Jessica Elwell once sat with her Senior Design team daydreaming about how they could solve all the problems of the world with thermodynamics. Now, she is actually solving one of those problems by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen and sustainable fuels.
Coming around the bend in Chassell during her first campus visit, Elwell thought, “Oh, this is home now. This is where I need to be.” The remote environment, affordability, and quality of the engineering education were all factors that led her to choose Michigan Tech. She graduated with a BS in Chemical Engineering in 2002, followed by an MS in Chemical Engineering in 2003.
Her career began at SE Johnson as a research engineer, but following that she frequently jumped industries, looking for what the position would add to her skill set versus what the job actually was. “I’ve had the opportunity to go from specialty chemicals to bio labs to ceramics to defense and aerospace. I even worked in weapons manufacturing for a bit,” she said. “It’s been a really diverse path.”
Now, Elwell is chief operation officer at OxEon Energy, a start-up specializing in complementary energy technologies capable of converting carbon dioxide and water to sustainable fuels, leading the way to solve the world’s energy-related problems. Elwell was a founding member in 2017, but left to gain experience and returned to the company in 2020. While formally working together at OxEon for just five years, the team has actually been collaborating for more than 30.
It was this team that designed, developed, and manufactured the Solid Oxide Electrolyzer at the heart of the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment—or MOXIE—which was named one of TIME’s Best Inventions of 2023. The device was attached to Mars’ Perseverance rover, successfully converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. Because of Elwell and team, if astronauts ever land on Mars, they will have air to breathe and propellant produced on Mars to support a return mission.
“We are the first team ever to produce a technology that made a commodity off of the surface of Earth from the resources that are available in that location,” Elwell said. “As technical program manager, that is my biggest achievement. That team, and that product, is what I’m most proud of.”
OxEon is currently scaling up manufacturing on the devices and using them to produce fuels on the Earth.
Elwell credits Michigan Tech for giving her the tools she needs to succeed. “I’ve worked with the best of the best in high-profile engineering companies. I appreciate the background that Michigan Tech gave me. I can sit in any of those rooms, at any of those tables, and I belong.”
Residing in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her two children, Alton and Kailyn, Elwell enjoys spending time outdoors in the beautiful Utah mountains, being active in the development of a sustainable fuels economy through industry associations and government activities, and volunteering for Women Who Succeed. Elwell is on the Board of Directors for the United States Hydrogen Alliance, as well as the Board of Governors for Utah’s Aerospace and Defense Association, 47G.