William Pennock '13 and Elaine Gomez '14
Two NJIT engineers, a senior and an alumnus from the Class of 2013, have won National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, generous three-year grants that allow them to focus intensively on research as they pursue doctoral degrees in graduate school.William Pennock ’13, who is studying environmental engineering at Cornell University, is working on methods for improving water treatment systems that rely on gravity-driven hydraulics rather than electricity. Elaine Gomez ’14, will begin graduate work in chemical engineering at Columbia University this fall, where she will research methods for converting carbon dioxide (CO2), an industrial byproduct that is warming Earth’s atmosphere, into valuable oxygenates and hydrocarbons with the potential to become liquid transportation fuels.
As NSF fellows, Pennock and Gomez will receive more than $40,000 for three years – $32,000 in a direct stipend and a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to their university– as well as other benefits. This year, 2,000 students were chosen to receive awards from among 14,000 applicants.
Pennock’s work focuses on a water treatment process called flocculation, which removes impurities from water through chemical coagulation to improve particle settling. While he calls it “essential to efficient water treatment,” he noted in his research proposal to the NSF that the engineering community does not have a predictive model for flocculator performance. To date, efforts to improve the process have been based on trial and error rather than on a fundamental understanding of the process.
While these water treatment systems are typically powered by electricity, gravity-driven hydraulics systems are more energy-efficient, have superior flow characteristics, are immune to mechanical failure as they have no moving parts, and can be deployed in places that do not have electrical power generation, he says.
"In order to make municipal water treatment affordable for more communities worldwide, we need to make flocculation more efficient. I will work to contribute by developing a more rational approach to flocculator design,” says Pennock, who served as president of the NJIT chapter of Engineers Without Borders and is committed to improving water treatment in the developing world.
Jay Meegoda, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of NJIT’s Geotechnical Testing Lab, recruited Pennock to EWB as a freshman and encouraged him to travel to Milot, Haiti, where the NJIT team has been working to develop and implement bio-sand filtration systems to clean polluted water.
Meegoda described Pennock as “very meticulous and very conscientious,” adding, “I’m so glad he’s working on water treatment.”
Gomez will be working at Columbia with Jingguang Chen, the Thayer Lindsley Professor of Chemical engineering, on methods to selectively convert carbon dioxide and methane into CO and H2, or syngas, for use as a feedstock for other compounds. As a consequence of their reformation, the resulting reduction in CO2 can be as high as 40 percent, she notes.
“Rather than costly waste, CO2 has the potential to become a liquid fuel that not only is compatible with existing infrastructure, but also contains higher energy density than competing solutions,” she says.
Gomez says she is eager to work with Chen, who is trying to “innovate processes for dry reforming CO2 that don’t rely on expensive metal catalysts,”and is pleased that she will arrive with so much of her own funding in place. In addition to her NSF funding, she has also been awarded a Pesco Fellowship and a Provost’s Diversity Fellowship at Columbia. Critically, her NSF fellowship frees up money in her advisor’s budget to fund other research, including people and materials.
At NJIT, Gomez focused on methods for removing CO2 from flue gas by using a water-based ammonia compound as a “scrubber.”