Thomas WallnerBy Louise Lerner • February 5, 2012
Thomas Wallner is a mechanical engineer with Argonne's Center for Transportation Research. His work focuses on improving engines and adapting them to use different fuels, including the "Omnivorous Engine", which automatically calibrates itself to any mix of fuels.
How did you first get interested in science?
Well, I always liked playing Lego [laughs]—I still play Lego with my little nephew. Then I got my first moped when I was 10 or 11, so I'd disassemble and re-assemble that. That was my first experience with engines. And then after high school there was a decision to be made as to what I should do for my career, and you know, I thought engineering might be that.
What do you do now?
I work in the Engines and Emissions group here at the Center for Transportation Research. I started out as a postdoctoral appointee, working on hydrogen as a fuel for internal combustion engines, and this has expanded to more projects and more engines with different fuels. The main focus is alternative fuels and advanced combustion concepts.
Do you have any interesting projects right now?
We're still working on the hydrogen engine project. It's the last year of the project, and we met the DOE target goals, which we're happy about. Also, the omnivorous engine is still running, although we changed the scope of the project and are now focused on gaseous emissions and particulates from direct injection of gasoline and alcohol fuels.
We also have two new projects coming online now. Both are with one of our industrial partners, Navistar, and they both focus on improving the efficiency and reducing emissions from medium and heavy duty truck engines. We've also been trying to get people interested in natural gas as a fuel for transportation engines. So that's something we're working on.
What's the advantage of natural gas?
It's a domestic fuel; in the last few years new U.S. reserves have been discovered, and that being the case, it's of interest in terms of national security and independence from foreign oil.
Did you have a role model?
Not really...but I did have inspiration: I remember my grandpa gave me an old broken radio. I was really good at disassembling everything. But I was not so good at fixing it [laughs]. That's one of the things that inspired me. I also had lots of remote-control cars that I loved as a kid.
Now my nephew is five, and he liked this toy train that I never got, so I got him that when he was three, and now every time I go see him I have a few new parts for his toy train. So we both like playing trains.
What keeps you interested in your work every day?
It's the Argonne environment, really. We have a lot of flexibility to get into topic areas that we think are interesting. If you can get someone excited about the possibilities for a project, you can do almost anything you want. That's a unique position to be in. I think sometimes about going to private industry, but I think if you work where someone is always telling you what to work on, you run the risk of losing sight of the big picture. What I like about it here is that we can really react to outside input and also suggest ideas.
It's definitely interesting to work on stuff that's in the news every day. It feels really meaningful.
What's unique about being an engineer?
Maybe the mindset: you approach things differently. Everything can be broken down into smaller questions—and usually technology questions.
That said, I've given a few presentations to non-engineers, and after having given so many presentations to engineers it's hard to tone down the language and speak plainly. But it's an opportunity to focus on what's really important. Typically, engineering presentations are focused on one tiny aspect, but a public presentation is a good way to take a step back and look again at the big picture.
What do you do in your spare time?
I like boating, actually—I have a small boat that I take out on Lake Michigan sometimes. I also run; I ran the Chicago Marathon a few years ago.
One thing you might not know about me is that I'm in an exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago! They have an interactive exhibit that features a video of me talking about combustion. I guess that's probably one opportunity you'd only get as a scientist!
Learn more about Thomas Wallner in the U.S. Department of Energy's 10 Questions for an Automotive Engineer.