As a global society, our use of fossil fuels has resulted in an exponential rise in CO2 concentrations. Our best approach would be to avoid such emissions by fully transitioning away from the combustion of hydrocarbons.
But that approach alone is no longer enough, says Jennifer Wilcox, Penn’s new Presidential Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering and Energy Policy. Her research focuses on innovative ways to avoid new CO2 emissions from entering the air as well as the removal of old emissionsin order to mitigate the accumulating effects of fossil fuels on our planet.
“Although my work involves removing carbon dioxide from air, it doesn’t mean that it’s a silver bullet,” says Wilcox. “We need a portfolio of solutions. And we need to start treating CO2 as a waste and figure out solutions to deal with it. We also need to recognize that the portfolio is broad and includes both deep decarbonization and direct removal.”
Pending formal appointment by the University, Wilcox will be the first faculty research appointment at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, based at Weitzman. Her professorial appointment is in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, where she will advance her work on trace metal and carbon capture, while connecting these efforts to actionable energy policy.
Wilcox’s fall appointment follows an anonymous $30 million dollar gift to the Kleinman Center in 2019—which was matched by additional resources from the University to support building Penn’s energy policy faculty with hires like Wilcox.
“Mitigating climate change calls on designers and planners to work more closely with scientists and engineers, and Jennifer Wilcox will be instrumental in that work,” says Frederick Steiner, dean and Paley Professor at Weitzman.
“Jennifer’s arrival demonstrates the extraordinary commitment of the University to invest in energy research here at Penn,” says Mark Alan Hughes, faculty director of the Kleinman Center.
Wilcox spent a week at Penn last spring as a visiting scholar at the Kleinman Center, where she presented a public lecture, recorded a podcast episode, and later published a policy digest on the topic of carbon dioxide removal from the air.
Wilcox’s lab will be housed in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Her focus on carbon management has implications for a variety of applied technologies, including directly removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; capturing it at the source (from power plants and the industrial sector); and sequestering that carbon dioxide to safely re-use it or permanently store it back in the ground. Wilcox’s current research is funded part by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the private sector.
“Penn Engineering prides itself on creating innovative, technology-based solutions that are necessary to solve real-world societal problems,” says Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Jennifer’s excellent work, both in technology and policy, is central to solving key global energy and environmental challenges.”
“I’m really excited to join the Penn faculty in a joint position that will enable the results of my research to be more broadly impactful through informed policy. As a chemical engineer, our fundamental training leads us to have an inherent appreciation for complex energy and material balances. By both avoiding carbon and actively removing it from the atmosphere on the scale of gigatons will force us to appreciate and acknowledge these calculations that depend on Earth’s limited resources. In Chemical Engineering and at the Kleinman Center, my goal will be to help in creating the human capital required to meet this gigaton-scale challenge, which will ultimately be required for meeting our climate goals.”
Wilcox comes to Penn from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she was the James H. Manning Chaired Professor of Chemical Engineering. She has served on a number of committees including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Physical Society. She is the author of the first textbook on carbon capture, published in March 2012.
Having grown up in rural Maine, Wilcox has a profound appreciation of nature, which permeates her work as she focuses on minimizing negative impacts of humankind on our natural environment.