EPA awards grant to engineering students for alternative fuel production technology

Writer: Lorena Sánchez

A $10,000 grant has been awarded to three of New Mexico State University’s civil engineering Ph.D. candidates to build a reactor that will produce alternative fuel.

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Civil engineering professor Nirmala Khandan served as mentor to graduate students who received an EPA grant for $10,000.

Team leader Ambica Koushik Pegallapati, team members, Balachandran Ketheesan, and Yalini Arudchelvam, along with their mentor civil engineering Professor Nirmala Khandan, submitted a proposal to the Environmental Protection Agency’s P3 (People, Prosperity, and the Planet) Program competition, and received their grant on August 16.

“We worked hard to come up with the design and proposal to fulfill all the
requirements in the P3 proposal such as peace, prosperity and planet,” Arudchelvam said.

This highly competitive national program consists of two phases. The first phase allows universities from across the nation to submit written proposals on designs that will provide solutions to challenges in: agriculture, the environment, materials and chemicals, energy, and water.

“I was elated to hear about the award. Given the significance of it, this award has motivated me and our group to pursue further challenges and has given us the motivation to win the second phase,” Pegallapati said.

As a team, the students along with Khandan submitted a written proposal on the development of algal biodiesel. Biodiesel is an alternative to petroleum based diesel because it is made from renewable resources. What makes the NMSU team’s design proposal unique is the use of microalgae to create a fuel known as algal biodiesel. “The lipids naturally created by algae can be converted into biodiesel, a commercialized alternative fuel that’s already available.” Arudchelvam said.

Of the universities that entered the competition, 50 were chosen in the first phase to receive a $10,000 grant. The $10,000 grant awarded to the students will be used to build a reactor that will be displayed and reviewed at the National Mall in Washington D.C. during the second phase of the competition.

“We will demonstrate the unique design of the reactor, which is the first airlift configuration raceway reactor, in a small-scale model that addresses the peace, prosperity and planet requirements of the award by capturing carbon dioxide and producing biodiesel at the same time,” Ketheesan explained.

He added that a conventional raceway reactor “paddle wheels have been employed to maintain flow circulation and keep algal biomass in suspension.” The team’s reactor eliminates the need for paddlewheels through the use of a series of airlift configuration that keeps the cultures in suspension by driving the flow around the raceway.

“Airlift reactors are similar to U shaped tubes in which air spargers are located at the bottom of one side of the U shaped tube. It creates a density difference in liquid to drive the flow around the raceway,” Ketheesan explained.

It took three months for the students to draft the proposal and will take three months for the reactor to be built. In April, the team will travel to D.C. to display their work at the Seventh Annual National Sustainable Design Expo.

“They will be competing in the second round for an award of $75,000. The student will benefit by exposing their research to a national audience, including politicians and legislators. The opportunity to present research at the National Mall offers good visibility to NMSU,” Khandan said.

Only 15 universities will receive the $75,000 grants, which will provide the winning teams the opportunity to further their designs, implement them in the field, and eventually move them to the marketplace.

“We are looking forward to presenting our design to the best of our abilities, to impress the judges, while competing with other projects from some of the top universities. Also we are waiting for the rich experience and knowledge to be gained from other designs in that contest,” Pegallapati said of their upcoming trip.

As Ph.D. candidates, all three students agree that this opportunity will have a lasting effect on their future careers.

“This opportunity is a milestone in my research career and it will give me good recognition to collaborate with other researchers in our field and write more innovative proposals in near future,” Ketheesan said.

In 2005/2006 another team lead by Khandan received the grant for their research on biohydrogen. As a mentor throughout this process, each student agrees that Khandan’s previous experience, as well as his support and guidance played a part in their success.

“Above all, our special thanks to Professor Nirmala Khandan for giving us such an opportunity, and support to participate and win this phase one P3 award,” Ketheesan said.

Preliminary work to develop this proposal was made possible through: a seed grant provided by the Office of the Vice President for Research; and a Graduate Research Enhancement Grant.


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