The U.S. Department of Energy today announced that Margaret Wooldridge, a University of Michigan Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Mechanical Engineering, is one of six 2013 recipients of the prestigious E.O. Lawrence Award, the agency’s highest award for mid-career scientists. Created in 1959, the award celebrates contributions in research and development that support the Energy Department’s science, energy and national security missions.
Wooldridge’s award acknowledges “her work advancing energy science and innovation.” Her research group focuses on combustion, that powerful release of energy from fossil fuels that powers much of modern life− at great environmental cost. Her work explores combustion’s possibilities in both traditional and new energy supplies, in the context of the growing need to mitigate climate change and plan for an ecologically sustainable and secure energy future.
“It’s hard to change our behavior when it comes to energy, not only because we use so much fuel, but because we don’t want the cure to be worse than the disease. When we switch to sustainable fuels, fuels built on a short carbon life cycles, as opposed to the long carbon life cycle associated with fossil fuels, we have to be careful about the impact on performance and environmental effects, as well as the larger social implications,” Wooldridge explained.
“If we tinker with these fuels, we want to know, what are the specific properties that are attractive to us, and how can we leverage them? We look at traditional fossil fuel chemistry, but also explore new feedstocks. We want to understand how to leverage the best − and avoid the worst − properties of these fuels in engines, combustors, stationary power plants, and other combustion systems.”
Five of this year’s six Lawrence awardees hold positions at national laboratories; Wooldridge is the only recipient who’s also juggling a teaching load.
“Sometimes I can keep all the plates spinning, and sometimes a couple come crashing down,” she joked Tuesday, reacting to her award while preparing a lecture for the coming day and answering the questions of a student at her door.
After the student leaves, she explained, “Each time you teach, you have to answer one of the hardest questions researchers are asked: ‘What does this mean to me?’ It constantly requires that you be able to translate very fundamental research in a way that communicates its practicality and its essential nature. It’s hard, but it’s good to do, and it’s fun- most of the time.”
Just six percent of the Lawrence Award’s 218 past winners have been women. “I’ve always been interested in the energy sector, and that research is justifiably dominated by combustion. Once you get into the fundamental research in combustion, it’s pretty male-dominated, but I can’t say I thought about it too much as I was choosing my field,” Wooldridge said.
Past Lawrence awardees have included Nobel Prize-winners Richard Feynman, Saul Permutter, Richard Smalley, Burton Ricter, Sam Ting, Murray Gell-Mann, Bob Laughlin and George Smoot, as well as HIV research pioneer Bette Kerber.
Another Lawrence award winner from U-M is former University of Michigan President and prominent nuclear physicist James Duderstadt, who received the award in 1986. Of this year’s awardee, he said, “Dr. Wooldridge has become one of the world’s leaders in combustion science. Her research on fuel reaction chemistry and combustion diagnostics has provided important tools for many areas of both basic and applied energy research. As a Thurnau Professor, she is also one of our most outstanding teachers.”
Edward Larsen, a U-M professor of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences, won a Lawrence Award in 1994 “for his profound impact on the analytic and numerical methods used to model the transport of particles and radiation in complex systems, with applications in diverse areas of nuclear technology ranging from nuclear weapons design to nuclear reactor safety.”
Today, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz weighed in on the award winners, saying, “The Lawrence Award recipients announced today have made significant contributions to the national, economic and energy security of the United States – strengthening U.S. leadership in discovery and innovation. I congratulate the winners and thank them for their work on behalf of the Department of Energy and the Nation.”
Wooldridge has been a member of the U-M faculty since 1998. She received an M.S. and a Ph.D from Stanford University. Her research has been funded by the Department of Energy, Ford Motor Company, the National Science Foundation, Hyundai, and Honda.
The E.O. Lawrence Award was established to honor the memory of Dr. Ernest Orlando Lawrence, who invented the cyclotron – an accelerator of subatomic particles – and received a 1939 Nobel Laureate in physics for that achievement. Dr. Lawrence later played a leading role in establishing the U.S. system of national laboratories, and today, the Energy Department’s national laboratories in Berkeley and Livermore, Calif., bear his name. The six Lawrence Award recipients announced today will receive a medal and a $20,000 honorarium at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., later this year.
A full list of past E.O. Lawrence Award winners can be found here.