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Chemical engineering student earns recognition for energy research

Zachariah Berkson energy research
January 28, 2013

Arizona State University senior chemical engineering major Zachariah Berkson is beginning to make a mark for himself in energy research.

A technical paper Berkson authored on his part in research aimed at recycling carbon dioxide to produce clean, renewable fuels recently won him a scholarship award from the Arizona chapter of the national Air and Waste Management Association (AWMA).

It’s an especially impressive accomplishment because graduate students also competed for the award, notes his mentor Jean Andino, a chemical engineering faculty member in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

The award brought Berkson $1,000 and enables him to participate in the national Energy Utility and Environment Conference in Phoenix Jan. 28-30. He’ll follow that up with a trip to Boston in February to display a poster exhibit of his research at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The technical paper for which he won the recent scholarship award from the AWMA-Grand Canyon Section was based on the research he presented last year at the international AWMA conference. It won him the conference’s best undergraduate student research poster award.

Berkson is seeking to “turn carbon dioxide, a waste product, into a fuel such as methane." The next goal would be to adapt the process of generating fuel from carbon dioxide to an industrial scale to create a viable source of sustainable energy.

"To enhance the efficiency of the process, we are using light-activated photo catalysts, in particular titanium dioxide," he explains. Employing the combination of modified titanium dioxide and light, Andino’s research group is exploring methods of improving the efficiency of converting carbon dioxide into energy.

Berkson, from Indiana, began his project under Andino’s direction in 2011 through the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative (FURI), which enables ASU engineering undergraduates to participate in advanced research training.

His project idea and the funding for his work in the lab came primarily through a National Science Foundation grant awarded to Andino.

Once Berkson delved into the project, what was at first merely an interest in renewable energy became an intense focus of his engineering education.

His research has shown that a simple pretreatment process – heating the catalyst before the reaction occurs – can increase the potential of the photocatalyst to produce a reaction by three to four times.

“I’ve shown that when you do this treatment you generate a lot more electrons ready for reaction,” Berkson says. “What I am trying to show now is that this translates to increased chemical activity for the reaction that we are interested in” for converting carbon dioxide into fuel.

His desire to continue the work has driven Berkson’s decision to pursue a doctoral degree in chemical engineering.

Students whose work is accepted for presentation at professional conferences are eligible to apply for a grant from the Engineering Schools’ office of Academic and Student Affairs to help fund travel to conferences.  Berkson was one of 13 engineering students funded to travel to national conferences in 2012 to present research findings.

Written by Natalie Pierce and Joe Kullman