News

September 21, 2007

The Search for New Fuel Sources

Richard Martin ’09 researches ethanol with Polly Piergiovanni, associate professor of chemical engineering

As interest builds in the use of biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels, the search is on for renewable substances that can produce energy efficiently and cost-effectively.

Chemical engineering major Richard Martin ’09 (Doylestown, Pa.) took part in that search over the summer by testing a variety of substances for their ability to produce ethanol with Polly Piergiovanni, associate professor of chemical engineering.

“Renewable energy sources are going to be very important in the future. This research is designed to find more possible biomass sources. The more wasted biomass that can be turned back into ethanol the better,” Martin says.

To conduct the research, Martin ground up food waste, added water and enzymes, and heated it to produce glucose from the starches in the foods. Then he added yeast, which converts the glucose into ethanol. He used a chemical method to measure the amount of glucose, and gas chromatography to measure the amount of ethanol produced.

Of the substances he tested, Martin observed that corn kernels made the best fuel for yeast. He also tested grape seeds from processed grape waste, a meat by-product mixture that is sold as animal feed, and junk food.

“It is exciting to see exactly how much ethanol is produced by different biomasses,” Martin says. In order for a substance to have commercial potential in the biofuel industry, the amount of ethanol it produces has to be high enough for the whole process to be cost beneficial, he explains.

Martin worked with Piergiovanni through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, where students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

Because Piergiovanni was traveling for a portion of the summer, Martin was responsible for carrying out all the experiments for the project.

“Being in charge of a research project is unusual for a student before his junior year, and I believe he is taking advantage,” Piergiovanni says. “He has learned to use equipment that his classmates won’t learn until spring semester of their junior year.”

Piergiovanni says she was impressed with Martin’s contributions to the research.

“Richard was able to make decisions on his own about the direction of the research, which I appreciate,” she says. “I appreciate a student who is able to think for himself, and carry out experiments without being told each day what to do next.”

Martin says he has been pleased with his decision to study chemical engineering at Lafayette.

“Lafayette’s great reputation for engineering and small class sizes were the key factors for me deciding to attend school here,” says Martin, who hopes to pursue a career in biotechnology. “Lafayette has excellent resources and lab equipment for the experiments students need to do. I would also have to mention that the technical staff and lab coordinators in Acopian Engineering Center are excellent and have solved any equipment problems that I’ve had over the summer,” Martin says.

Piergiovanni and Martin have high praise for the EXCEL program.

“It gives students an opportunity to work one-on-one with faculty members, which certainly helps them as they figure out what they want to do after Lafayette. I appreciate getting to know the students better, outside of the classroom,” Piergiovanni says.

“The EXCEL program is a great way for students to get lab work experience and investigate issues that actually impact the real world. It also gives the students and faculty more chances to interact with one another when they work together. This interaction strengthens student-teacher relationships,” Martin says.

Martin is vice president of the men’s club volleyball team and is a member of Kappa Delta Rho fraternity and the Lafayette chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

posted in Academic News, Committed Teachers and Scholars, Faculty and Staff, News and Features, Student Profiles, Students

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