A.J. Hartsook Professor in Chemical Engineering
My research interests span several important areas of bioengineering and reaction engineering. Applied mathematics, computer simulations, video microscopy, and digital image processing are integral parts of my research methodology.
Dynamic Behavior of Cell Populations Growing Under Mass Transport Limitations:
Tissue growth in biomimetic scaffolds is strongly influenced by the dynamics and the heterogeneity of cell populations. A significant source of heterogeneity is the depletion of nutrients and growth factors due to transport limitations. Cells slow down, stop dividing or even die when the concentrations of key nutrients and growth factors drop below certain levels in the scaffold interior. As a result, tissue engineers have not yet been able to grow in vitro tissue samples thicker than a few millimeters for metabolically active cells.
Biochar for Carbon Sequestration and Soil Amendment:
Effective carbon sequestration must be based on sustainable processes that provide safe, stable carbon sinks with enough capacity to sequester a substantial fraction of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Soil amendment with biochar made by pyrolyzing biomass is a promising new approach with the potential to sequester large amounts of atmospheric carbon. At the same time, strong evidence suggests that amending soils with charcoal increases soil fertility, improves soil drainage, and helps manage nitrogen and phosphorus nutrient pollution.
To better understand the fundamental mechanisms controlling biochar formation, our group is working to determine the pyrolysis conditions that lead to highly stable biochars with optimal carbon sequestration capacity, nutrient retention, and water holding capacity. We have developed specialized reactors that allow us to accurately control the pyrolysis conditions and produce biochars from various feedstocks and for a wide range of heating rates, final heat treatment temperatures and pyrolysis atmosphere. Several analytical techniques (NMR, XPS, gas adsorption, thermogravimetry) are used to characterize the chemical composition, surface chemistry, pore structure porosity and reactivity of the produced biochars. Finally, we study the ability of biochars to enhance plant growth with a combination of experimental measurements (like cation exchange capacity) and numerical simulations aimed at understanding how biochar properties influence the transport and retention of nutrients in biochar-amended soils.
The ultimate goal of this research effort is to develop and evaluate sustainable processes for large-scale carbon sequestration through bio-char soil amendment.
Sustainable Production of Chemicals and Fuels From Biomass:
My group is developing a modeling and computational framework that will allow us to rigorously test wide-held assumptions about the sustainability of large-scale production of fuels and chemicals from biomass. Our initial focus is on the development of a computational tool for the optimal design of chemical reactors and separation processes involved in the production of cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel. Particular emphasis is paid on heat integration and the design of highly efficient combined heat and power (CHP) units that will generate the steam and electricity needed for the purification of biofuels and their co-products. The commercial success of cellulosic ethanol plants, in particular, will depend to a large extent on our ability to design efficient CHP plants. In the case of biodiesel, our work focuses on the analysis of small-scale plants with batch reactors and highly integrated purification systems that can operate in a distributed fashion to maximize the environmental benefit of this biofuel. We will also analyze the energy efficiency of biodiesel plants that burn the produced glycerin and unreacted alcohol to meet the energy demands of the biorefinery or to generate and sell electricity. .
Mailing Address: Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, MS-362, Rice University, P.O Box 1892, Houston, TX 77005
Phone: (713) 348-5208 - FAX: (713) 348-5478