to the current energy crisis.”

I loved that I would be working on a (possible) future solution to the current energy crisis. People generally believe that someone, somewhere is on the verge of a solution and that if coal or oil or other unsustainable energy-production methods fail, some magic alternative will emerge. Our water-splitting cycle could well be this alternative.

When did you realise you wanted to go into science? How did it come about?

When I was about five, my mum sat me down with a brain teaser puzzle which took most adults hours to complete. I did it in 15 minutes. She immediately got me to do it again, with heart in her mouth and dreaming of a Nobel Prize win and interviews on day-time TV. It turns out the first time was blind luck because I couldn’t do it again. So I’ve always known I’m not a genius and that it takes hard work to solve difficult problems. Despite this, when I was younger I would work obsessively on brainteasers and puzzles and always thought I would be an engineer. I’m not sure where my passion for renewables came from, but everyone wants to make a difference, so maybe this niche just suited my problem-solving obsession.

What advice would you give other young Australians who are considering a career in renewable energy?

It is a very exciting time in Australia for renewable energy and many innovative technologies are starting to be commercialised. Solar energy of course will always have a place in Australia, the sunburnt country, and there is so much going on I can’t even imagine what the solar energy space might look like in a few years time! I would say be passionate, think about what you would like to see in the energy landscape of Australia, and make it happen.


Learn more about our hydrogen research here.

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