I don't want students to just work on cool things. I want them to also excel in the ethical and moral side of what we do.

José Madero

The invention of the steam engine captivates Professor José Madero, mechanical engineering. It was so world-changing, he speaks of it in terms of "before" and "after."

But he's also cognizant of the costs involved, recalling his childhood in Mexico, where the pollution was so thick some days, school had to be cancelled.

"It's amazing how much the world has changed since we discovered the steam engine. It was so important to the development of humanity," Madero says. "But along with the great things that came with it, there were negative effects. How do we get an affordable, available energy supply but avoid the negative things?"

As a biofuel combustion researcher, Madero develops processes for cheaper, cleaner energy that's also reliable. He is currently designing a low-temperature, flame-assisted spray pyrolysis — a battery-manufacturing process that is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than traditional processes.

"Battery materials are very sensitive to the temperature at which they are manufactured, so the temperatures reached during conventional flame-spray pyrolysis are too high, and they ruin the performance of the material," he explains. "By using fuels heavily diluted in water, we are able to lower the reaction temperature and therefore we can produce high-performance materials using spray pyrolysis. It's very promising — we have some big chemical companies interested because it's also very scalable."

Eventually, Madero plans to streamline the production of biofuel from algae, a fast-growing crop that can be grown in swamps and other environments typically nonconductive to food crop cultivation.

"Algae are the most promising biofuel, but so far, the cost is the issue," Madero says. "Before you can use algae as biofuel, they must be dewatered. That part of the process accounts for about one-third of the production cost, so that makes hard for algae to compete against other biofuels."

In the classroom, Madero uses his fondness for fast cars and motorcycles, and the combustion engines powering them, as the ideal teaching tool. "It's very useful for teaching thermodynamics, fluid dynamics and heat transfer because combustion uses all three," he says.

But he also wants students to understand that the technologies they will develop have potential to transform our world — for better or worse.

"That's something we shouldn't be reckless with," Madero says. "Right now, we're paying for the way we've been doing things for hundreds of years. I don't want students to just work on cool things. I want them to also excel in the ethical and moral side of what we do."

Posted September 2018