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The Search for Alternative Energy Sources

by YPU Admin on March 16, 2017, Comments. Tags: chemical engineering, energy, Fuel Cells, PhD, Research, STEM, and UoM

Introduction

My name is Romeo Gonzalez and I am a 1st year PhD student at the School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Sciences. After graduating from my Bachelor degree, also in Chemical Engineering, from my home county, Mexico, I successfully applied for a scholarship from my Government to come and study here in Manchester. I started on a Masters degree called an MPhil. This is sometimes a PhD preliminary year where you research a specific field before starting a full PhD in the same research area and is the path I took to becoming a PhD student.


My PhD focuses on applying new materials, such as graphene and reduced graphene oxide, into fuel cells. Fuel cells are devices capable of generating electricity through a chemical reaction, making my speciality electrochemistry.

In Depth

Currently most of the devices we use in our daily lives require a power supply, from the kettle we use for our morning coffee to the bus we use to get to work or school. This demand of energy is increasing every single day and is one of the most worrying problems humanity is facing.

So far, the solution to this problem hasn’t been found, but, most people believe that the solution lies in the use of multiple types of alternative energy sources. One of those alternative sources are fuel cells, more specifically, PEM fuel cells (proton exchange membrane fuel cells). These are small devices that can generate electricity through a reaction that takes place in the heart of the fuel cell, the Membrane Electrode Assembly. This is comprised of two electrodes stuck together with only a thin membrane separating them. The chemical reactions split a fuel - such as hydrogen, methanol or formic acid - into protons and electrons, which releases the chemical energy trapped inside that goes on to form electricity and water, thus generating power at a high efficiency with a low impact to the environment.

They are similar to batteries in the sense that both are electrochemical devices. However, in the case of batteries, they contain a set amount of power storage within them, whilst fuel cells produce a constant flow of energy as "fuel" flows through it.


So, why are we not already using them? Well unfortunately, fuel cells face different kinds of problems that need to be solved before they become as commonly used as batteries. In the case of hydrogen or formic acid, storage and handling of the fuel is a major safety issue, whilst low power production is an issue facing methanol fuel cells. Another problem this technology is facing is the use of expensive materials as a catalyst (a material used to kick start the chemical reaction), without which the fuel cells would not function. This problem is being tackled by finding alternative materials to try to improve the performance of the device. I’m looking specifically at using graphene in a number of different varieties.

So, what’s Graphene? Graphene is a relatively newly discovered two-dimension material that is known to possess multiple qualities, such as being highly conductive, highly resistant, ultra-light, transparent and is the thinnest material possible that could improve our daily life devices, including fuel cells. The objective of my PhD is to explore the use of this material in formic acid fuel cells to improve its power generation and efficiency, making it an excellent alternative source of energy.

Going Further

If you'd like to know more about fuel cells, visit this page:

http://americanhistory.si.edu/fuelcells/basics.htm  

If you want to know what kind of research is being carried out into fuel cells, visit:

https://energy.gov/eere/hydrogen-fuel-cells-blog  

If you're keen to know more about Graphene, visit the University of Manchester, the home of Graphene: http://www.graphene.manchester.ac.uk/  

Or if you want to know what you can do as a chemical engineer and how to become one, visit:

http://www.whynotchemeng.com/  

 

Chemical Engineering and Clean Water

by YPU Admin on March 3, 2016, Comments. Tags: chemical engineering, Engineering, Research, UoM, and water

Introduction

Hello, I’m Emily, a second year PhD student in Chemical Engineering at the University of Manchester. I have always been a keen scientist studying Chemistry, Biology and Maths at A-level before coming to the University of Manchester in 2010 to study Chemical Engineering. I completed my four year Integrated Master’s degree before continuing on with my studies by beginning a PhD in September 2014.  

My research focuses on the development of fuel cells, in particular Microbial Fuel Cell which uses bacteria found in waste water to clean wastewater whilst generating small quantities of electricity. The main purpose of this research is to identify and develop a system of cleaning waste water which is less harmful to the environment compared with methods currently used. 

In Depth…

Every day we use water. To drink, to cook, to clean, etc. We are very lucky that when we turn on our taps at home the water that comes out is clean and safe to use. However, when the water leaves our homes it is contaminated and cannot be used again unless it’s cleaned. So, how do we clean this water?

Current methods of treating wastewater are expensive as they either require large quantities of air to be pumped through the system (activated sludge reactors) or large areas of land for large reactors (trickle filter bed). They also produce large quantities of waste sludge which requires further treatment. The quantity of energy required for pumping, the damage to large areas of land and the production of sludge also makes this technology damaging to the environment highlighting a further need for a better method of cleaning water. An alternative is the use of microbial fuel cells.

Microbial fuel cells use the bacteria found in wastewater and starve it of oxygen. This prevents the bacteria from breathing and forces them to ferment, break down organic materials in water, in order to gain energy and survive. As the organic materials are broken down protons and electrons are formed. This occurs on one side of a fuel cell called an anode. These newly formed ions are forced to travel from the anode side of the fuel cell to the other side, called the cathode, following two separate routes routes. In between the sides of the fuel cell is a proton exchange membrane, this allows the movement of protons from one side to the other but blocks the movement of electrons. Meanwhile the electrons flow through wires externally of the fuel cell from one side to the other. The ions are then able to re-join on the cathode side; here they are mixed with oxygen to produce clean water.

This movement of ions is able to generate small quantities of electricity. The anaerobic nature of the anode greatly reduces the quantity of sludge produced which reduces the amount of further treatment required. The reduction of waste sludge, reduction of energy needs and the production of electricity make microbial fuel cells an ideal alternative to current wastewater treatment systems. As well as its use as an alternative wastewater treatment system, other research is ongoing which uses this technology specifically for power production or as bio-sensors.

Going Further

This is a great website for general information on what it’s like to be a chemical engineer and how to become one: http://www.whynotchemeng.com/

This is the official blog by students in the School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science; it highlights work by both staff and students:  http://www.mub.eps.manchester.ac.uk/ceasblog/

This blog highlights work being done in fuel cell technology and is run by the Governments Office of Energy, Efficiency and Renewable Energy: http://energy.gov/eere/hydrogen-fuel-cells-blog

Another blog about different types of Microbial Fuel Cells and how they work: http://www.sciencebuddies.org/blog/2014/03/microbial-fuel-cells-on-the-hunt-for-renewable-energy.php

A short video explaining microbial fuel cells by Bruce Logan, a world leader in this research: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZotwUJAb8R4

 

The science of small things

by YPU Admin on March 7, 2014, Comments. Tags: chemical engineering, nanoscience, PhD, and Research

Introduction

Hi, my name is Lauren and I am a second year PhD student at The University of Manchester. I was lucky enough to be selected for the NowNANO DTC programme. A DTC (Doctoral Training Centre) programme is essentially a PhD and the NowNANO DTC is a programme that specialises in Nanoscience. For those that don’t know what Nanoscience is, it is science on a very very small scale – 10-9 m to be exact, that’s 1 million times smaller than a millimetre!

My particular area of research looks at the molecular interactions in organic crystals. Organic crystals are crystals that are made up of carbon atoms. My focus is on hydrogen bonding behaviour in these crystals. One of the main uses of these types of crystals is in Pharmaceutical tablets. The molecular interactions in the crystals are what determine the properties of the crystal and therefore how well the drugs work.


In Depth

In order to get where I am now, I studied Maths, Chemistry and Physics at A level. At the time, my plan was to become an engineer and work on renewable energy. I studied for 4 years to get my master’s degree in “Chemical Engineering with Environmental Technology”. In between my 3rd and 4th year at university, I decided to see how much I enjoyed Chemical Engineering by doing a 3 month placement with the Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Co. My job was to look at all of the water that was used on site and try to find ways to reduce their water consumption. The project was interesting and very challenging but for me it didn’t seem to fit my personality.

For the degree that I was doing I was required to complete a research project in my 4th year in order to get my masters. As soon as I started this project I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I spent a lot more time on my project than my friends did. I found myself reading about the research in my spare time. I was very fortunate to find a project that I enjoyed so much. My project was more chemistry and physics based rather than engineering and I felt that this suited me better. When it came to the end of the year and everyone else I knew was applying for jobs, I decided to apply for a PhD instead. And the rest, as they say, is history!

The research that I am working on now uses soft X-rays to look at molecular interaction in organic (carbon based) crystals. This has a particular relevance to the pharmaceutical industry as almost half of all pharmaceuticals are administered as tablets. The actual ‘drug’ part of the tablet is almost always an organic crystal. Learning more about these molecules helps the pharmaceutical companies to decide things such as; how much drug should be in the tablet, how quickly it will dissolve and how effectively it will spread through the body.


I like my research, firstly because I simply enjoy finding out new information. Though, I particularly enjoy my research because I feel like I am making a contribution to society and in a small way, helping other people. My research is fairly fundamental, this means that it is all about the pure science. I am a few steps removed from the practical applications of drug delivery. However, the scientists that are working on the drugs need to know about their science, which makes me feel like what I am doing is important, however small my contribution may be.

Going Further

Click here for more information about the course Chemical Engineering with Environmental Technology.

More information on Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science can be found here.

In my spare time I am also a STEM ambassador. STEM is an organisation that aims to promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. If you wish to find out more about the various jobs and carers that are available through these subjects then have a look at this site.

If you have been interested in my work then all of the information about my research can be found on my research page.

Other pages you may find interesting that are related to my work include:

1.  I work with X-ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy (XPS). For those of you who want a challenge have a look at how it works, you can find more information here.

2.  What is a drug? Find out here.