June 19, 2020, by Jo Gregory

Statistics for sustainability: An interview with Dr Kate Haigh

Kate Haigh is a research fellow based in the Faculty of Engineering and a member of the Green Chemicals Beacon

In this interview, Kate talks to Jo Gregory about her role, her motivations and how her research ensures sustainability projects are financially viable as well as beneficial to the environment.

What is your role here at Nottingham?

I am a Research Fellow in the Techno-Economic Analysis of Renewable Chemicals and Fuels Production

Could you tell me a bit about your research career?

I started out doing research for a drinking water company. After a few years, I had this idea that I would like to follow a more business-focused career and spend a few years working for a large engineering company. This experience made me realise that I would prefer a career in research, preferably focused on technology that would reduce our impact on the environment. This led to me doing a PhD at Loughborough University, investigating options for more environmentally benign production of biodiesel.
Once I received my PhD I returned to South Africa, where I grew up, to do post-doctoral research at Stellenbosch University. It was at this time that my research started to focus on the techno-economic assessment of possible biorefineries which convert plant material to green chemicals. I found it interesting to learn more about options to implement biorefineries, particularly in South Africa. I also carried out a project to apply this type of assessment to wineries and identify opportunities to make more effective use of winery waste.

How would you explain your research to an ordinary person?

I have been investigating technologies to make chemicals from plants with a focus on finding routes that are financially viable and beneficial to the environment.

Why Green Chemicals? What would you like to accomplish while you’re here? How does being part of Green Chemicals help you achieve your goals?

It is a great opportunity to work at a top UK University with some leading people in the field of green chemicals. I am currently working on a project to develop a tool to better assess opportunities make green chemicals that I hope will help other researchers to choose sensible processes and chemicals to investigate and develop.

How does your research affect ordinary people?

If we can develop financially viable processes this means that ordinary people will benefit from improvements to the environment without too many costs in the form of higher taxes or prices.

What current projects are you working on?

Currently, my main project is developing a tool to assess processes to convert plants to chemicals. The focus is on looking at projects in the early stages to determine if a proposed project has the potential to be financially viable. The scientific literature has numerous examples of processes which have been proposed for making green chemicals but on closer investigation, it becomes clear that these processes do not make sense from an engineering and commercial perspective. Ultimately this tool should make it possible to focus the work on processes that have the potential to reach commercial implementation.

How are you finding working from home rather than the lab during a pandemic?

Working from home is more peaceful because my shared office would get noisy at times so it is easier to focus. It has also been very stressful at times because I am new to the area and new to the University so I was just getting to know a few people when the lockdown started. Fortunately, my research group was quick to set up a weekly social chat on Teams which has been very good for developing my network. I have found that establishing a regular routine is helpful for managing the boundaries between work and home. My alarm is set for the same time as when I was working. Although these days I like to make time for some exercise in the middle of the day.

How did you become interested in engineering? Where do you get your inspirations from?

Maths and Science were some of my best subjects when I was school so something in that field always appealed to me. It probably helped that my parents encouraged me to have a career and my Dad was an engineer. It felt like a logical and natural choice. I also attended a week on engineering courses offered by my local university and loved it. Over time I have come to realise that I find learning how things work and problem-solving very rewarding.

Do you have any advice for young engineers?

Go for it. There will be times when you find the work challenging or scary but if you are really interested and committed then you will figure it out.

What is your greatest career moment so far?

Getting my PhD because it made my Mom really proud.

To find out more about the Green Chemicals Beacon and how our team of researchers are working to secure the low-carbon economy of the future, please visit the website or follow us on Twitter @UoN_GCB

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