Meet HCP Undergraduate Research Assistant Jack Walker

February 28, 2022
Jack Walker

Jack Walker '24

Jack, where did you grow up, and how old were you when you first discovered a love for renewable energy research?

I’m from a military family—my parents met in the Air Force—so we moved around a lot. However, I was able to remain in the same school system while we lived in Frederick, Maryland, so I’ll consider Frederick as where I grew up. 

And that ties into my initial interest in renewable energy. In elementary school, a common reading comprehension activity would be for the teacher to hand out the latest Time For Kids article and have us answer multiple-choice questions on specific passages. In second grade, I believe, one of the passages happened to be on hydrogen fuel cells for cars—and I can distinctly remember coming home and bugging my dad with questions about why cars were still running on gasoline if hydrogen was an option. 

Flash forward to middle school, eighth grade to be precise, as that’s when I completed a science project which essentially set me on the path I am now—in terms of fascination with clean energy and a commitment to studying it. The project was to present on a specific alternative energy source, but in an unconventional way; essentially, no PowerPoint Presentations. Asked with my peak creativity and good timing, I decided to create a hip-hop mixtape discussing nuclear energy. The good timing, in turn, relates to how Drake was releasing his heavily-anticipated album “Views From the Six”—which I parodied as “Fuels From the Six” and edited the album’s cover to replace the CN Tower that Drake is sitting on with a Nuclear smoke tower. Although there was a lot of silliness to the project, as you might expect from an eighth-grader, parodying the songs actually helped me understand nuclear fission to a much higher degree. It was in selecting the proper lyrics for my parodies of Drake’s “Energy” (kept the title), “Forever” (kept the title), and “Started From the Bottom” (dubbed “Started From the Atom”) that led me to discover new facts and perspectives on the nuclear energy process. 

And from that short-lived musical career, I kept a focus on alternative energy throughout high school—culminating with research into microbial electrolysis cells for hydrogen fuel production while I worked at the Frederick National Lab (FNL). My work at the FNL was strictly biomedical research, as I was part of an internship program funded by the National Cancer Institute, but my mentors noticed my passion and helped connect me to the other national labs operated by the Department of Energy. 

What draws you to your current research – what makes you passionate about it? And why did you decide to partner with the Harvard-China Project?

My current research with Peter ShermanChris Nielsen, and Professor Michael McElroy revolves around decarbonizing the global shipping industry. Considering that most of the world’s trade is conducted via sea—and the fleets of vessels conducting the trade generally rely on dirty, petroleum-based “bunker fuels” and diesel—there’s an obvious incentive to want to decarbonize this industry, from the perspective of someone who hopes to limit the impacts of Climate Change and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Additionally, and on a more personal level, I’m drawn to the project because of how it came about. After being accepted into the Harvard-China Project’s Summer 2021 Virtual Apprenticeship Program, Professor McElroy, Chris, and Peter were set on developing a project that best fits my interests and experiences—rather than throw me “into the fire” of an ongoing project and hoping it goes well. To that end, they noticed my background with hydrogen fuel and suggested something that involved analyzing the potential of alternative fuels. Moreover, they considered my military background and my interest in naval vessels—which led me to begin researching the carbon intensity of the shipping industry, including that of the military operations of the United States and China. 

Without running off onto another tangent, what I can say is that I am extremely passionate about this research because of both who I get to work with (considering how accommodating my team has been in finding me a project that best suits me) and the implications of the research itself (proposing ways to successfully decarbonize one of the largest contributing sectors to atmospheric emissions). Moreover, those are the reasons why I decided to continue partnering with the Harvard-China Project after the summer program ended. I am excited by the prospects of the research—and grateful for the wonderful team I get to work with. 

Can you give our community a brief overview of your research project that you are pursuing while based at the Harvard-China Project? Who are your mentors involved in the project?

Through my research with the Harvard-China Project, I am working with Professor Michael McElroy, Chris Nielsen, and Peter Sherman as my mentors. And this past fall, fellow Harvard Undergraduate Charlie Brown joined the team. 

In turn, my research began with investigating the current emissions contributions of the global maritime industry, as well as the major fuels used in vessel propulsion. Upon realizing the evident carbonization potential offered by switching ships off of toxic, polluting petroleum-based fuels, I then transitioned into analyzing the prospects of alternative fuels/propulsion methods. This culminated with a term paper I submitted at the end of the summer program, in which I analyzed the potential for modern sailing, green hydrogen, green ammonia, and electric battery propulsion. Furthermore, my team and I went on to suggest that a hybrid propulsion mechanism might be the best option for the majority of the maritime sector—using an electric battery for in-port maneuvering and green ammonia/hydrogen combustion for open-sea travel. This hybrid proposal has been the basis of my continued work with the Harvard-China Project. We are currently in the process of drafting a review paper.

Where do you hope to take this research – will you expand upon it?

Honestly, and although it‘s certainly a lofty ambition, I hope to take this research from the proposal stage to the implementation stage. Outside of the Harvard-China Project, I have been working with my roommate on an autonomous monitoring vessel designed for pond, lake, and stream navigation—and we have been fortunate enough to be granted lab space by the Harvard Innovation Labs. Perhaps our design would be a perfect testing medium for a miniature hybrid ship propulsion mechanism. And if successful, I could look to branch out to larger applications. 

What are your career goals - what will you pursue upon graduation?

Upon graduation, I will look to commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the US Air Force, as part of fulfilling my commitment to my Air Force ROTC Program. While in the military then, I hope to use my chemistry studies to work with fuel cells and batteries—in an attempt to help decarbonize military transportation networks. 

Additionally, I hope to continue working on the autonomous water quality monitoring vessel with my roommate. The goal is to produce a serviceable device that can adequately monitor for mineral tailings within groundwater sources—thereby providing an incentive for mining companies to clean up groundwater sources following extraction, as sourcing from any found mineral tailings could be more cost-effective than launching new mining projects. 

How has the Harvard-China Project thus far aided your research?

The Harvard-China Project has been instrumental throughout my research process. First and foremost, it provided me with a great team of mentors and a comforting environment that has truly enabled me to explore my passions. Additionally, working with the Harvard-China Project has exposed me to critical resources for my continued research. My mentor Peter Sherman was kind enough to help guide me through the steep learning curve (at least for me) of using MatLab and accessing the Harvard Supercomputer’s data through terminal. And lastly, working with the Harvard-China Project has taught me to always keep an open mind; there were times when I was set on an idea, yet after further research, my perspective competed changed. Perhaps the greatest example of this was ammonia as a potential fuel alternative. I was set on the belief that ammonia was toxic and dangerous, while hydrogen is much more favorable. However, I now view green ammonia as a viable component of our hybrid propulsion method proposal. Moreover, this reminder to keep an open mind has helped me stay interested in the other ongoing projects with the Harvard-China Project. Whether through our summer project meetings or the research highlights sent via email, the Harvard-China Project has broadened my perspective.