A path to a meaningful chemical engineering career by way of Iceland

Jamie Oberdick
July 10, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. —  For Kayley Waltz, a Penn State rising senior in chemical engineering, a trip to Iceland in early spring 2020 was less about a spring break vacation and more about a big step toward a career goal of making an impact via developing new forms of renewable energy.

Waltz’s trip to Iceland was in conjunction with The Green Program. Founded by Rutgers University students in 2009, the program provides short-term study abroad programs centered around sustainability and renewable energy in places like Iceland, Peru, Japan and Nepal. She spent nearly two weeks in Iceland as part of the program in early March, before the coronavirus pandemic necessitated the University's transition to remote teaching and learning.

“In my first-ever chemical engineering class, my professor told me that chemical engineers have the potential to change the world,” Waltz said. “I think that the career possibilities for chemical engineering are so vast. Once I get a degree in chemical engineering, I will feel empowered to do work that truly matters. My trip to Iceland was part of that.”

Waltz’s research interest is centered around obtaining biofuel and specialty chemicals from waste products. 

Image of glacier in background and bare ground in foreground with sign recording rate of receding

A glacier in Iceland with a sign that explains how much the glacier recedes each year due to climate change.

IMAGE: Kayley Waltz

“In the lab, we use hot, pressurized water to break down various feedstocks, such as food or plastic waste, in order to convert them into crude oil,” Waltz said. “My work has mainly been focused on researching various types of plastic like polyethylene terephthalate, nylon, polystyrene and polysulfone that are found in waste streams to determine their viability for either crude oil production or chemical recycling.”

Waltz conducts her undergraduate research in the lab of Phillip Savage, head of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Walter L. Robb Family Endowed Chair, where she performs her experiments converting plastic waste into crude oil. Such research has several benefits, according to Waltz. 

“Being able to investigate a topic that has the potential to provide a lasting, sustainable impact while aligning environmental concerns and financial incentives is very inspiring,” she said. “I feel that because our research looks to find ways to tackle both the world’s waste disposal issue as well as the need for renewable energy, we have a chance to make a true difference in society and the environment.”

While in Iceland, Waltz was able to witness how the nation has become one of the greenest countries on the planet, as it produces almost 100% of its electricity through geothermal and hydropower energy. She was able to tour several sustainable energy facilities, including a hydro power plant, a geothermal power plant, a wind farm and a renewable energy farm where they made biofuel rapeseed oil. At the University of Reykjavik's Graduate School of Energy, she and fellow Green Program students received coursework that can be used for University credit on the basics of hydropower and geothermal energy, local biofuel innovations, and energy economics. The program culminated in a capstone project, centered around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, that was presented to University of Reykjavik faculty. 

Image of Iceland lagoon with bright blue water

The Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa located in southwestern Iceland.

IMAGE: Kayley Waltz

Along with the Green Program and being an undergraduate researcher in Savage’s lab, Waltz also participated in the summer 2019 Penn State Biofellowship Program, a research experience for undergraduates (REU) program. The program provides outstanding students at Penn State an opportunity to conduct research with faculty in the Department of Chemical Engineering on cutting-edge problems in the areas of both biomolecular engineering and general chemical engineering. At the conclusion of the program, Waltz presented a poster, titled “A Study on Catalysis for the Hydrothermal Liquefaction of Plastic Waste,” at the 2019 REU Symposium.

Currently, Waltz is an environmental science and engineering intern with Environmental Remediation & Recovery Inc. in Edinboro. All of these experiences as a student is preparing Waltz for a post-undergraduate goal of obtaining a doctoral degree in either chemical or environmental engineering, and then getting to work on a career in sustainability.

“In 10 years, I hope to be either conducting research in industry and working toward my goal of mitigating preventable deaths, as well as researching for a better way to find clean water, food and energy,” Waltz said.

As she moves forward in life, Waltz believes she will never forget what her first chemical engineering professor said about chemical engineers having the potential to change the world. 

“Above all else, that line has stuck with me and has given me the motivation to pursue this career path,” Waltz said. “My goal of leaving a lasting impact on the world is quite ambitious, but I think that my experiences as a Penn State student are just the beginning.”


(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 17, 2020