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COE Researchers Score Hat Trick with Three CAREER Awards

This winter three young researchers at the College of Engineering have scored a collective hat trick by pulling in a trio of $400,000 awards from the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program. The much sought-after grants were received by Paul Dauenhauer of the Chemical Engineering Department, and David Irwin and Qiangfei Xia of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. Nearly one-third of all faculty members at the college have won the esteemed NSF awards.

Those three grants bring the total number of CAREER awards garnered by our faculty to 27, in addition to seven Presidential Young Investigator Awards, the predecessor to CAREER grants as awarded by the NSF from 1984 to 1991.

All three of our new CAREER projects attempt to resolve key issues in 21st-century society: making sustainable biofuels competitive with unsustainable fossil fuels; creating more energy efficient homes and buildings; and addressing the biggest obstacle for maintaining the pace of the computer revolution.

Dauenhauer’s project will resolve the top challenge for converting sustainable biomass such as trees, grasses, and non-food plants into green gasoline and hundreds of key products in the chemical industry. The NSF funding will support Dauenhauer’s groundbreaking research into his novel experimental technique known as “Pulsed-Film Pyrolysis.”

“Pulsed-Film Pyrolysis is the last missing tool in our efforts to make sustainable biofuels economically competitive with unsustainable fossil fuels,” says Dauenhauer. “This component we will add to the biofuels reaction process is what I think has been missing for 30 years. That’s why I’m so excited about it!”

Pulsed-Film Pyrolysis will give biofuels researchers for the first time the ability to test the speeds in hundreds of chemical reactions that occur inside a fast-pyrolysis reactor, when converting biomass into the chemicals that make up green fuels and other products. Those speeds are the critical factor required for calculating the rate of formation for all the chemical products created by numerous reactions occurring in a fast-pyrolysis process.

Dauenhauer considers his technique for computing crucial data about speed and rates of formation in all these chemical pathways as the missing link for producing the highest possible grade of bio-oil and biochemicals.

Irwin’s NSF grant will support his research for boosting energy efficiency in houses and buildings, which represent the largest segment of society’s energy usage. The title of Irwin’s project is “Model-based Energy Management for Sustainable Buildings.”

“The purpose of my research is to make a home or building as ‘smart’ as possible in terms of monitoring and controlling energy efficiency,” explains Irwin. “By employing the methods I’m researching, consumers could save an estimated 15 to 20 percent on their electricity bills, while also reducing their carbon footprint.”

By extension, that percentage of savings in a large building such as a skyscraper would translate to an enormous amount in money, electricity, and environmental impact.

After establishing a “Wikipedia-styled” website, or “Electripedia,” of specific electrical devices and the power they consume, Irwin will introduce a new line of research that uses models of these devices to develop automated discovery, monitoring, and scheduling software, which can automatically identify wasted electricity in a building, track energy consumption, and program electrical devices to go off or on, according to need. This kind of smart electrical system will be inexpensive, private, reliable, and sustainable.

The title of Xia’s project is “Scaling of Memristive Nanodevices and Arrays" and addresses the biggest obstacle for the continued operation of Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. The law is named after Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore, who first predicted the trend in his 1965 paper.

“It worked perfectly for more than 40 years, but now we’re reaching its fundamental limit, due to the quantum effects related to electron flow,” says Xia. “So we absolutely need new devices that can do a better job than transistors.”

In contrast to transistors, Xia’s memristive devices, or resistive switches, are two-terminal, passive, electronic devices that use high and low resistance states instead of charge storage to represent logic 1’s and 0’s. They are promising for applications in non-volatile memory, non-volatile logic, reconfigurable circuits, and neuromorphic networks.

“Basically, the goals of my CAREER research will be to fabricate these new memristive nano-devices, test them, and understand them at a length scale that is yet to be achieved,” says Xia. “Ultimately, the research promises to advance transformative device technologies for the integrated circuit industry, sustaining U.S. competitiveness in high-technology areas.” (March 2013)