Research rock stars: Bio-derived star
The end of the 1985 film “Back to the Future” features Dr. Emmett Brown returning to present day in his time machine to pick up Marty McFly so he can return to the future and show him a problem concerning McFly’s children.
Before they can make the trip, Brown opens a trash can in the driveway and begins placing garbage in a processor where it is turned into fuel for the time machine made from a DeLorean automobile.
In the movie, the year in which fuel from trash is possible is 2015. University of Colorado chemical engineering professor Al Weimer and his team beat that prediction by a few years by successfully turning yard clippings into green gas.
“This is the most direct route to replacing significant amounts of imported oil,” said Weimer, who is working with Sundrop Fuels to commercialize the technology. “It will happen, and it will be large scale. If gasoline prices keep going up, we may be closer than anyone thinks.”
No word on whether Weimer plans to tackle the concept of flying cars or time travel.
Weimer didn’t set out to make gas from grass. He and his team of researchers, comprised mostly of students and funded by a Department of Energy grant, were developing a new way to split water and create hydrogen using sunlight and mirrors to superheat a cauldron of water and zinc. They were successful and only turned their attention to focusing sunlight on the grass clippings and creating green gas later.
“I like the challenge of making the better mousetrap,” Weimer said. “I like being first in an area and working at the interface of technologies – like thermochemical biomass conversion. A lot of discovery happens at the interface, but it’s very difficult to obtain funding there because funding supports specific silos.
“All my career, people have told me I could not do certain things. If I know it’s possible and I understand the scientific fundamentals, I consider that a huge opportunity.”
Weimer, now in his mid 50s, worked in private industry for 16 years before starting a career in academia and research in 1996. Several products of his research have been commercialized, and he admits he is hoping to make the big idea happen at some point “so that I never have to write another research proposal.”
Weimer is co-founder of ALD NanoSolutions Inc., which uses atomic layer deposition and thin-film technology to develop coatings for a variety of hardware products and batteries.
Weimer says his true passion is working with his students.
“Being an academic teacher, researcher is the best job in the world,” he said. “I have a direct impact on people – students – and it can impact their lifetime. I work incredibly hard, but enjoy it. I left industry because the fun went away.”