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Chemical Engineering Research A "Shining" Success
May 19, 2000
By: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Photo by: Lisa Ventre
Archive: Research News, Campus News

A research project which was able to harness the power of sunlight to degrade some of the worst chemical compounds on Earth has earned graduate student Lev Davydov one of two Distinguished Dissertation Awards for the year 2000. Working with chemical engineering associate professor Peter Smirniotis, Davydov is testing two systems for breaking down toxic organic compounds into carbon dioxide and water.

image of Davydov

The first uses ultraviolet light and titania. The second is considered even more advanced, because it works with visible light. That's more efficient, and ultimately, less expensive. It can be used for treatment of gaseous and aqueous systems. Both work at a relatively low temperature, well below the boiling point of water.

"You don't have to preheat anything, and you can use the sun as an energy source," said Smirniotis, explaining the advantages of the photocatalytic system.

The researchers have already used lab- scale reactors and various novel approaches to treat a variety of compounds from formic acid to more complex phenols. The ultimate goal is to be able to break down the material stored in chemical weapons quickly and safely.

"Incineration doesn't suffice, and the public doesn't support it," noted Smirniotis, who is one of only three U.S. researchers to win a NATO Science for Peace grant.

That funding is helping to support Davydov's project and to establish collaborations with researchers at the Boreskov Institute in Novosibirsk, Russia. "It's a big problem," said Davydov. "Chemical warfare agents are very interesting, and there's a lot of undiscovered chemistry. The project itself provides motivation and interest."

Sminriotis and Davydov

Smirniotis said he knew right away that Davydov would be a special student. The Russian immigrant had studied at the prestigious Mendelev Institute in Moscow and came to UC seeking even greater challenges. "Usually, students don't like brain-buster courses," joked Smirniotis. "But he went right to the math department to learn everything he could."

Although the research is expected to find better ways to degrade chemical warfare agents, the engineers emphasized that no chemical weapons waste will brought to campus. The research is being done using "simulants," or less toxic chemicals that react and behave in similar ways.

When it comes time to "try this on the real stuff," Smirniotis will turn things over to a Russian company and Institute of Information Technology in Moscow for a pilot scale test.

"Part of the deal is to help the country economically," explained Smirniotis. So, he expects to return to Russia with Davydov sometime later this year to develop the collaboration further. "We enjoy working together. He has great ideas, and he wanted to have the best project in the lab."

That's quite a challenge considering Smirniotis' own awards, including a National Science Foundation CAREER award for young faculty, the NATO Science for Peace award, and a previous Distinguished Dissertation Award to graduate student Wenmin Zhang for his work in zeolite catalysis.

"We're building a great tradition," said Smirniotis, noting that Zhang went on to become a research director at a Toledo technology firm.

For his part, Davydov said he is grateful for Smirniotis' expertise and guidance. "He is a very hard worker and very eager to help support and promote his students. I wouldn't have known about this award without him."

This is the third year in a row that a chemical engineering graduate student has received a Distinguished Dissertation Award, but Davydov says the department's undergraduates deserve some credit as well. Scott Blatnik, Eric Wolf, Jason Ringler, and Ronald Rozic all contributed by helping to build one of the reactors Lev is using in his dissertation research.