Researchers who work in a computational setting don’t often get to enjoy a field day. However, a group of Engineering Vols recently found a way to step away from their data screens and get up close and personal with some materials in a collaboration with the UT Institute of Agriculture.
MSE Professor David Keffer and team use computational modeling to offer complementary insight into the processing-structure-property-performance relationships of the materials in an ongoing study spearheaded by Professor David Harper at the UT Center for Renewable Carbon within the agriculture college.
Harper’s research team seeks to develop high-value materials from renewable resources, including switchgrass and other lignin-based feedstocks. In recent years, his group has synthesized nanostructured carbon composites for use in such applications as battery anodes.
Keffer’s materials science and engineering graduate research assistants joined their ag-campus colleagues in a day of switchgrass harvesting to get a more tactical feel for the data.
“Harvesting switchgrass was definitely a different experience from what I normally do,” said Valerie Garcia-Negrón. “It made me realize how exciting and important it is to be in the field doing hands-on activities. Working with switchgrass helped our group obtain a holistic view of the project’s processing phases: harvesting plants, extracting lignin, converting lignin into carbon products, and modeling the carbon samples at the atomic- and meso-scales.”
Dayton Kizzire (shown above with colleague Lu Yu) felt an “overall completeness” in the hands-on harvest in a way that doesn’t always output in computational work.
“Protecting the environment has always been a passion of mine,” said Kizzire. “Using sustainable resources to solve energy needs by growing and harvesting our own switchgrass to create high-performance battery parts has been very rewarding.”
Lu Yu enjoyed the outdoor activity, collaboration, and face-to-face interaction with her MSE colleagues.
“It is work but lots of fun,” said Yu. “We told jokes, played some music, and also took funny pictures. We cut and chopped really quickly and also came across some problems with the machine. But we worked together and solve them with the help from center staff.
The experience also served as a team building activity for the group, and a motivation to continue performing innovative research.
“Overall, we had lots of laughs and fun while harvesting switchgrass,” said Garcia-Negrón. “Also, I realized that my grass-cutting skills need improvement, trimming bushes at home is nothing compared to cutting switchgrass. However, with the help of Lu and Dayton, we were able to manage the work by taking turns. In the end I was impressed on how quickly we gathered the switchgrass.”