From Michigan Tech to Mars

An inventor and innovator from Michigan Tech smiles in front of a mock-up of a Mars Rover in the same class at the Rover for which she and her team developed an experimental device to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen.
An inventor and innovator from Michigan Tech smiles in front of a mock-up of a Mars Rover in the same class at the Rover for which she and her team developed an experimental device to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen.
Jessica Elwell in front of the Mars Curiosity Rover mockup at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The rover is in the same class as the Mars Perseverance Rover, that carried the experimental device MOXIE aboard to successfully convert carbon dioxide to oxygen. (All images courtesy Jessica Elwell)

Jessica Elwell once sat with her Senior Design team daydreaming about how they could solve all the problems of the world using thermodynamics. Now, she’s actually solving one of those problems by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen and sustainable fuels.

Elwell is chief operating officer of OxEon Energy, which designed, developed and manufactured the solid oxide electrolyzer at the heart of the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment — or MOXIE. The device was named one of Time magazine’s Best Inventions of 2023

Elwell remembers the moment she came around the bend in Chassell, Michigan, headed toward her first campus visit and thinking, “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 bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 2002 and earned her master’s in the same discipline in 2003.

Elwell’s career began at SC Johnson, where she worked as a research engineer. Following her time there, she frequently jumped industries, seeking positions that would add to her skill set. 

“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.”

OxEon Energy is a startup specializing in complementary energy technologies capable of converting carbon dioxide and water to sustainable fuels. A founding member in 2017, Elwell left the company to gain further skills and experience, returning in 2020. While the company, which has positioned itself to lead the way in solving the world’s energy-related problems, has formally been operating for five years, Elwell said its team has been collaborating for more than 30.

MOXIE was attached to the Mars Perseverance Rover, successfully converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. Because of the innovation, explorers who land on Mars will have air to breathe and be able to produce propellant to support their return mission to Earth.

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. As technical program manager, that is my biggest achievement. That team, and that product, is what I’m most proud of.

A Michigan Tech alumna who is a researcher shares her pride in the accomplishments of her team.
Jessica Elwell ’02 ’03
Chief operating officer, OxEon Energy

OxEon is currently scaling up manufacturing and using the devices to produce fuels on 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,” she said.

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. She serves 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.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.