Dr Gbemi OluleyeDr Gbemi Oluleye is a Research Associate in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

Her key research focus is on the issue of decarbonisation, and specifically on how to decarbonise industrial energy systems.

"I grew up in Nigeria and when I was nine years old I got the chance to visit an onshore oil rig. As I got into the control room my attention was captured by a diagram on the wall - it was beautiful, with lines and rectangles drawn in bright colours.

I told the tour guide I wanted to be able to produce a diagram like that one day, and he told me that I’d need to become a Chemical Engineer. So that's what I did."

Which undergraduate degree did you take?

My goal of becoming a Chemical Engineer motivated me to sit through all kinds of school classes that I found boring, such as chemistry and further maths. But it was worth it when I won a place to study Chemical Engineering at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife Nigeria. My course included the option of doing an internship in my second year, so I asked my Dad to recommend a company who produced those colourful diagrams I’d seen in the control room at the oil rig. By that stage, I knew they were called Process Flow Diagrams.

I went to work for a process design consultancy and it was an amazing moment when I worked in a team to produce one of the diagrams for the first time. But it also left me with a question. I’ve achieved my goal so what’s next? I finished my degree and went to work for another consultancy. There, my colleagues explained to me that while my flowsheets showed the general flow of processes, there was a need to provide thermal and electrical energy. For example heating for an endothermic reaction, cooling for an exothermic reaction or the power to drive pumps. So there was my next challenge: energy.

What did your Master's and PhD focus on?

I was desperate to learn more, but there weren’t many courses on offer in Nigeria. I spent two years researching my options and then moved to the UK in 2009 to start my MSc in Advanced Chemical Process Design at the University of Manchester. I also worked on the Energy Technology Institute Macro Distributed Energy Project which led to my PhD. Both allowed me to focus on how we can reduce the demand for electricity and heating, as well as how we can deliver the supply in an efficient and low carbon way.

However, the focus of my PhD was on the analysis of a specific industrial site. This was helpful in allowing me to understand the thermodynamics and complexities of a single industrial energy system, but I really wanted to do something bigger. I wanted to be able to extend my model for a single site to quantify the impact of increasing energy efficiency, and deliver low carbon energy across all industrial plants in the UK, or even in Europe. That became my next goal.

What led you to Imperial and your current role?

I saw a job advertised at Imperial and knew straight away it was the right project for me. I would be working alongside people who had experience of developing models for global energy systems, which is exactly what I wanted to learn to do.

Since arriving, I’ve mostly been working on the issue of decarbonisation - how can we decarbonise our industrial energy systems? That is now the one problem I want to contribute towards solving. I think I’m in a good place to do so because I understand the design of chemical processes (those colourful diagrams) and their associated energy systems.

I’m looking at the issue from a range of angles:

  • How can we integrate low-to-zero carbon technologies?
  • How can we reduce the demand for energy?
  • What might hydrogen offer us as an alternative fuel option?
  • What would the impact of using biogas and biomethane?

Now I need to consolidate my work in all of these areas into a framework that tackles decarbonisation directly. Thankfully I’ve recently been awarded a Research Fellowship at Imperial, so I’ll be here for a while. That will give me a chance to start thinking about holistic decision-support frameworks for decarbonisation, what policies would be required to push some of the new technologies into the market, and what business models would be required to increase their market penetration.

How is diversity tied to decarbonisation?

I believe that a diverse team is necessary to achieve global decarbonisation goals. I co-organise a project looking to Increase the Visibility of Underrepresented Groups in Energy Research (IVUGER), funded from UKERC Whole Systems Networking Fund. IVUGER brings together a network of diverse and innovative women working in Energy, and providing resources and training opportunities - practical solutions with immediate impacts.

We’re also conducting our own research into some of the systemic barriers women face in entering the field of energy research, particularly in academia. Our first project will look at how the wording of job adverts might affect diversity at the first stage of the hiring process.

To me, the issue of diversity is key. Decarbonisation is not just the problem of people who work in my field. It’s not just an issue for the countries who have emitted the most carbon into the atmosphere. It’s everyone’s problem, and we are going to need real diversity among the people tackling the problem if we are going to solve it.

What are your top three tips for anyone wanting to work in the energy sector?

  1. Make sure you choose the right course to study at University. I’d still recommend Chemical Engineering as a great option or you may consider Mechanical Engineering. These days there are more specialised options, such as Energy Systems Engineering, which are also useful.
  2. Focus on the grades you are going to need to take the next step and work hard to make sure you get them.
  3. You have a great vision for working in a field that’s very relevant. Just go for it, 100%!