Professors eye green technologies
From left, Christopher Mordaunt, Michale Gross '03, and Katsuyuki Wakabayashi.
Katsuyuki Wakabayashi, assistant professor of chemical engineering, is developing more environmentally friendly plastics, known as nanocomposites.
"Plastics are everywhere, especially in packaging," he says. “The waste is a huge problem, and people don’t always recycle."
Wakabayashi is developing biodegradable plastics derived entirely from natural materials. Bio-based polymers, which form the bulk of the nanocomposites, are too brittle or weak for some uses. Embedding tiny nanoparticles, such as clay, into the polymer can improve features such as rigidity, flexibility, and durability.
Conventional mixing processes cannot blend two bio-based materials into a homogenous product, so existing biodegradable plastics use either bio-based polymers or bio-based nanoparticles, but not both. Wakabayashi believes that a special processing technique he studied at Northwestern University will overcome that limitation and create natural, biodegradable nanocomposites robust enough for many applications.
Michael Gross ’03
Michael Gross ’03, assistant professor of chemical engineering, is developing solid oxide fuel cells that will someday generate electricity directly from biofuels. Fuel cells are cleaner and more efficient than combustion engines and are easily sized for applications ranging from a soldier’s backpack to a large power plant. Solid oxide fuel cells are unique in that they can use any combustible fuel, including gasoline or biofuels.
In solid oxide fuel cells, a cathode generates oxygen ions from air, an electrolyte transports them to an anode, and the anode causes a reaction. Gross is developing anodes.
“Currently, the most common anode material used is a composite that contains nickel,” he says. “Nickel is limited to using hydrogen and carbon monoxide as fuel because it’s not stable in hydrocarbon fuels.”
Gross is starting his research with hydrocarbon fuels because they and the infrastructure are currently available, but he expects to eventually move to ethanol or other biofuels.
Christopher Mordaunt, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, studies combustion instabilities in gas turbines. Burning biofuels derived from plants such as switchgrass could reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on foreign energy supplies. However, combustion machines are sensitive to the type of fuel they burn.
"A lot of work needs to be done on the combustion characteristics of these fuels to determine what difficulties will be encountered in practice and how the combusters are going to react to differing fuels," he said. "It is a real-world, practical problem. Advanced combustion devices are susceptible to this combustion instability problem."
Mordaunt is also interested in how engines will act when burning liquefied coal. For example, liquefied coal might replace the kerosene-based jet fuel JP8. Using coal will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it could reduce the country’s dependence on foreign energy supplies.
We need to break the status quo,” Mordaunt says. “We need to start focusing on the fact that every little thing we do has a tremendous impact on our environment, and we need to think a lot about what we do before we actually do it."
(Editor's Note: Bucknell's Web site is featuring some of the University's newest teacher-scholars. They are among the new faculty members highlighted in the Fall 2007 edition of Bucknell World.)
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Posted Oct. 26, 2007