Postdoc profiles: Channa De Silva explores materials for alternative energy applications
Note: In honor of National Postdoc Appreciation Week, Sept. 17-21, we're spotlighting postdoctoral fellows on the Ohio University campus. A postdoctoral scholar ("postdoc") is an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing.
By Andrea Gibson
Sept. 18, 2012
Channa De Silva holds up a glass container of fine wood shavings, a waste product of the furniture industry. In the other hand he shows the end result of the sawdust's trip through a piece of equipment called the fluidized bed reactor: a vial of dark brown liquid that he describes as a "bio oil." De Silva and his faculty mentor, Jason Trembly, are working with Ohio University civil engineers to determine if the oil could be used to make new, perhaps more environmentally friendly, road asphalt.
"We want to make something novel and efficient," says De Silva, who's been working as a postdoctoral research associate for the university since August 2011.
It's just one concept that de Silva and Trembly are testing at the Ohio Coal Research Center in Stocker Center. The postdoc is charged with identifying new materials that can be efficiently and effectively produced for energy uses. Last month, he examined simulated coal syngas compositions that could provide information on alternatives to conventional gasoline.
"What we're doing is in demand right now," he says. "People are trying to find alternatives to address current energy needs."
De Silva first came to Ohio University in 2005 to pursue his master's and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering, under the direction of Loehr Professor of Mechanical Engineering David Bayless. Early on he was named a scholar in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology's Robe Leadership Institute. De Silva spent almost six years conducting research on the effects of contaminant compounds on the performance of solid oxide fuel cells that operated on coal syngas, which can be used as an energy source for a variety of applications.
"It's a specialized area, and I wanted to diversify," he said. "I also wanted hands-on experience with setting up a lab."
When Bayless mentioned the postdoctoral position in Trembly's lab, De Silva jumped at the chance. De Silva has assisted Trembly, a newer faculty member in mechanical engineering, with selecting, installing and maintaining equipment for the laboratory, which focuses on understanding thermochemical conversion processes involved in creating new sources of fuel and engineering materials. The postdoctoral student is fully trained in handling the hazardous gases necessary for the research, and oversees the work of undergraduate student researchers who have helped him build equipment and conduct experiments.
De Silva anticipates that the research and lab management experience will help him land a job at a national laboratory or in private industry.
As for the bio oil, there's more work to do, De Silva says. For every 100 grams of sawdust, he should get 40 grams of bio oil for the process to be efficient enough to pursue further. Right now he's producing 20 grams of oil, and so is tweaking his process and equipment in the hopes of reaching the higher target.