Turbo Lab graduate Dr. Brandon Rotavera delivers “Combustion Chemistry of Advanced Biofuels.”
The internal combustion engine is not dead.
Dr. Brandon Rotavera, a Turbo Lab graduate and assistant professor at the University of Georgia (UGA), explored this idea on Monday with a room full of Turbo Lab students during a seminar titled, “Combustion Chemistry of Advanced Biofuels.” While electric cars with technological improvements and stricter emissions standards have gained popularity in the last decade, there’s no sign they’ll replace liquid fuel-powered vehicles any time soon. Electric cars still produce emissions of their own that contribute to climate change since the majority—up to 60 percent—of electricity production is derived from the combustion of fossil fuels – coal and natural – gas while wind and solar-derived sources combine for approximately eight percent of annual electricity production in the U.S. Nuclear power plants contribute another 20 percent.
“What should give people pause about electric cars is the idea that these are ‘zero emissions,’ transportation options,” Rotavera said. “They are not. With electric cars, while there are no tailpipe emissions, the energy used to charge the battery is generating emissions upstream somewhere at a nearby power plant – so, one is simply remotely producing emissions that would otherwise come from the tailpipe of a car with an internal combustion engine. There are also, of course, emissions produced from the extraction of the metals used to produce batteries for electric cars.”
The seminar, hosted by the Turbo Lab and supported by the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Faculty Travel Program, focused on a programmatic framework carried out at the Combustion and Atmospheric Reaction Mechanisms Laboratory (CARMeL) at the University of Georgia, which is directed by Dr. Rotavera and designed to answer outstanding questions concerning reaction mechanisms for low-temperature combustion applications that play central roles in the ongoing design of high-efficiency, cleaner burning engines of the future. Specifically, CARMeL studies the behavior of highly reactive compounds called Q̇OOH radicals that are derived from low-temperature combustion of hydrocarbons and advanced biofuels – 1-butanol, tetrahydrofuran, and diethyl ether to name a few. Rotavera provided detailed examples to emphasize links between fuel structure, which varies widely among biofuels, and an important engine design parameter: auto-ignition delay times.
“Advanced biofuels are renewable sources of liquid transportation fuels beyond ethanol and biodiesel, which are the current picture of liquid biofuels, and advancements in metabolic engineering and other fuel-synthesis technologies have diversified the biofuels picture rather substantially in the last decade,” Rotavera said. “The more we know about fuel chemistry and the connection to combustion applications, the better we can help companies who are building these types of engines. We see the importance of this in multi-institutional research efforts such as the Department of Energy’s Co-Optima initiative.”
Rotavera explores combustion reaction mechanisms as a faculty member in UGA’s College of Engineering and the Department of Chemistry. His interest in the field was sparked by a passion for sport bikes and road racing. When he realized that a career in racing wouldn’t be the most practical or safe choice long term, he turned that passion into a full-time gig researching what makes them run. Before beginning his career at UGA, Rotavera studied under Dr. Eric Petersen, Turbo Lab director.
Clayton Mulvihill, a graduate student currently studying under Dr. Petersen, attended the seminar and said he knew Rotavera from his days at the Turbo Lab.
“It’s good to hear from a former fellow student who has gone on to get world-renowned experience at national laboratories, and has now stepped back into academia,” Mulvihille said of Rotavera who was a postdoctoral appointee in the combustion research facility of Sandia National Laboratories. “It makes me consider the directions I can go, and inspires me that I can take a similar path.”
Dr. Brandon Rotavera (left), studied under Turbo Lab Director Dr. Eric Petersen (right).
It’s good to hear from a former fellow student who has gone on to get world-renowned experience at national laboratories, and has now stepped back into academia. It makes me consider the directions I can go, and inspires me that I can take a similar path.
Clayton Mulvihill, Turbo Lab Graduate Student