Finding Empowerment In Science

Alexandru Avram loves science. He loves learning the minute details of how things work. He loves conducting experiments to see the impact a slight change to the smallest of molecules can make. Most of all, he loves the implications that science has for advancing human livelihood.

"I have loved science since I was a kid," Avram said. "I think it empowers you. It gives you a mindset that you can change the world, and many scientists actually do."

Avram, a chemical engineering doctoral student, is working to turn plant material into renewable energy. Though corn and sugar cane have been used to produce ethanol fuel for years, the increased demand for the product could result in increasing food prices at the supermarket. For this reason, Avram is focusing exclusively on the potential of non-edible plant materials.

Through a procedure called biomass hydrolysis, the non-edible plant materials can be decomposed in its building blocks in a reactor containing ionic liquid as a novel solvent. The ionic liquid solubilizes the plant material and allows for fast decomposition of biomass that can be later used to create liquid biofuels and bioplastics.

Using ionic liquid in the biomass hydrolysis process is a new and relatively uncommon practice, but its ability to solubilize biomass makes it ideal. However, the expense of ionic liquid presents a challenge Avram is working to solve.

"The problem with ionic liquids is they're very expensive, so I'm looking at a procedure that would allow the ionic liquid to be recycled," Avram said.

Avram is developing a process for modifying the chemistry of the commercial membranes so the reaction products can be separated from the ionic liquid, allowing the liquid to be reused. His work has yielded promising results.

"There is nothing better than a research project that actually works," he said. "Most of the time stuff doesn't work, but when it starts working and you see that it's feasible … well, that's been the happiest moment of my Ph.D."

Avram, who is advised by Ranil Wickramasinghe, is on track to finish his degree in summer 2017. As he has progressed in his education, Avram has realized changing the world is more difficult than it seems as a kid, but he still has a vision for impacting the future.

"I don't think I can change the world anymore, but I do think I have the power to make a commercial product that can make a small impact for the better," he said.

After graduation, Avram, a native of Romania, plans to stay in the United States and pursue a career in industry.

"My adventure in the U.S. isn't done yet," he said. "If I were to go home now, I wouldn't have completed my mission."