Donna Aranibar is living proof that UConn Engineering’s outreach to high school teachers and students is sparking enthusiasm for research in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. Since September, Donna, a Glastonbury High School senior, has been traveling to UConn twice weekly to participate in research underway in the laboratory of Dr. George Bollas, assistant professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering.
Donna’s path to Storrs began when Glastonbury High School teacher Diane Pintavalle participated in the Joule Fellows program at UConn during the summer of 2012. Across five weeks, she was embedded in Dr. Bollas’ lab and worked closely with doctoral student Shoucheng Du, her Joule Mentor, on a project involving biomass catalytic pyrolysis. The Joule Fellows experience was an enlightening one for Ms. Pintavalle, who was inspired despite experimental challenges that slowed the progress of the project during her weeks in the lab. When she returned to the classroom in the fall, Ms. Pintavalle – who teaches a senior research course at Glastonbury High School – shared some of her insights with her class of just 12 students.
Donna was intrigued by the work and, encouraged by Ms. Pintavalle, contacted Dr. Bollas to ask that he mentor her senior research project. Dr. Bollas readily agreed, and Donna began coming to the laboratory at the Center for Clean Energy Engineering Monday and Friday afternoons, at the close of her high school day. There, she logs 6-8 hours weekly observing and contributing to the research, and documenting her lessons in weekly reports that will culminate with a final report and presentation.
The project involves heating organic material, such as pine sawdust (lignocellulose), glucose and other cellulose, in a reactor without oxygen. Lacking oxygen, the process does not produce combustion. Instead, the biomass is transformed into primarily CO2, water, solid carbon char, and the desired end product, liquid bio-oil. The researchers are studying ways to increase the volume of bio-oil produced, using a variety of alternate techniques, some involving the use of catalysts to further drive the process.
Their aim is to identify feedstock materials and processes that yield the greatest volume of fluid oil and the least amount of char. The bio-oil has possible applications as a fossil-fuel alternative for automotive fuel or for use in chemical processing. Because the reactor system is so efficient, it is virtually carbon neutral, rendering it a more sustainable, environmentally benign process than, say, oil refining.
To prepare for her experience in the laboratory, Donna says she read several of Dr. Bollas’ scientific papers to better understand the nature of the research. Since then, she has become proficient in the language of the research laboratory, where she is learning the techniques and processes involved in each step, from reactor set-up and heating to the necessary 600 degrees C, to characterization using gas chromatography, SCM (scanning capacitance microscopy), spectroscopy and other methods.
The stainless steel reactor, which is enclosed in a thick blanket of insulation and also features an external network of copper tubes carrying chilled water that also cools the exterior walls of the reactor, was custom designed and built at UConn explicitly for Dr. Bollas and his team. Dr. Bollas anticipates the research will result in the development of efficient energy conversion technologies that rely on low-value feedstocks, and the education of engineering practitioners who bring energy conservation and environmental awareness to the energy conversion process.
Commenting on her experience to date, Donna notes that “Many people conceive of laboratory research as a solitary activity, but in fact, I have found it to be very team-oriented. Engineering is especially interesting; there are problems that require resolution, and we can try different approaches to address those challenges.” While undecided about her course of academic study, Donna is excited to begin life as a UConn Husky when she enters UConn in the fall.