When asked to define what sustainability means to him, Yoel Cortes-Peña responds: “Thinking about the future, using resources wisely, and creating diverse possibilities.”
As a master’s student, Yoel advances these goals through science and computer programming. His most recent work is with the Guest Research Group, led by Jeremy Guest, Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Illinois, under the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation’s (CABBI) Sustainability theme. At a young age, he was captivated by the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.
“When I was a kid,” he recalled, “my dad would give me math classes, which were a lot of fun.”
After exploring several STEM-centric career paths, including medical research, Yoel graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a B.S. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Currently, he is pursuing an M.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“In the end, I found that I had more of an engineering mind, with a math, programming and theoretical background,” he said.
Environmental sustainability has always been Yoel’s chosen avenue for applying his skills. The U of I’s biofuel research was what initially drew him. Now, his position in the Guest Research Group unites his passions for engineering, programming, and sustainability through an initiative that combines all three: biorefinery simulation.
Biorefineries, oil refineries’ eco-friendly counterparts, process large quantities of feedstock biomass to produce an array of energies and biofuels. The goal of a biorefinery is to use all aspects of the feedstock while minimizing waste. The feedstocks, or crops, that are currently cultivated through CABBI include sorghum, Miscanthus, energycane, and sugarcane. Yoel’s work involves simulating the biorefinery’s many moving parts. He will ultimately design a production process that meets government-mandated standards while remaining sustainable and producing target yields of desired products.
“Take lipidcane, a genetically modified sugarcane that stores large amounts of lipids (oils). A lipidcane biorefinery can produce ethanol from the sugars, biodiesel from the lipids, and electricity from burning the bagasse. In reality, it is even possible to produce more bioproducts,” Yoel said. “We want to make sure that the process is sustainable in that it has low greenhouse gas emissions, that we’re conserving water, etc., while also minding the economy. You’re not going to make a biorefinery that is just not economical.”
To complete this exhaustive give-and-take analysis, Yoel develops process simulation software in Python, a specific type of programming language used for general computer programming. With this software, he can test various performance parameters while observing the biorefinery’s overall performance.
“Theoretically, fermentation can reach 95% efficiency with a worst-case scenario of 80%. We can layer that on, for example, and test how the biorefinery performs — economically and environmentally — over the whole range of fermentation efficiencies,” Yoel said.
Based on these simulations, he charts development roadmaps, which can inform researchers regarding what (and what not) to focus on.
“Occasionally, results show that a process does not merit further research — for example, it isn’t feasible to run a biorefinery that doesn’t match government standards for greenhouse gas emissions, even if it produces satisfactory yields,” he said.
Although it is a lot of work, Yoel expresses an appreciation for his work and the opportunities that arise as a result. He also appreciates his lab’s emphasis on constant learning and individual development.
“I get to work with a lot of wonderful people, I’m able to apply my chemical engineering knowledge and be creative, and I know that the work I’m doing is really important,” he said. “There’s a lot of trust here, and I think that’s what has helped me build a solid program.”
Currently, Yoel is the sole team member working directly with the program’s core. He hopes that this won’t always be the case, and he expresses a desire to craft sustainable code that’s universally accessible to researchers and allows them to contribute to its development.
“My hope is that, at some point, I can let go of the program and it will be self-sustaining, and researchers interested in extending it can adapt it for new things.”
Given his love for science, it’s no surprise that Yoel hopes to someday be a professor with a lab of his own. Recently, he conducted a series of Python workshops on object-oriented programming within his lab group and appreciated the opportunity to share his expertise with his peers.
“I really love teaching,” Yoel said. “I value that kind of advisor-student relationship — not only academically, but professionally as well.”
Yoel’s passion for pedagogy carries over from the lab to the dance studio, where he gives weekly salsa lessons on campus and teaches cumbia, a Latin style of dance, with the Dancing Illini. Dance is central to Yoel’s life, and he expresses a passion for “the ways it can express your life and soul.”
Yoel’s dual passions for dancing and programming are interconnected, and they converge around his love for teaching.
“Learning anything new requires patience,” he said. “Teaching requires knowing the common mistakes. In any field, those go hand in hand.”
Be it through bioenergy, lines of code fashioned to stand the test of time, or dance studios full of students, Yoel is committed to securing a sustainable future in as many ways as he can.
— Written by iSEE Communications Intern Jenna Kurtzweil; photos by iSEE Communications Specialist Jordan Goebig