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Back and forth – coming back to Poland from USA | Interview with geologist, Agnieszka Drobniak, PhD Eng.

24.01.2023 - 09:33 update 07.02.2023 - 13:47
Editors: wc-a
Tags: earth and related environmental sciences

Dr inż. Agnieszka Drobniak

Agnieszka Drobniak PhD, Eng. | private archive

| Weronika Cygan |

After graduating geology and earth sciences at the AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow, Agnieszka Drobniak, PhD Eng. left for the United States in 2002, where for over two decades she conducted scientific work at the Indiana Geological and Water Survey at Indiana University. The scientist participated in various projects in the field of energy, including biomass fuels. In 2022, she received a grant from the Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange (NAWA) under the “Polskie Powroty 2021” programme, which will provide funding for her research at the Centre for Biomass Energy Research and Education (CBERE) of the University of Silesia. Agnieszka Drobniak, PhD Eng. talked about her work at the American university and her experience in researching biomass fuels, as well as about the new scientific goals that she will pursue at the Silesian university.

WERONIKA CYGAN: Have you always wanted to study geology? What made you choose this particular field of studies?

AGNIESZKA DROBNIAK, PHD ENG: In the USA, a person graduating from high school or planning to go to college is surrounded by the care of professionals. There is a student affairs system that allows students to find the career path they want to follow. Such help is especially important in the USA, because when you go to college, you have to pay for it – it’s important not to waste money. After graduating high school in Poland, I didn’t really know what to do. I always liked being outside and walking in the mountains. I was interested in geography and mathematics, so when I was looking for studies, I found geology at the AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow. Was it the best choice for me? I don’t know, but the studies were fun, I met amazing people and friends with whom I still keep in touch. Geology is very attractive to me because of its practicality – geologist’s work can be easily translated into everyday life. It may not be entirely obvious at first glance, but the ordinary smartphone we use every day consists of rare earth elements. Similarly, research on biomass – it can be used to heat a room, or during a barbecue. The consciousness of the fact that what we do translates into our lives is extremely important to me.

WERONIKA CYGAN: You worked in the United States for 20 years. In such a long period, you can not only consolidate your scientific career, but also your private life. The decision to move to Poland wasn’t easy, was it?

AGNIESZKA DROBNIAK, PHD ENG: Many people think so, but it was the moment when I started to need a professional and private change. For almost four years I have been working with scientists from the University of Silesia. Anyway, during all these years I had very frequent contact with Polish scientists, and Poland in general. I was very intrugued by the subject of research by prof. Iwona Jelonek and Zbigniew Jelonek, PhD, geologists from the University of Silesia. The research concerned biomass and methods of its analysis. It turns out that the analyses used to estimate the quality of coal beautifully translate into the characterisation of biomass. We started working together and so far have published seven articles together. In the spring 2023 our centre  Centre for Biomass Energy Research and Education (CBERE) – was established under the auspices of the University of Silesia, and I started looking for methods of financing my research so that I could come to Poland more often. By coincidence, the “Polskie Powroty 2021” programme appeared – I received the information from prof. Iwona Jelonek who strongly encouraged me, so I submitted the documents and it worked. I hope to bring to CBERE the vast experience I gained from working in the United States. Over the years I have worked with people from all over the world, which will also translate into the activities of the centre. In the USA I left an amazing group of friends and acquaintances. I will also miss the daily contact with my colleagues, in particular with my boss (who is also Polish) prof. Maria Mastalerz. However, I am sure that we will keep in touch as we will be cooperating within the framework of the aforementioned Centre for the next few years.

WERONIKA CYGAN: Browsing the Centre’s website, I noticed the already impressive number of foreign institutions involved in cooperation. Do you plan to expand this cooperation with other scientists and institutions?

AGNIESZKA DROBNIAK, PHD ENG: Our website already features the United States Geological Survey and universities from Denmark, Great Britain, the USA and, of course, Poland. More than 30 institutions will soon join the research project, including universities and laboratories from China, Mongolia, Australia, Rwanda, Portugal, Turkey, Germany, Bulgaria, Mexico, India, Canada and Slovenia. We are starting a huge project – the world’s first interlaboratory exercise that will test the method we have developed. The issues of energy and the quality of fuels we commonly use are global issues. What we are now starting to research for several years, i.e. all kinds of studies on biomass, is a new field. The centre implements an innovative use of optical microscopy to analyse the quality of fuels produced from biomass – a practice borrowed from research on fossil fuels. Our team proposed a research methodology and classification, but in order to refine and standarise this method, in the next step we will need the support of scientists from around the world who also deal with this topic. We would also like to convince fuel producers to cooperate. Indicate the dependence of the quality and lack of pollution of their production on the profitability and economic security of their businesses. Without it, I cannot imagine that we could translate science into practical application. It is true that the first step has already been taken – thanks to the long-term cooperation of prof. Iwona Jelonek with the Polish Pellet Council, our optical method of assessing the quality of semi-finished products and the final product is slowly being implemented, but there is still a long way to go. In addition, the interdisciplinarity of such research is equally important. Chemists are already listed as team members on our Centre’s website, and at the moment we are looking for a statistician – our project will require the presence of someone who can perform a health risk assessment, i.e. who will be able to collect data and present an assessment of the health risk posed by the use of fuel made of biomass. In addition, we will establish cooperation with medical community and anyone who wants to cooperate with us and expand our research area.

We have quite ambitious plans and in fact our work is just getting started. For four years, prof. Mastalerz and I worked remotely from the United States and contacted prof. Iwona Jelonek and Zbigniew Jelonek, PhD in the evenings, when they had already returned from work, and we were just starting it in the USA. And I must admit that I am proud of how much we have managed to achieve in these four years working in this way. So I hope that my presence here and the fact that we can finally work in the same time zone will make us even more efficient.

Dr inż. Agnieszka Drobniak i prof. Maria Mastalerz w odkrywkowej kopalnia węgla w Indianie

Agnieszka Drobniak, PhD, Eng. and prof. Maria Mastalerz in an open-pit coal mine, Indiana | private archive of Agnieszka Drobniak, PhD, Eng.

WERONIKA CYGAN: Your project, which received funding under the “Polskie Powroty 2021” programme, concerns the quality of solid fuels produced from biomass and their impact on the environment and health of users. Can you tell us something more about this project and the planned works?

AGNIESZKA DROBNIAK, PHD ENG: It all started at the University of Silesia. Seven years ago Zbigniew Jelonek, PhD and prof. Iwona Jelonek became interested in the quality of charcoal briquettees, which are used for barbeque. Later, they extended their research to wood pellets, primarily used for heating. They quickly noticed how polluted some of these fuels were. It was then that an innovative idea appeared to use optical microscopy in biomass analysis – if we can see pollutants with the naked eye, what else is there that we cannot see? This is how our cooperation started. Me and my boss from Indiana University, prof. Maria Mastalerz, we brought our knowledge of promoting and publishing research results to the team and used our reputation to attract scientists from other countries to the project. The subject of our research will certainly be extended to other types of biomass. At the moment, our main goal at CBERE is to promote this area of research and educate people on what biomass is, what it is used for, and what advantages and disadvantages it has. In addition, we strive to ensure that the methodology we have developed for assessing the quality of fuels using optical microscopy is added to the currently used standard physicochemical methods for assessing their quality. We already know that if these assessments are carried out on a small scale, they unfortunately do not show the entire spectrum of microscopic pollutants, which in total have a huge impact on the environment. Additionally, in many countries, including the United States, barbecue fuels are not tested at all.

WERONIKA CYGAN: How do biomass fuels compare to fossil fuels, but also to other energy sources? What is their main advantage?

AGNIESZKA DROBNIAK, PHD ENG: First of all, they are renewable. Of course, everything has its advantages and disadvantages. Our job, as scientists, is not to promote something. Our goal is to conduct research and, based on its results, show the facts. Of course, we interpret them to some extent, but the goal is simply to present conclusions to other scientists, as well as politicians, authorities, fuel producers and, more broadly, the society. In the case of biomass fuels, the conditions under which they are burned and their composition are of great importance. Somethimes they contain contaminants – some of them get there accidentally, but there are some situations in which fuels contain things that absolutely should not be there. For example, we found ground plastics and tires in pellets. And I will always repeat the mantra: how these fuels are made and what is their composition, and the way they are burned, affects their quality and the way in which they later affect our health and the environment.

WERONIKA CYGAN: Can biomass fuels be perceived as a competitor to solid fuels and other energy sources, or rather as a supplement to them?

AGNIESZKA DROBNIAK, PHD ENG: In March 2022 I came to the University of Silesia to conduct a series of lectures for students. They were devoted primarily to energy resources. When I talked about coal and biomass, I started my lectures by showing a graph presenting the global energy demand. It has grown tremendously since the beginning of the 20th century. According to last year’s Global Energy Perspective report, by 2050 the demand for energy will double even more. The scale of how much electricity and energy we use for our cars, telephones and many other things in unimaginable. At this point, our attention is focused on how we are going to provide this huge amount of essential energy. Biomass will certainly not dominate anything here, it will simply be one of the important elements.

WERONIKA CYGAN: Preparing for the interview, I read a bit about biomass and I particularly liked the fact that it is a source of energy for which no separate infrastructure needs to be created, as in the case of hard coal or oil. One example was a sawmill, where biomass could be obtained from processing residues of wood intended for furniture or other products.

AGNIESZKA DROBNIAK, PHD ENG: Yes, and please remember that this is really just getting started. I think that due to the current emphasis on climate issues and the use of renewable fuels, there will be a lot of new ideas here. There are many things we can do with biomass – it is not only burned, but it can also be gasified, and this is a much cleaner way of disposal. In the coming years, this branch will certainly develop dynamically, but no one can predict at the moment what direction it will eventually take.

WERONIKA CYGAN: It’s probably too early to ask about it, but perhaps you are already able to point out clear differences between the Polish and American style of work and the way of organising activities at the university.

AGNIESZKA DROBNIAK, PHD ENG: There are lots of differences – there are pros and cons to everything (laughs). I have never worked in Poland and not enough time has passed yet for me to comment on this subject. In the USA, work largely depended on the team we created. Together with prof. Maria Mastalerz we created a scientific group that had a great time working together. There were a lot of projects I carried out there – I worked on coal, shale gas and methane from coal, and in recent years we also spent a lot of time on rare earth elements, i.e. elements that are necessary to produce a computer screen, a smartphone car batteries and windmills. I must admit that after moving to the USA in 2002 (and Poland looked much different back then) I was truly shocked by the opportunities that opened up for me there. There was an easy access to laboratories and equipment, and the institute had money for conference trips. When I came here, there was a huge university infrastructure waiting for me there, which allows for almost unlimited access to paid magazines and software. A lot of things just got easier, for example due to the fact that many things are available online. When I left Poland, computers were just beginning to appear at universities. Few people dreamed about downloading an article via the Internet, and in addition it cost a lot of money. I even have a picture from my last year of PhD studies, sitting in front of a giant computer with a huge keyboard (laughs). I have always missed Poland. I used to come regularly every two years and I was always convinced that sooner or later I will return.

WERONIKA CYGAN: Thank you for the interview.

The article “Back and forth – coming back to Poland from USA | Interview with geologist, Agnieszka Drobniak, PhD Eng.” was published in the December issue of “Gazeta Uniwersytecka UŚ” (USil Magazine) 3(303).

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