Rutgers–Camden Student Researches Using Natural Materials to Power Batteries for Mars Exploration

Emily McDermott

Emily McDermott

By Jeanne Leong

Rutgers University–Camden junior Emily McDermott is conducting cutting-edge research that could lead to applications for NASA to use in space.

A recipient of the NASA NJ Space Grant Consortium, McDermott is working with David Salas de la Cruz, an assistant professor of chemistry at Rutgers–Camden, and Xingyun Qi, an assistant professor of biology, conducting research on using plant-based materials to power batteries that astronauts could use in space in the future.

Emily McDermott checks on her plants in the greenhouse refrigerator.

McDermott developed a passion for the sciences while in high school, with aspirations to conduct research for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, through her exposure to many educational opportunities at Rutgers University–Camden, she is exploring other avenues and different career options in the sciences.

“I am passionate about the sciences because I feel like there is still and always will be so much to learn,” says McDermott, a biochemistry major from Merchantville.

In the Science Building rooftop greenhouse, McDermott is growing a grass, Arabidopsis thaliana, from which she extracts cellulose. After further processing, she adds keratin, the structural protein of hair and nails. The mixture creates a biofilm that could have conductive properties to power a battery.

Professor David Salas-de la Cruz

Professor David Salas-de la Cruz

The innovative project aims to find a more eco-friendly way to power batteries instead of using fossil fuels.

“We do the hard chemistry behind it for further applications,” says McDermott. “Can this film be sturdy enough? Does it have the right properties for it to be conductive?”

If the biofilm is conductive, it could be used in the future to power a variety of devices that require batteries, maybe even NASA’s motorized Mars Rover space exploration vehicle.

Professor Xingyun Qi

Professor Xingyun Qi

McDermott says the opportunity to work with two professors enhances her educational experience.

“I get to have my thoughts and ideas about the project be heard by two people as well as getting advice and guidance from both of them, especially when things don’t go as planned,” McDermott says.

The 2017 Paul VI High School graduate appreciates the university’s small size, and the opportunities to conduct research as an undergraduate.

“Having undergraduates conduct research in the lab will not only help them understand the lectures in class better, but also position them in a better place for future career development,” says Qi.

Photo of Emily McDermott

McDermott says she’s passionate about the sciences because there’s always so much to learn.

“Conducting research enables students to connect the theoretical concepts learned in class into practice,” says Salas de la Cruz. “By learning and working with scientific methods, students work on finding answers to very fundamental questions about nature, furthering their critical-thinking skills.”

McDermott will present her research May 1 at Rutgers University–New Brunswick as a New Jersey Space Grant Consortium fellow.

With so many opportunities available to her, McDermott is following several paths to see where they lead her. She has already taken the MCAT with the goal of attending medical school after she graduates in 2021, but she is also considering pursuing a master’s degree in public health.

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