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Student Spotlight: Mitchell Ishmael

Mitchell Ishmael, Materials Science and Engineering

What is your area of research? 

I work on understanding the heat capacity of fluid mixtures under supercritical conditions (think fluids at high temperature and pressure).

What inspired you to choose this field of study? 

I went to graduate school to work on renewable energy systems, any type really. My advisor, Jefferson Tester, studies a smorgasbord of sustainability issues, from geothermal energy to waste biomass processing to sustainable community development in Upstate New York. I think the wide scope of our interests aligned when we met, and that’s how I started working for him. My research interest in particular relies heavily upon the fundamentals of thermodynamics, something in which Jeff is an expert and that is important to all areas of energy development.

Why is this research important? 

Broadly speaking, accurate knowledge of the thermophysical properties of fluids allows scientists and engineers to design and optimize many types of chemical processes. Heat capacity measurements and calculations, specifically, are necessary for industrial applications like heat exchange/heat integration, which can be found in applications from beer brewing to electricity production.

How has your background influenced your scholarship? 

I graduated from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a small engineering school in Terre Haute, Indiana, that prides itself on producing engineers with a practical skillset. Doing research as a graduate student, where applicability and costs aren’t always forefront concerns (and rightly so), I have tried to keep an applied mindset at hand.

What else has influenced your thinking as a researcher or scholar? 

Jefferson Tester and Michael Thompson, a professor of Materials Science and Engineering who is also on my committee, have both been very influential but in different ways. Jeff, as my main advisor, has simultaneously pressed me to become a better critical thinker and scientist while giving me the freedom to make mistakes, explore different topics, and learn to work independently. He has pushed me to think differently about energy issues and broadened my viewpoint. For example, take Cornell’s annual energy usage—did you know half of it comes from heating? Before I joined the group I was so focused on renewable electricity, but intelligent space heating plays a significant role in sustainability. Jeff’s insight and perspectives on big picture energy systems have shaped my understanding of how big the problem is and how we might work toward a solution.

Mike’s thermodynamics course during the first year of my graduate studies drove me to develop the energy storage technology I mention below. He’s offered great advice and been an invaluable counterpoint throughout my research. Especially in my experimentation, Mike has been a voice of reason, talking me down from complex solutions, helping me get to the root of the issue and solve it simply.

You’re one of six doctoral students to receive a Commercialization Fellowship under the College of Engineering. Congratulations! Can you tell me a little bit about the technology you’ll be developing during this fellowship? 

Thank you! The technology is called “active energy storage,” and it centers around intelligent management of different sources of thermal energy to inexpensively store electricity on the MW/MWh scale. By leveraging robust, low-cost turbomachinery, optimized control strategies, and diurnal temperature swings, electricity can be efficiently stored as thermal energy. This technology is fundamentally different from conventional types of electricity storage, like pumped hydro or batteries, and it represent step forward over previously attempted pumped-heat electricity storage units.

What are you most looking forward to about the fellowship?

First, the time to focus. As developing active energy storage has been a side project to my main research, I’ve been doing it all in my free time, from developing models to cooperating with Cornell Technology Licensing on intellectual property. It’s been slow going because I haven’t been able to give it my full attention. I’m excited to focus full-time on active energy storage and really get things going in both the scientific respect and the commercialization potential.

Second, the mentorship. In my scientific and engineering career I’ve had several important role models, but in my understanding of business and commercialization, I’ve had very few. In addition to the brief, intense coursework, the fellowship offers weekly personalized coaching from entrepreneurs and professors. If my research studies have taught me anything, it’s that a suggestion from an expert can save you months, if not longer, of your own time stumbling around.

In what ways will the work you do during this fellowship improve or expand your scholarship? 

The training offered by the fellowship (in subjects such as customer development, marketing, and fundraising) is not only essential to starting a company or working as a venture capitalist but is widely useful. I’ve found my skillset lacking in some of these subjects over the course of my graduate work. For example, managing my undergraduate research assistants, I wasn’t always able to get the best from them or to motivate the importance of their contributions to the overall research. Tools like these—management, handling customers, etc.—are important not only for entrepreneurship but for any career.

Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree? 

Cornell is strong not only in its engineering college but across all of its schools. World class resources and advice in any field of study was certainly a contributing factor. But the real answer, corny as it is unquantifiable, is that Cornell and Ithaca felt like a place where I could live and be happy. The future I imagined for myself here was the one I wanted most.

What’s next for you?

The Commercialization Fellowship gives me the chance to do something I’ve dreamed of and talked about a lot but have always been too scared to do. Starting a company without mentorship is like a new driver learning on the interstate during a combination traffic jam blizzard; the fellowship, for me, is going to be a driver’s lesson. Active energy storage, the technology I’m working on, still requires serious development and evaluation of its potential, but I’m quite optimistic of its promise. At the end of December I hope to have a good understanding of if I should start a company or not.

Any advice for incoming graduate students? 

Explore knowledge, not only in your specific area of research. Look around your field, look across fields, look outside Cornell. You have access to so much information and mentorship as a graduate student, I’d encourage you to do your best and explore it in such a way that feeds your curiosity.

Interview by Sally Kral, communications and outreach assistant in the Graduate School