UT graduate students change the world of energy

Sachit Saksena

UT students are lowering electricity bills, using nanoparticles to look at oil reservoirs and making phone batteries last longer.  

This year, UT students won $6,500 for cutting-edge research at UT Energy Week.

These students, Scott Vitter, Ehsan Moaseri and Sean Wood, won a research poster competition hosted by the Longhorn Energy Club.

The event was part of UT Energy Week, a convention that draws thousands of academics, businessmen and government officials to Austin every year for a week of speeches, panels and promising new research. 

Vitter, a second-year mechanical engineering graduate student, won the Environmental Sustainability research award for his plan to reduce Austin Water Utility’s electricity bill. He designed a generalized, predictive model to implement a technique called peak-shifting. 

“Peak-shifting is when you operate your system or your plant to use less electricity during high demand time, which for Texas is around late afternoon,” Vitter said. “This generalized model will help apply peak-shifting to more water facilities to save money on electricity.” 

Moaseri, a second-year chemical engineering graduate student, won the Fossil Fuels and Byproducts category. Moaseri improved a technique that scientists can use to look at reservoirs of oil with nanomaterials. With this new and exploratory research, Moaseri will help researchers take advantage of these nanomaterials’ magnetic qualities to see under the earth.

His research group has synthesized the smallest known nanoparticles with these magnetic qualities. These nanoparticles can fit into tiny pores in the rocks and allow for the highest-ever resolution imaging.

“We are always trying to make even smaller nanoparticles with higher magnetic susceptibility and even more stability,” Moaseri said. “Right now our particles can stay stable in a reservoir for two months, and we are trying to push that to four.”

The winner of the third category, Renewable Energy and Energy Storage, was Wood, a fifth-year chemical engineering graduate student; he works with rechargeable batteries, which are found in phones, laptops and tablets. Specifically, he researches new materials that scientists can use in the anode, or the negative side of a battery. 

“Lithium-ion batteries have been using the same anode materials for the past 25 years: graphite,” Wood said. “And it is reaching the end of its technological limits.”  

According to Wood, lithium metal could serve as a new anode material that could make batteries last longer on a single charge. However, lithium metal forms dendrites, or branching fibers, that cause problems.

“These dendrites can cause a short circuit, which can cause a fire,” Wood said. 

Wood researches how chemical additives can limit this dendrite growth in lithium metal. With his help, manufacturers will be able to incorporate the new anode material without burning down the local electronics store. 

All three winners have plans to continue improving their energy technologies on an even larger scale. Moaseri hopes to implement his research at big oil companies like BP and Shell. Vitter said he hopes to tackle the problem of dramatically increasing water use in Texas by studying home water use dynamics.

“Energy Week helps bring giants of industry, policy and research together, and this competition is a great way to get graduate student research right in the center of all of it,” Vitter said. “This was a rewarding opportunity for me and all the student competitors.”