Mitchell Spearrin wins National Science Foundation CAREER Award for Clean Engine Research

December 12, 2017
Mitchell Spearrin was awarded an NSF CAREER grant for research on high-pressure combustion engines that offer a future of cleaner, more-efficient engines and lower transportation emissions.

Key research on high-pressure combustion for the development of cleaner, more efficient engines has found a home at UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. Mitchell Spearrin, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, earned a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award for research on the chemistry and physics of combustion reactions under extreme conditions. Spearrin’s goal is to create the technology that will see inside the combustion reactions and provide foundational knowledge for building efficient engines for cars, airplanes or rockets. Currently, little is known about the detailed chemistry and physics of these high-pressure processes, but researchers know that cleaner engines that maximize efficiency require combustion at high-pressures. Typical engine efficiency today only reaches about 35%, Spearrin said. However, theoretical efficiencies are near 100%. These combustion engines power about 96% of California’s transportation network that contributes nearly half of the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Simple improvement in energy efficiency could provide significant immediate-term reductions in fuel consumption and emissions.

The award provides $550,000 over five years to support Spearrin and is the most prestigious honor from the NSF for faculty early in their career with promising roles in research. The spectroscopy tool uses a laser to study the chemical make-up and activity of combustion fluids that are in a non-equilibrium state, and neither liquid nor gas, under high pressures and temperatures. The atoms and molecules absorb varying amounts of radiation from the laser and the signature wavelengths recorded describe what those atoms and molecules are and how they are interacting. The results will provide highly needed insight on the chemistry of ignition and how pollutants form in these conditions. The potential impact of this novel tool provides motivation for Spearrin who said his goal is to “ultimately mature disruptive engine technologies that can take us from 35% to 60% or higher in efficiency.”

While high-pressure combustion and development of the tool are the main focuses of the project, it also includes education initiatives to improve university curricula and foster interest in STEM fields among younger generations. These initiatives include ways to diversify teaching methods and take advantage of unique technology and online educational tools at universities, and the production of videos for the public and young students on energy and sustainability issues.

The NSF CAREER award is the agency’s highest honor for faculty members at the start of their research and teaching careers.

Read more at UCLA Engineering.

This post was written by Conor Cusack. He is a geography/ environmental studies major in his senior year, an outdoor enthusiast and a writer for Sustainable LA Grand Challenge.