Climate change and the green energy movement are important topics that go hand in hand. While some still believe that climate change does not exist, for them there is no urgent need for green energy. But for those who do believe, then the research being performed by two UE students is necessary for sustaining the planet as they work to find a cleaner alternative.
Under the direction of Tod Thananatthanachon, assistant professor of chemistry, seniors Andrea Onyett and Matt Abele have been working for years on a research project related to green energy. The research is focused on converting biomass into biofuel. The duo’s goal is to successfully make a biofuel that can replace fossil fuels and be more efficient than previous energy resources. The energy substitute would produce less toxic waste than current energy sources, allow new ways to retrieve biofuel chemicals and would also be a renewable resource, unlike fossil fuels.
Thananatthanachon said the reasoning behind this focus was his interest in green chemical energy and finding a way to make more efficient energy, which would help the world become a cleaner place. With room for extra help in the lab on the research, he allowed Abele, a professional chemistry major, and Onyett, a double major in professional chemistry and chemistry, to fill the positions starting in their freshman year. They have been working on this research ever since.
“They have been really hardworking,” Thananatthanachon said. “They have worked on this since their freshman year and that just shows how much effort they have put into this.” While both students are working on the same project, Onyett and Abele work independently
focus on different aspects and catalysts of the research. Abele is working on using readily available sugars that come from different plants while Onyett is using ruthenium and nickel as potential sources of energy. Onyett’s decision to use ruthenium and nickel is based off previous research, which proved that these elements are more reactive — more likely to create energy when combined — and are more cost effective than other elements available, making them perfect candidates for Onyett’s side of the project. The only other elements that appear possible as fuel substitutes are iron and cobalt.
Abele is taking a slightly different approach, and instead of using specific elements, he is using readily available sugars such as glucose that can be found in plants. The sugars being used are found in any plant — including dead trees, bushes and cornstalks, just to name a few.
“We have made a significant discovery and,
hopefully, it will be published in the spring (semester), Thananatthanachon said.
With their success, the team could make a serious impact on the green energy movement. It may not be right away, but Abele is confident the idea will catch on and trigger others to develop technologies that run on these types of biofuel.
With success, other people could very well follow in their footsteps and further the research or trigger them to try different catalysts. And this research will help give the green movement a jumpstart. If their research is successful, the biofuel created could replace many nonrenewable resources, including traditional gasoline. This would help reduce the carbon being emitted into the atmosphere and positively effect climate change.
The idea that someday there will not be a need for fossil fuels is an exciting one. Without people who work determinedly and actively for change, this research cannot get far. Abele said he wanted everyone to know that researching is not easy; that even in failure, there is always something to help them move forward. “You can’t have the mind-set of giving up,” Abele said.