October 2000

News about Science, Technology and Engineering at Iowa State University

Light’s energy could clean up chemical production process
A chemist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory at Iowa State University is carrying out safe and simple chemical reactions that could bring about a big change in how industrial chemicals are produced. The method could make chemical production processes more efficient, economical and environmentally friendly.

Andreja Bakac is using readily available light from the sun or from a lamp to do photo-oxidation experiments with hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons, which primarily come from petroleum crude oil, are a chief source of industrially important and useful chemicals. In addition to being used as gas for our cars and to heat our homes, hydrocarbons can be converted into products such as plastics, solvents and textile fibers. Although they are plentiful, hydrocarbons have a not-so-small problem. They are basically lifeless -- that is, they don't react on their own.

"This class of compounds could become an important feedstock for the chemical industry if they could be made more reactive," says Bakac. "The standard method of doing this is to use heat to drive the chemical reaction. However, light is typically a lot cheaper than heat, and it's clean environmentally." In addition to using light's clean energy to drive the hydrocarbon oxidation reactions, Bakac uses air as the oxidant. "Air or oxygen, that's as innocuous as oxidants get," she says. "That's what's so wonderful about this approach and what makes it so attractive." For more information contact Bakac at (515) 294-3544, or Saren Johnston, Ames Lab Public Affairs, (515) 294-3474.

Predicting the unseen
For the chemical industry, filling the gap between beaker and full-scale production can be an expensive and time-consuming venture. Iowa State University chemical engineering professors Rodney Fox and Jim Hill are leading a research team that will combine experiments, modeling and direct simulation to open the way for scale-ups that maximize efficiency and minimize unwanted byproducts. They were recently awarded a $340,000 National Science Foundation grant for that purpose and will receive funding from Dow Chemical, which is a partner in the research.

"This is the first study where we're trying to look at the mechanism of mixing in a liquid system where chemical reactions are occurring that ties together experiments, modeling and direct simulation," said Hill, a University professor.

Computational fluid dynamics is nothing new. Fox, an associate professor and Glen Murphy Chair, pointed out that accurate and detailed simulations for single-phase laminar flows are readily available. But he and Hill are taking such work to the next level by examining turbulent flows. "Even large computers can't solve all of the length and time scales, so we have to use models to see smaller structures," Fox said. The project will involve setting up an experimental micro-mixing apparatus to make detailed measurements and compare those measurements with numerical models. It's the combination of approaches that makes this project so unique.

"The object is to use computer simulations to predict the performance of chemical reactors," said Fox. "The simulations can be used to reduce uncertainties in scaling up and designing new chemical plants and avoid having to build pilot-scale plants." For more information, contact Hill, (515) 294-4959; Fox, (515) 294-9104; or Eric Dieterle, Engineering Communications, (515) 294-0260.

Web site shows children the fun side of science
"Funtivities" (http://www.Funtivities.com), a web site sponsored by Iowa State University's Program for Women in Science and Engineering (PWSE), is a place to explore the fun and exciting mysteries of math and science. The site gets kids "turned on" to science and math by showing them math and science are fun, and that they can be successful at it. Youngsters engage in learn-by-doing activities that promote the acquisition of math skills and scientific knowledge. Funtivities can be used for school activities, after school projects, day care centers or as parent-child activities.

Thousands of students already have taken part in Funtivities projects, according to Barbara Lograsso, assistant director of PWSE. "Providing students with hands-on opportunities helps build their confidence in math and science," Lograsso said. "When I work with these students, I'm so impressed at how creative they are with the materials."

The site features an activity of the month, such as a motor building exercise, as well as access to previous experiments. Materials and directions are laid out step-by-step. The website also features ideas for using Funtivities, information about famous scientists and engineers, a calendar of local science-related events and links to other sites. PWSE started Funtivities four years ago in partnership with the Moingona Girl Scout Council and the Iowa 4-H Youth Development Program as a means to bring exciting, hands-on math and science activities to young people, particularly girls. For more information contact Lograsso, (515) 294-4317, or Skip Derra, News Service, (515) 294-4917.

- 30 -

Iowa State homepage

University Relations, online@iastate.edu
Copyright © 1999-2000, Iowa State University, all rights reserved