Assistant professor receives NSF CAREER Award

Brandon Rotavera

Brandon Rotavera

Brandon Rotavera, an assistant professor in the University of Georgia College of Engineering with a joint appointment in UGA’s department of chemistry, has received a grant from the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) to study new high-pressure chemical reactions vital to the design of next-generation combustion systems.

CAREER grants, among the most prestigious awarded by the NSF, support early-career faculty who exhibit promise as both researchers and teachers, and whose work has the potential to advance their field and their institution.

Funded by a $510,000 award, Rotavera’s project is designed to develop new, fundamental understanding of the chemical reactions that occur in combustion systems powered by alternative fuels. The work will provide a foundation for the design of sustainable combustion systems for transportation.

“Sustainable transportation energy is one of the most important issues facing modern society and combustion-derived energy will remain an integral part of the equation for decades to come,” said Rotavera. “Improvements in the efficiency of combustion systems depend in part on an understanding of chemical reactions that control ignition and pollutant formation – and our ability to predict these phenomena with computer models.”

Hydrocarbon and biofuel chemistry is more complex in next-generation combustion systems, according to Rotavera.

“In addition to accommodating fuel-flexibility interests, these systems incorporate new strategies with stringent timing criteria and operate at conditions of temperature and pressure that differ from conventional systems,” he said.

The project specifically focuses on reactions of cyclic ethers, a class of intermediates formed during the complex process of combustion. Because scientists lack fundamental knowledge of how these molecular entities behave at combustion conditions, they are forced to simplify the chemistry of cyclic ethers in computer models. This simplification contributes to uncertainties in the modeling of ignition dynamics and pollutant formation mechanisms. The experimental and computational work that Rotavera’s group will conduct aims to reduce this uncertainty and increase the fidelity of the computer modeling of combustion.

“This CAREER award enables us to conduct a focused, coordinated project on several basic science questions at these conditions, which we will approach using state-of-the-art experimental methods, quantum chemical computations, and chemical kinetics modeling,” said Rotavera.

With five-year funding from the NSF CAREER award, Rotavera plans to assemble a research team at UGA that includes Ph.D. students, undergraduate students who are military veterans, and first-generation college students.  Rotavera will also collaborate with colleagues at international institutions, such as RWTH Aachen University in Germany. To broaden the impact of his research, his group will produce science videos in collaboration with UGA’s Grady College of Journalism featuring students discussing the research project to spur an interest in combustion science as a field of study for future students.

“Our faculty share a commitment to research that solves our world’s most important challenges,” said Donald Leo, dean of the UGA College of Engineering. “Dr. Rotavera’s work in the field of combustion science is an excellent example of the way our college is engaged in research that will lead to a healthier, more sustainable society. We’re extremely proud of his accomplishment.”

By Mike Wooten

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