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Power Pioneers: Meet 6 Women Powering the Energy Industry’s History and Future

Lise Meitner, Millie Dresselhaus, and Mária Telkes: These three women paved the way for the modern-day energy industry, enabling advances in nuclear fission, nanotechnology and solar power. Never heard of them? Unfortunately, you’re not alone. 

In school, kids learn about some of the greatest inventors and scientists in history — Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Alfred Nobel, and Albert Einstein. But female pioneers don’t always make it into lesson plans.

Check out how trailblazing women from the past are powering the work of Exelon women today. 


1. PIONEERING NUCLEAR POWER

Physicist Lise Meitner is known as the “Mother of Nuclear Power.” Born in Vienna, Austria in 1878, Dr. Meitner began studying physics and mathematics at a young age after reading about the work of scientists like Marie Curie.

While working alongside chemist Otto Hahn in 1938, Dr. Meitner led the team that discovered nuclear fission — the process by which the nucleus of a heavy atom splits, releasing huge amounts of energy. This breakthrough eventually led to development of nuclear power plants like Exelon’s R.E. Ginna Nuclear Power Plant.

Today, nuclear engineers like Sarah Spath work to keep Ginna Station’s operations running smoothly. Like  Dr. Meitner, Sarah took an early interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), pursuing engineering and chemistry through programs like Project Lead the Way. Today, thanks to Sarah, Dr. Meitner, and many others, Ginna uses nuclear fission to generate enough electricity annually to power almost half a million homes.



2. BUILDING STRONGER BONDS 

Born decades apart, Reta White and Dr. Mildred Dresselhaus share a lot in common.

Dr. Dresselhaus (a.k.a. the “Queen of Carbon”) unlocked the secrets of carbon’s molecular structures — a leap that spurred the use of nanotechnology as a foundation for modern-day engineering. Among her discoveries were nanotubes, single-layer sheets of carbon atoms shaped into hollow tubes. These microscopic structures have the strength of steel but are just one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair.
 
Today, Dr. Dresselhaus’ work in nanotechnology enables innovators like Reta White, an engineer at Exelon Generation’s Conowingo Dam, to improve infrastructure to generate electricity more efficiently. It’s Reta’s job to maintain the almost 90-year-old dam’s foundation and find lighter, stronger materials to replace aging concrete and steel. Beyond the Conowingo Dam, we use nanotechnology at Exelon for technology like next-generation rechargeable batteries, solar cells, wind turbine blades, and water filters.



3. SPARKING BRIGHT IDEAS

Dr. Mária Telkes is widely recognized as one of the first researchers to harness the sun’s energy using a process similar to the technology found in solar cells today. Dr. Telkes earned the nickname “Sun Queen” after developing some of the first of thermal storage systems, as well as several other solar-powered devices like the first solar-heated house. Her contributions to thermal storage increased the effectiveness of early solar technology by enabling energy collected during the day to be used at night. 

Dr. Telkes’ discoveries lit the way for modern solar technology, including Exelon Generation’s 468-megawatt solar portfolio that stretches from Illinois to California. Kristina Peles, a performance engineer for Exelon’s Constellation, channels her background in thermodynamics, engineering, and renewable energy to ensure solar panels and other related equipment remain energy-efficient and cost-effective for customers. 

Thanks to Dr. Telkes, Kristina, and many others’ perseverance, solar is finally a viable, readily available energy source. 



Do you have a woman in STEM whom you look up to? Share your story with us on Twitter using the hashtag #WomenInSTEM.