Reindeer noses and research on fossil and renewable energy. Do these things have anything in common? Yes! According to Vista scholar Elisa Magnanelli, we can learn a lot about energy consumption from these cute animals employed by Santa Claus. But first who is Elisa and how do you research these things?
- As a little girl I grew up with pictures of Norway in our living room, because my parents came here on their honeymoon. They drove all the way from Italy after they got married, and fell in love with the beautiful nature here.
Elisa never thought of coming to Norway to work, but many choices led her here.
Text and photo: Maria Amelie
- I studied at a scientific lyceum in Italy. It lasts five years and gives you a very broad education, so that you're prepared for university. In the end, I was much divided about what to study at university, because I loved both philosophy and history, but also sciences.
My parents have both studied chemistry, and my Mum has an exciting job as a researcher for a big company. Personally, I was always very concerned about pollution, global warming and energy consumption. So after some thinking, I chose to study energy engineering at the
Polytechnic University of Turin.
Over 5000 people applied that year, and Elisa was one of the first 100 that got accepted into the university.
Wow! Did you study a lot?
- No, it was relatively easy, says Elisa and smiles shyly.
Did you have any smart study techniques?
- I was reading a lot, trying to summarize the most important texts, and doing as many exercises as I could. I was living with a very good friend in Turin, so we would always study together and test each other with exam questions. That was a huge help.
In between studying, Elisa was working as a waitress in a restaurant because there is no state support in Italy for students. For the last two years she was lucky to get a scholarship and could concentrate fully on her studies.
What did you write about for your bachelor and master thesis?
- The bachelor thesis was about a reversible heat pump. Normally, heat pumps are powered by electricity, but this one was using solar power. I wrote my master thesis in Trondheim, on the properties of the surface between liquid and gas.
During her studies, Elisa was first in Stockholm for six months on the Erasmus programme, and then she came to Norway to write her master thesis. Her professor in Italy knew a professor in Norway, so he put Elisa in contact with her current supervisor.
- I came here to work on a very weird project, quite far from what I had studied. But I really liked my supervisor and the people at the institute. So we applied for a PhD position with the Vista programme.
How did you choose the topic for this PhD?
- Well, I wanted it to be about energy saving, but we also needed to satisfy the application requirements. We considered different options and ended up with the project on the topic of "The state of minimum entropy production of membrane processes for enhanced oil/gas recovery".
Entropy and the laws of thermodynamics
Before we try to understand Elisa's project, it is important to clarify some definitions.
For example, the first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy is neither created nor destroyed, and that the energy of the universe is a constant. But energy can be transferred from one part of the universe to another.
The second law of thermodynamics is a law of entropy. The word entropy has its roots from the Greek word "entropia" which means "a turning toward" or "transformation". Ice melting in water is a typical example of entropy - a change from formed to disordered. It is a "law of disorder".
Elisa explains that the production of entropy is like a measure of the quality of the transformation of energy. Entropy production is rather similar to energy that is wasted.
- When you have some heat at 100 degrees, you can get a certain amount of useful work out of it. If the same amount of heat is at 200 degrees, the amount of work that you can extract from it is higher. You can say that the heat at 200 degrees has a higher energy quality than the one at 100 degrees. But if the heat has the same temperature as the ambient, then its energy is useless.
Elisa and other researchers at NTNU want to find the most energy-efficient way of operating a system. The project Elisa is working on is all about minimizing entropy production (which means energy waste). In particular, her main focus is on membrane systems that are used to separate CO2 from natural gas.
- My project is about finding the state of minimum entropy production of a process. In the specific case, we are applying this concept to the extraction of CO2 from natural gas through the use of membranes. This methodology has never been applied to membrane processes before, and a large potential for improvement is expected.
So where do reindeer come in?
The reindeer project is a side project with the aim of learning more about the way reindeer save energy. Reindeer winter fur is so thick and warm that they have a perfect coat to protect themselves from the extreme cold. However, reindeer have an extra tool that helps them survive the extreme winters. Elisa explains that they also have a very intricate and complicated nose that allows them to save a lot of energy.
- Reindeers have a very weird nose. The human nose is almost like a pipe. When we breathe on a cold day, we can see a lot of vapour and heat coming out of our noses. Reindeer in the same temperature almost don't lose any heat or water. They manage not only to warm up the cold air before it reaches their lungs, but also to cool it down before exhaling it. They save a lot of energy and water in this way! Which is very convenient when there isn't much food around, and the only thing you can "drink" is snow.
It might sound different, but this is also about entropy production. Reindeer are very efficient in surviving in low temperatures because they don't waste energy.
And you can apply this kind of research to the oil and gas industry?
-It isn't directly related to oil and gas, but it's more about understanding how entropy production can be reduced. However, there are practical applications where you can use this research more directly. For instance, we could apply what we have learned from the very efficient reindeer noses to the heat exchangers that blow air in and out of our houses in winter.
What have you found out so far?
- One of the theories is that the most efficient system is the system with constant entropy production. When we looked at the reindeer's efficient nose, we found out that its entropy production is more constant in time and space than in the less efficient human nose.
Elisa is also using many datasets from the oil and gas industry.
- Membrane systems are huge in real life. Based on experimental data, I can build a model of such systems on my computer. In this way, we can test the performances of the system in different conditions, without actually using it. This saves a lot of money!
The big question here is about finding some general principles related to the operation of a system that gives the minimum possible entropy production. With such principles, we would have general rules to follow (like in a recipe) to operate new systems, without the need of every time analysing the single specific case.
Any other fields you would like to research?
- Energy and energy saving are what I'd like to be more involved with. However, I like to change the topics of my research now and then, so that I can keep on learning new things and stay flexible. Sometimes, if you only focus your studies on one small field, after many years as a researcher it might be difficult to find someone that would listen to your stories. I don't want this for me. I like to talk to many people and be inspired by many things.
Do you want to be a scientist for the rest of your life? Is it your calling?
- I don't know. Some days I think it is, because it's exciting, dynamic and you have a lot of freedom. Some days when nothing works, I ask myself why I'm doing this, she says and laughs.
What do you do then?
- Oh, it only lasts a couple of days. I just try to take a break - that's why you need a side project. When I then come back, I can usually see the problem and I try to fix it.
What do you do in your spare time?
- I like to read a lot, but I'm also a dance instructor. I teach West Coast Swing at least once a week for NTNUI, the student sport society. I'm also a tourist guide during the summer here in Trondheim, for both English and Italian tourists. I like to walk with tourists around the city, as well as when we drive around the whole region on a bus.
Why do you do that?
- I like to try to connect with other people, to get their attention and to observe their response. I like to tell 'fun' facts during my tours. I hope that people would remember them and their trip, and learn more about the area.
You're finishing your PhD in February, and you look very relaxed. How do you manage to get time for everything?
- It's working out okay for me. I think if you do things you really like, and if you really want to, you can get time for everything.
Are there any big problems in your field you wish could one day be resolved?
- Earlier, I was very concerned about energy production and pollution until, during my studies, I realized that if you look at the correlation between energy consumption in a country and quality of life, you can see that they go together. From that moment, I've started thinking that maybe it isn't the energy needs one should look at, but at the energy that's wasted.
In a country you can have between 30-40 percent of energy that isn't managed properly. This means that it's possible to provide exactly the same services to people, with much less energy than we're using now. We just need to cut the waste! I would love to see this 30-40% go to 0%.
Advice or the 2-3 main trends in your field?
- Find a topic you're passionate about. We spend more or less 8 hours a day working, so it's important to love what we do. Other people will also see it if you're passionate, and your message will reach them more easily.
Connect with your colleagues; they can be an irreplaceable support. Don't be afraid of asking for help or discussions. Progress in science happens thanks to the work of those that came before us, and with the collaboration of those around us.