Right technology, right time
Young researcher presents alternative-fuel project in Washington, D.C.
Sophomore Jeff Pobst adjusts the pressure of methane in a test tank. Pobst works with physics Professor Peter Pfeifer to develop more efficient ways of storing alternative fuels such as natural gas. Photo courtesy of Jeff Pobst.
As gas prices continue to rise, so does the buzz about alternative fuels. Recently, a Mizzou undergraduate researcher added to that buzz by speaking with a couple of Missouri legislators about a project that could open the door to widespread use of natural gas as a gasoline alternative.
Jeff Pobst instructs a physics lab and works with physics Professor Peter Pfeifer on a research project designed to make the use of natural gas in automobiles more palatable to consumers and car companies.
Pobst, who refers to himself as a sophomore but has enough hours to be considered a junior, was the only student from Missouri selected to participate in “Undergraduate Research Posters on the Hill” April 28–30 in Washington, D.C. A national committee selected 60 students to present research posters to more than 300 registered participants at the U.S. Capitol. Pobst also met with Reps. Kenny Hulshof and Ike Skelton.
The challenge of natural gas
Natural gas typically needs to be stored in heavy-walled, high-pressure gas tanks at 3,600 pounds per square inch. The tanks take up space equivalent to a car’s back seat or trunk.
Enter technology developed by Pfeifer and colleagues in the Alliance for Collaborative Research in Alternative Fuel Technology (ALL-CRAFT) program. Their discoveries allow the gas to be stored in a smaller tank under much lower pressure — 500 pounds per square inch.
How it works
Pobst studies how elements of the corncob-to-carbon process affect porousness. Ground corncobs are chemically treated, converted to carbon powder and then made into briquettes that provide a surface to adsorb the gas. A series of briquettes are used in vehicle gas tanks. Illustration by Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation.
Pobst jokes that in the first lecture he attended with Pfeifer, he kept thinking the physicist was mispronouncing the word “absorption.” Pfeifer wasn’t.
Adsorption — the process that Pfeifer spoke about and one that plays a key role in storing natural gas at lower pressure — occurs when a gas or liquid adheres to a surface. In this project, natural gas adsorbs to millions of tiny pores in chemically activated carbons made from corncobs.
As part of Pobst’s work in the lab, he tests how much the corncobs store and tries to obtain information about pore-size distribution. Pobst says the best pore size is one in which two methane molecules fit side-by-side. If a pore is too small, both won’t fit; if it’s too large, space is wasted.
The type of chemicals, heat and treatment time all play a role in the variation in pore size. “We can tailor our carbons such that the pore size we want is the most probable one or the one that shows up the most,” Pobst says.
With a running start on a research career, Pobst says he plans to keep working in Pfeifer’s lab. Eventually he wants to be a physics professor, but he’s not sure he will continue to study nanoporous materials and adsorption. “All areas of physics, the more I hear about them, the more exciting they get,” he says.