Biofuels or Bust: Researcher Studies Next-Generation Energy

Biofuels or Bust: Researcher Studies Next-Generation Energy

Ask Subith Vasu what drives him, and he’ll answer a rapidly changing automotive industry and consumer demand for environmentally friendly products. The assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering works with his student research team testing next-generation fuels to find out which ones are actually better for cars and the planet.

“There are a number of different biofuels being invented, but we don’t yet know if they’re compatible with engines or with the environment,” Vasu said. “It’s our goal to research and get answers to these fundamental questions.”

Vasu and his students research high temperature energy conversion to discover what happens when fuels such as gasoline convert into energy and change into new substances. The creation of new biofuels, Vasu said, brings questions of whether the fuel will emit substances that are safe for vehicle engines and for the environment. In his lab, Vasu uses a shock tube to study how these fuels break down – at what temperature, how long it takes and what they emit.

It’s this work with his student team that led Vasu recently to be named recipient of the 2018 Ralph R. Teetor Educational Award from the Society of Automotive Engineers – or SAE – whose original leadership team in 1905 included Henry Ford. The international award, established in 1963, honors and recognizes younger engineering educators who are preparing students to successfully meet the challenges that face society.

By providing hand-on learning opportunities, that’s exactly what Vasu is doing, his students say. “In [past] internships, I saw a number of engineers doing managerial and quality control work, and I knew that’s not what I wanted,” said Sam Barak, a graduate research assistant and doctoral student. “I wanted to be the one doing the research and creating the protocols. And to do that, I needed my Ph.D. and this hands-on research.”

As the first person at UCF to receive this SAE award, Vasu hopes his student team will grab the attention of an entire industry.

“Traditionally, winners of the award come from the U.S. Midwest, where companies like Ford and GM thrive,” he said. “Just like UCF supplies the power-generation and aerospace workforce, Midwestern universities supply the automotive workforce. This award means that we’ll be able to create a network and pipeline for students wanting to go into the automotive industry.

“I’ll be preparing my students with the knowledge of what automotive industry leaders need and want, and that is so valuable in today’s competitive landscape.”

This is not the first international recognition for Vasu and his team. He was the 2017 winner of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Dilip Ballal Early Career Award for contributions to gas turbine area. His research group also was the subject matter of a 2016 United Nations documentary film, “Combustion Man,” which featured his research on destroying chemical weapons.

Additionally, Vasu received the Defense Threat Reduction Agency Young Investigator Award, and he was an early career grant recipient of the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund. At UCF, Vasu is a 2016 Research for the Stars recipient and an inaugural UCF Luminary. Vasu also is a participating faculty member in the interdisciplinary energy conversion and propulsion cluster and a faculty member in UCF’s Center for Advanced Turbomachinery and Energy Research.

He will receive this latest award April 10 in Detroit at the annual SAE World Congress.