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How to Put Engineering to Work Making the World a Better Place

Senior chemical engineering major Magnum Lew of Wellesley, Massachusetts has discovered first-hand how to use his education to make the world a better place and help the people around him. Lew has done sophisticated research as an undergraduate on two of society’s key issues: creating sustainable biofuels to replace expensive, unsustainable, and environmentally harmful fossil fuels; and monitoring the country’s crumbling highway infrastructure. Can any undergrad do more meaningful work than that?

For Lew’s senior honors thesis, he has been working in the lab of nationally renowned biofuels researcher Paul Dauenhauer of the Chemical Engineering Department. Lew’s research is contributing to Professor Dauenhauer’s studies on making biofuels from wood, grasses, and non-edible crops.

The premise for Lew’s research is related to the discovery by Dauenhauer’s research team of a “mini-cellulose” molecule, which was revealed using a new experimental technique called “thin-film pyrolysis.” Using advanced computational techniques, the “mini-cellulose” molecule revealed, for the first time, the chemical reactions that take place in biomass (such as wood and prairie grasses) during high-temperature conversion to biofuel. This discovery will allow researchers to study the reactions inside a biofuel reactor, track the molecules produced by those reactions, and adjust the reactor to produce the highest possible grade of bio-oil.

“What we have invented here is the basic tool necessary to optimize biofuel reactors,” explains Dauenhauer.

Lew is doing one of the preliminary steps that Dauenhauer’s research team will need to take before it can ultimately optimize the pyrolysis process. Lew’s job is to research and develop a technique for separating individual wood fibers to form thin films, characterizing the physical properties of wood-fiber thin films, and analyzing the products of thin film flash pyrolysis to discover reaction mechanisms for lignocellulosic materials.

“What I had to do first was look at different processes for separating wood fibers into individual wood cells, which we could use in this process,” Lew says. “Then we decided on one that works best for us.”

In general, the main goal of Lew’s research is to define the reaction mechanisms of wood needed for increasing biofuel output. “Once we do that,” he says, “then we can work on optimizing biofuel production and quality.”

That key research follows Lew’s summer internship at Florida State University in 2011 as part of a nation-wide REU program at the High Performance Materials Institute.

“We were trying to integrate different types of triboluminescent materials with optical fibers,” he says, “so that we could develop a remote sensor system. We could use this system to monitor deterioration in concrete structures such as bridges and determine from afar whether the bridge would need to be replaced or just repaired. By the time I left we had succeeded in creating the sensor and putting it into concrete, and we had begun testing its capabilities.”

Lew is totally aware of the importance of the research he has done as an undergraduate.

“Those two projects really resonated with me because they both had a very clear goal of helping people and improving the world,” he says. “Throughout my academic career, I’ve been attracted to activities that have the impact of helping other people.”

That’s also why Lew has served for the last two years as a Supplemental Instruction Leader for calculus in the UMass Learning Resource Center. He holds group review sessions to help students go over material taught by their professor, answer their questions, and help them understand anything they haven’t comprehended in class.

“Helping other people has always been part of my nature; I think it’s a good way of connecting with them,” says Lew. “It’s really gratifying to have people come up to me in the dining hall and tell me they would have never passed without my help.”

Words to live by! Lew’s wisdom is also a demonstration of how being selfless is one sure way of being happy. Accordingly, engineering will always provide him with plenty of skills to apply to good causes. (October 2012)

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