Monday, March 14, 2011

New Semester: Hitting the Ground Running

After the long winter break (maybe not long enough), we entered January with a strong drive to start moving forward as quickly as possible with the Green Machine. Beginning with a re-division of labor and a re-ordering of priorities, the team started working almost exclusively on the successful production of biodiesel.

Immediately during the last couple weeks of January the team ran exhaustive lab tests. Modifying temperature, length of time to run the test, temperature of the reaction, the tests were run while changing these conditions individually so as to not confuse results. Meanwhile, Tim continued to enhance the software modeling and I sealed up the solar power portion of the experiment for the time being to as to devote more resources to the actual experimentation.

The results so far have not been good, but thus is the nature of research. We have yet to produce biodiesel with the microreactor technology, but this does not sound the final bell for the project yet. Aside from running a slug test (allowing the materials a set amount of time to sit in the microreactor channel and mix with the catalyst before removing the material(s) and substituting fresh reactants), we are currently performing root failure analysis to determine what exactly is causing the reaction to fail or, rather, what is missing from the reaction that is not allowing it to occur. One facet we are fairly certain of is this: the catalyst, nickel-oxide, definitely works. All that is left is to exhaust the other possible solutions.

What lies ahead for the rest of the semester is not cemented and depends on whether we can actually generate biodiesel. Successful generation would allow us to turn our attention to other facets of the project, perhaps even approaching a final design concept for a complete generator. Failure to generate biodiesel with the microreactor technology opens up new research options - isolating the components of the experiment that are lacking, suggesting new directions to move in for the catalyst (which is still believed to be superior to current biodiesel generation methods). Both scenarios will entail a great deal of economic analysis, scaling research, and more modeling.