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Darren Martin and Jordan Pennells

A PhD in renewable energy engineering

Jordan is combining his skillsets in engineering and science to create sustainable change
UQ people
Published 28 Oct, 2021  ·  3-minute read

Jordan Pennells has set his sights on achieving lofty career goals around energy technologies. His inquisitive mind benefits from the guidance of a UQ researcher with a strong track record in discovery.

Jordan Pennells says he doesn't want to be “your typical engineer in oil and gas”.

An expansive thinker with an aptitude for tackling challenges via unconventional means, Jordan found the perfect mentor in Professor Darren Martin at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN). Now, the two are working together on Jordan's PhD in renewable energy engineering. 

“The first thing Darren was really good at was opening up this whole academic landscape for me to play around in,” says Jordan.

“I was able to explore myself, find the right topic for my thesis and also gain a fuller understanding of the political and bureaucratic environment of the industry, not just the research environment.

“Darren didn’t pigeonhole me in the first month. We had an initial discussion about where I wanted things to go, but it was an ongoing dialogue."

“It’s always evolving. We haven’t put any reins on the project.”

Jordan Pennells PhD candidate

Jordan's PhD draws on his background in both engineering and science

A high school graduate of St Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace in inner-city Brisbane, Jordan completed both a Bachelor of Engineering and a Bachelor of Science at UQ, specialising in chemical engineering and biomedicine. His latest academic pursuits are partly inspired by the search for innovative clean energy solutions.

His PhD involves harnessing the genetic structure of feedstock crops, in particular sorghum, to improve and produce sustainable products as varied as recycled paper and battery components.

“We’re bringing together the scientific principles behind why sorghum is a really drought-tolerant, versatile crop and then how that translates into the engineering principles of material design,” says Jordan.

“We’re talking about things that are renewable, which won’t be depleted over time like finite mineral resources. It makes sense. I think there are 465 tons of plant material around the world for every living human. It’s abundant."

“Perhaps in my personal life I’m not the most environmentally conscious person. But if you can embody that ethos in your everyday work life, I think that’s where you can make the greatest difference to the planet.”

PhD Jordan Pennells with supervisor Professor Darren Martin

Renewable energy engineering isn't a simple PhD topic

As the supervisor, Darren is up-front in saying that an “environmental conscience is a very heavy theme” in the undertakings of his research team.

As somebody who was raised in Lismore, in regional New South Wales, before spending 10 years amid the hustle and bustle of Sydney, Darren appreciates the potential dual benefits to the agricultural sector alongside urban businesses and consumers. And as the supervisor for several other PhDs in energy storage and related topics, he's no stranger to this field of study.

He also acknowledges UQ as the “epicentre for sorghum research” and believes it would be folly for AIBN not to use the extensive connections, resources and data already amassed by other UQ research groups.

In Jordan, Darren knows he has a talented prodigy who can help shape conversations for the future, especially if he receives the right guidance and encouragement early in his career.

“I’ve advised around 30 PhD candidates to this point in my career and believe that respect and honesty are extremely important,” Darren says.

“Jordan’s studied both engineering and science, and typically they are 2 fields that approach things differently. For him to have backgrounds in both is simultaneously a blessing and a curse.

“He’s an expansive thinker, so I knew very early my biggest challenge would be to give him enough freedom to achieve his potential, but also to rein him in when needed.

“His thesis will be very different to most PhD candidates and that’s exciting, yet narrowing it down to a defined body of work will also be critical to achieving productive outcomes."

“We listen to what PhD candidates want to do with their career, but also emphasise that they should have their eyes wide open."

For other students looking at completing a PhD in renewable energy engineering or any similar topic, Darren believes keeping an open mind if vital. 

“My greatest piece of advice would be to remain awake to the non-obvious answers," he says.

"Look for the area where you can make a key jump that’s not so much incremental but allows you to do something far better than how it is currently done.”

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