It ain’t easy being green: Freshmen researchers tackle tough project

Posted on 02. May, 2013 by in Academic Departments, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Environment and Sustainability, Issues, Magazine, Mechanical Engineering, Students

Graphic of hybrid carThe 14 freshmen had almost no background in engineering—nor had they  conducted any research.

Yet by the end of their first semester at UW-Madison, they had completed a seemingly daunting project: Coat a small diesel engine with a platinum catalyst, add extra hydrogen to the combustion process, and determine if those changes reduced vehicle emissions.

To do that, they had to take the engine apart themselves, coat it, and put it back together. They had to design a test protocol, find a way to trap engine emissions, and learn how to perform Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) to analyze the content of those emissions.

Their project was part of of Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Marc Anderson’s section of Introduction to Engineering Design, a course that provides pre-engineering students an overview of engineering, plus hands-on experience with a client-centered team project. In this case, Anderson, who develops nanoparticle coatings for specific applications, was both the client and professor.

In the course, the students learned what different types of engineers do. They learned, with help from Anderson and Mechanical Engineering Faculty Associate Glenn Bower, about engines, the science of how emissions form, and the skills they would need to design a high- quality experiment. And they learned that engineering takes lots of initiative, creativity and curiosity. “All I knew about engines was they were this giant fireball that creates work,” says team member Alex Bare. “And we had to design a whole process for testing all that. It was a lot of trial and error.”

The students put in more than 15 extra hours in the lab, dismantling and reassembling their engine several times when it failed to start, and collecting emissions in special bags.

Anderson says the students showed some success. So far, the platinum coating seems to catalyze combustion and reduce hydrocarbon emissions—even more so when the electrolyzer added hydrogen to the fuel mix. “By the end of the spring 2013 semester, they should have enough data to write a research paper,” says Anderson.

He says the students faced complex chemical engineering subjects they might see first as juniors, while the students feel their experiences put them a step ahead. “We can say we were thrown into a project, we had no idea what we were doing, and in the end we learned how to swim,” student Saager Paliwal says. “We came to UW-Madison as freshmen, but we’re not freshmen anymore, not really.”

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