PhD recipients Vinh Nguyen, chemical engineering, and Michael Wagner, mechanical engineering, received the Dr. Bhakta Rath and Sushama Rath Research Award for dissertations that demonstrate the greatest potential for societal impact.

Nguyen’s thesis concerns the use of methane gas in fuel cells at low temperatures. Most processes that use methane require temperatures over 500 degrees—not desirable for use in a car, for example.

In his first year, Nguyen, advised by Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor Andrew Herring, was able to extract about 30 times more energy than previous systems, at temperatures between 80 and 160 degrees. Nguyen achieved this by developing a platinum catalyst that is distributed more evenly, using more of its surface area, and developing an ionic liquid that allows the methane gas and the water it needs to oxidize to diffuse at the proper concentrations.

Wagner’s dissertation presents a model for optimizing the dispatching of energy generated from concentrating solar power systems. CSP systems use an array of mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on molten salt, heating it up to over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat stored in the salt can then be used to drive steam turbines and generate electricity.

“Usually, you just run it until it’s gone,” Wagner said. Wagner wrote software that determines a dispatch strategy over 24 hours, considering various factors. Wagner’s methods are already being applied to CSP facilities under development.

Advising Wagner were Professor Alexandra Newman and Associate Professor Robert Braun, both in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.