Through NSF CAREER Award, Jacqueline O'Connor to make power generation cleaner and more efficient

April 9, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa - Combustion instability is one of the most costly challenges in operating a power generation gas turbine, and also has the potential to appear in aircraft engines, rockets, and boilers. It can lead to increased emissions, reduced operability, and component failure.

With a new National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, Jacqueline O'Connor, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering (MNE) at Penn State, is combining her expertise in combustion instability mechanisms and combustion in highly-turbulent environments to provide deeper understanding into this important problem. In the end, her work will not only result in new scientific understanding, but also insight for more robust design of ultra-low emissions gas turbine combustors.

As one of the most significant distinctions from the NSF, the CAREER Award recognizes early career faculty who have dedicated themselves to innovative research and an excellence for teaching. “Dr. O’Connor’s research efforts and passion for teaching absolutely warrant this award,” Karen Thole, distinguished professor and MNE department head, said. “This is a major accomplishment for Jackie that we can all take pride in for our department.”

Providing $500,000 of funding for a term of five years, O’Connor’s research prowess in thermoacoustic combustion instability and her steadfast commitment to teaching were integral in receiving this honor. Describing her research area, she said, “It’s what happens where there is a feedback loop between the acoustics in a combustion chamber and the flame. The combustor actually sings!”

During this phenomenon, the tonal vibrations can reach high amplitudes and create oscillations within the hardware. “Basically, if this oscillation keeps pushing and pulling within the chamber 500 times a second, the system is more likely to break,” she said.

The issue can affect many combustion applications, including gas turbines and rocket engines. Particularly, O’Connor’s work deals with ultra-low emissions gas turbines.

“From a research perspective, it’s a really fun area. Combustion itself is an amazing multi-physics problem,” she said. “I’m a better thinker and researcher because it stretches so many corners of my brain.” 

Through this funding, O’Connor also plans to create case studies to help engage her students in the classroom. “They are a great way to have students apply fundamentals to situations they find interesting,” she said. Using an example from a current class she’s teaching, she spoke about examining the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal with her students.

“The students understand the engine operations to see how it could have happened. But by framing it within this case study, I’m able to incorporate the broader themes of ethics and the impact that engineers have on people’s lives,” she explained.

She also hopes to extend her teaching influence beyond the walls of MNE. Through a collaborative effort with her colleagues in the Combustion Institute, an international organization of combustion scientists, she plans to create and contribute to a repository of combustion teaching materials that can help students better conceptualize the field’s material. By combining efforts and lesson materials, O’Connor believes the students will have a richer educational experience.

“We will each add our own flavor,” she explained. “Hopefully, the case studies I submit will make a difference here at Penn State and the partner universities that can use them.”

Through these efforts, O’Connor hopes to further the understanding of combustion and its importance. At Penn State and particularly the MNE department, she is extremely poised to do so. “The University has a long history of excellent combustion research and I feel extraordinarily fortunate to continue that legacy,” she said. “It’s also an incredibly supportive environment that’s great for teaching, research, and general happiness!”


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Jacqueline O'Connor, recipient of an NSF CAREER Award.

Jacqueline O’Connor, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering.

“From a research perspective, it’s a really fun area. Combustion itself is an amazing multi-physics problem. I’m a better thinker and researcher because it stretches so many corners of my brain.”  



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