Teaming with Energy
MIAMIAN, THE MAGAZINE OF MIAMI UNIVERSITY, 2008
By Denise Spranger
A little blue-green algae, known as cyanobacteria, has not always been a passion for Dan Krzmarzick. In fact, just six months ago, the finance major didn’t know what it was. Striding through the crowd of lab coats, Krzmarzick, in suit and tie, looks like he has no business wandering the halls of the botany department. But “business” is exactly why he’s there.
In the engineering building next door, microbiology major Chelsie Goyings listens to a student from mass communication — and another from marketing — speak about the feasibility of ethanol production. Only last year, the most the three of them shared was a dining hall.
Connections like these are what the Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship intended when it launched the Miami University Interdisciplinary Technology Development Challenge (MUITDC) program last fall, encouraging undergraduate student teams to develop more effective microbial technology in the creation of biomass.
Roughly translated, it’s all about the quest for alternative energy — a key component of Ohio Governor Ted Strickland’s state energy plan — which requires that a minimum of 25 percent of the electricity sold in Ohio by 2025 be generated by “advanced-energy technologies.”
Not long ago, such mandates landed in industrial laboratories, surfacing only as products that appeared on the shelf, or at the pump.
Gilbert Pacey, associate dean of research and scholarship, says those days are over.
“Advancements in technology no longer just ‘happen,’ ” Pacey says. “Business must understand what engineering is dealing with; engineering must understand what business is dealing with. The same is true for scientists. Moral standards are in play, and so is design. If someone is going to put an energy plant in your neighborhood, it’s got to be safe — and pleasing to the eye.”
Embracing these new rules of engagement, MUITDC requires students to reach across the aisle — in multiple directions. Composed of a maximum of eight students, each team must represent five distinct majors.
At the beginning of the competition, volleys of e-mails and text messages ricocheted around campus as students battled with diverse departments’ conflicting schedules. Conversations, reading like a transcript from the Tower of Babel, pitted concepts like “bioconversion and nitrogen fixation” with ones like “futures,” “commodities,” and “paradigms of social phenomena.”
Somehow, 14 students not only found the time to connect, but also managed to understand each other. After the initial proposals in September — and the judging of presentations in November — two teams emerged for the final competition in April.
The first team, led by Krzmarzick, tackled the production of bio-hydrogen with the use of cyanobacteria. To capture the hydrogen, the team of seven seniors and juniors built their own photobioreactor.
“The main reason we’ve chosen hydrogen,” Krzmarzick says, “is because it really is the future. But is hydrogen financially viable? It’s my job to find out.”
While he researched the project’s fiscal outlook, architecture major Sara Katz designed an energy-efficient and aesthetically pleasing hydrogen plant. Her proposal encloses the reactors within domes, which would also serve as cyanobacteria greenhouses.
Over spring break, mechanical engineering major Seth Buckwalter worked with teammates to build the photobioreactor model. “I’m the guy who gets out the hammer,” Buckwalter says.
After engineering management major Emma Witte reports her latest findings, she mentions visiting a hardware store for the reactor’s construction materials with her male teammates.
“The salesman asked what I was doing for the team,” Witte recalls. “I think he expected me to say, ‘I bake the cookies.’ ”
Actually, she analyzes the reactor’s output. “A crucial challenge for the success of the project is the ability to separate the hydrogen from the mixed gas stream.”
History major Joe Stevenot proposed a new study to determine the public reaction to hydrogen-based fuels. “It was more difficult than I imagined. Because of time and budget constraints, I have to rely on existing studies.”
Meanwhile, zoology majors Katy Kadlec and Bryan Glaenzer dug into their alchemist’s toolbox. “The job of the photobioreactor,” Glaenzer explains, “is to maximize the growth of cyanobacteria for the production of commercially desirable products, such as biomass, ammonia for fertilizer, and hydrogen for energy.”
For Krzmarzick, “commercially desirable” is the operative term.
“The further away the cash flow starts,” he says, “the riskier the project. So, in creating a business model, I considered a startup company to fund the development of hydrogen production by capitalizing on the byproduct of fertilizer. Down the road, we’d make the complete shift to alternative energy.”
Despite the hurdles that Krzmarzick’s team has surmounted, the greatest may be the last: letting go. Team faculty adviser and botany professor Susan Barnum reminds the team that research — on this scale — usually requires years to accomplish. Next year’s students may need to build upon the team’s current work.
Krzmarzick is not so sure about that. He plans to present his team’s project to a major oil company and their venture capitalists who have expressed a “certain interest.”
The second MUITDC team of seven students targets an increase of ethanol production yields — along with a reduction of operational costs — by using switch grass instead of corn.
Pacey recalls when the all-sophomore team proposed their project.
“We threw down the gauntlet,” Pacey says. “We said, ‘Look, you’re going against a team of juniors and seniors. You’ll need to learn a lot very quickly.’ They took on the challenge.”
Less than a month before the final judging, the three microbiology majors meet in the engineering building to collect samples from their latest experiment.
Peering through safety goggles, Goyings, the team’s leader, inspects a beaker brewing over a flame. “Our marketing major Maroui Lalvani and our mass communication major Nicholas Anderson are researching the business and societal impacts of all of this,” she says. “We just do the dirty work.”
The three women pull on rubber gloves while Goyings explains, “We’re testing for ethanol concentration. Earlier in the project, we decided to test every hour during the 24-hour fermentation cycle. We had sleeping bags in here for the overnighter. Lots of junk food, lots of homework — and laptops all over the place.”
Still laughing about their laboratory “campout,” teammates Lauren Kepple and Alison Simerlein help Goyings prepare for the trek to Pearson Hall, where the needed autoclave and anaerobic chamber reside.
Carrying the precious beaker, dubbed “the $7,000 glass vase,” along with odd pieces of stainless steel, the team marches down High Street. Students passing on the sidewalk make way for the peculiar procession. Following along is the team’s faculty adviser Marvin Thrash, assistant professor of paper and chemical engineering, who had also accompanied the team to an ethanol plant in Indiana.
Later that week, chemical engineering major Kari Noble, who combined efforts with teammate and chemical engineering major Sheryl Kavetza, shares her MUITDC experience.
“When you look at something as an engineer, you see it with a very different mind-set,” Noble says, “So when our marketing major asked about making money with this, it struck me: ‘This is not how I think.’
“Alternative energy is a huge concern,” Noble continues. “It will impact tomorrow. But regardless of what project we’re doing, learning that a group of people with different perspectives can communicate and work together is really important. As an engineer, I’ll be doing that my whole life — working with people in teams just like this.”
Editor’s note: When President David Hodge opened the envelope at the Undergraduate Research ’08 Forum to reveal who won Miami’s first University Interdisciplinary Technology Development Challenge, he announced … a tie. First- and second-place prizes of $5,000 and $2,500 were combined and distributed equally to each member of both teams.