Undergraduate research spotlight: Engineering students explore biofuels, robotics, fuel cells
By Natalia Radic
Courtney Paul: Transforming greenhouses gases into fuel for hydraulic fracturing
Ohio University's strong focus on green energies has opened up research opportunities for undergraduates such as Courtney Paul, a chemical engineering major who is seeking to find an effective way to convert methane emissions from oil wells into new energy sources.
The project, with funding from the company Bio2Electric and the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), uses oxide catalysts to transform greenhouse gases into sustainable fuel sources for hydraulic fracturing companies. A catalyst is ground into a powder, made into ink, and then transferred onto a fuel cell.
The fuel cell produces a transportation fuel, electrical energy, and water, which Paul says can be used to power machinery used to hydraulically fracture—or "frack"—natural gas or oil from the ground.
"You're not going to be burning the methane and releasing more carbon dioxide into the air, so it's cleaner in that way," says Paul, who works at the Ohio Coal Research Center with faculty member Jason Trembly.
Because the technology can capture methane for later conversion into liquid transportation fuels, it also can help companies generate revenue, she says.
"Utilizing this portable fuel cell technology has also shown to have advantages over conventional methods for turning gas into liquid fuels, in terms of thermal efficiency, carbon dioxide emissions, and cost," she adds.
Paul says her research should be complete in the next year or two.
"I've done some welding, I've done some screen printing … I've done all sorts of shop things I don't normally do," such as mixing chemicals, analyzing the makeup of gas mixtures, and using a frequency scanner to measure the fuel cells' output, she says. "I've gotten more experience from doing this project then I feel most people get during their entire undergraduate years."
Dan Harris: Robotic hand controlled by brain waves
When junior mechanical engineering major Dan Harris puts on his headset, connects the sensors to his earlobes, and flips a few switches, the long, plastic fingers situated at the end of a wood plank seem to come alive. They flex and extend as Harris wills them to, using his thoughts to control the robotic hand.
The student built the device last summer for only $185 in supplies. As part of an independent study project with Professor Robert Williams, Harris met the challenge of creating a portable, easy-to-fix prosthetic limb that could be controlled by brain waves.
The plastic hand is connected to wires that operate with off-the-shelf microprocessors and a headset, which uses electroencephalographic (EEG) technology to read and register brain wave intensity. The intensity of the thought is recorded as a value between zero and 100, Harris explains.
When most people first try it on, they find that the controls initially are hard to grasp.
"There's big difference between what people think is thinking hard and what is actually thinking hard," Harris says. "It takes a bit of practice to get used to it."
Harris is seeking more funding to design an actual prosthetic that can be manufactured through a combination of 3D printing and metal machining, and also can function through spinal control. The student hopes to submit the final product to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' robotics competition.
Lauryl Desch: Using wood to make sustainable bio-oil
Lauryl Desch is part of an Ohio University project designed to find sustainable resources that can be converted into materials that currently are derived from fossil sources.
The junior chemical engineering major's job is to find the right combination of wood stock and heat to produce a bio-oil "that is cheap, renewable, and more efficient" than other options, she says.
Sometimes, the task requires elbow grease. Desch has taken a hammer to the fluidized bed reactor, a device used to change the wood from solid to liquid, on multiple occasions.
"I can't tell you how many times that machine broke on me … a clog here, a clog there," she says.
But it's worth the effort for research that could find a new way to create asphalt that doesn't rely on traditional petroleum products.
It's also been an "eye-opening experience" for Desch, one of several students working at the Ohio Coal Research Center with faculty member Jason Trembly.
"I went in there not knowing anything … and just was blown away because people are brilliant," says Desch, who first joined the team as a summer intern last year. "It was a really good learning experience for me because everything is hands on."
Photos: Ben Siegel, University Communications and Marketing
This story will appear in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine, which covers research, scholarship and creative activity.