It always seems impossible until it’s done.
The word “uncertain” is used ad nauseam to describe a future plagued by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and for good reason. Climate change and resource depletion are global issues of such magnitude that approaching them, let alone addressing them, is a problem unto itself. Solving problems is, of course, an engineer’s specialty, and where others see only the impossible, engineers see necessity. For Texas Engineers at The University of Texas at Austin, making the impossible possible is just another day at the office.
UT Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering is composed of over 270 award-winning faculty members, including over 40 national academy members and one noble prize winner. When they’re not training the next generation of engineers, these renowned experts conduct groundbreaking research in the areas of energy, health and manufacturing, among others. They strive daily to make the world a better place, so the least we can do is shed some light on their most transformative inventions and endeavors.
The Problem: Renewable Energy Storage
Some of the most brilliant minds to tackle the problem of energy storage can be found at UT Austin. John B. Goodenough, who serves as the Virginia H. Cockrell Centennial Chair of Engineering in the Cockrell School, was awarded the Noble Prize in Chemistry in 2019 for his pioneering work on cathode materials and lithium-ion batteries. Now, UT Austin researchers are exploring a possible replacement for lithium-ion batteries that may help our society meet the growing need for renewable energy storage.
Lithium and cobalt mining are notorious for their detrimental impact on the environment and human health, and researchers have tried for decades to replace the rare metals in lithium-ion batteries with sodium. Unfortunately, the anode used in sodium batteries has the tendency to grow dendrites (needle-like filaments), catch fire and explode — at least, until now. Professor David Mitlin and a team of researchers at UT Austin’s Applied Research Laboratories (ARL:UT) have developed a highly stable sodium-based anode material that recharges as quickly as a lithium-ion battery.
Coinciding with the advancements made at ARL:UT, Professor Arumugam Manthiram and the Manthiram Laboratory had a breakthrough with sodium-sulfur batteries. Cheap and abundant, sulfur is another promising material with its own set of problems. Compounds formed from sulfur in sodium-sulfur batteries dissolve into the battery’s electrolyte and, in a process known as shuttling, cause material loss, degradation of components and the dreaded dendrite formation. By creating an electrolyte that prevents sulfur from dissolving, Manthiram and his team have successfully demonstrated that they can prolong the life of a sodium-sulfur battery, bringing us one step closer to realizing this “dream technology.”
The Problem: Fire Risks
Fire is a force of nature as capable of heating a home on a winter’s night as it is leaving behind smoldering wood and ashen debris. Balancing its destructive and productive properties has been one of humanity’s greatest challenges for over one million years. Today, there’s an entire ecosystem of organizations, researchers and rescuers devoted to minimizing fire risks, and UT Austin’s Fire Research Group is among them.
The Fire Research Group works to develop a deeper understanding of this volatile element by conducting research in areas such as wildfires, fire forensics and community fire risk. Protecting firefighters is one of their most important missions and has resulted in research to evaluate and enhance personal alert safety system (PASS) devices that can alert personnel when a firefighter is overcome by smoke and heat. The Fire Research Group is led by Ofodike Ezekoye, director of the 100% online Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering program and an expert in combustion and heat transfer. We encourage you to check out our master’s degree program and the Fire Research Group to learn more about the renowned engineers at UT Austin.
The Problem: Water Scarcity
Water is a pillar of society, and access to clean water is essential for providing basic sanitation and ending extreme poverty and disease in the world’s least developed countries. Tragically, over two billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water, and as our population grows, so too will the demands on this precious resource.
Co-led by Professor Keith Johnston and Associate Professor Guihua Yu, a team of scientists and engineers at UT Austin have created a hydrogel tablet that can rapidly purify contaminated water, making it safe for drinking in less than an hour. “Our multifunctional hydrogel can make a big difference in mitigating global water scarcity,” said Yu, “because it is easy to use, highly efficient and potentially scalable up to mass production.” The hydrogel tablets release hydrogen peroxide, an environmentally friendly chemical disinfectant, which disrupts the essential metabolization process of bacteria. The tablets have been shown to be over 99.999% effective at neutralizing bacteria, and the team is already working to promote commercialization and testing the tablets’ ability to kill other pathogens.
The Problem: Climate Change
Melting ice sheets, retreating mountain glaciers and rising global temperatures — there’s alarming evidence that we’ve reached or passed the point of no return: the moment when the effects of greenhouse gases on nature become unavoidable. Human activities are unquestionably the culprit, but don’t count us out just yet.
UT Austin’s Texas Carbon Management Program (TxCMP) has conducted decades of research on carbon capture technology, and their work is paying off. Professor Gary Rochelle and his team at TxCMP have developed and patented advanced solvent technology that can capture over three million tons of carbon dioxide annually when applied to steel, chemical and fossil fuel plants and other hard-to-abate sectors. Having reached an agreement with multinational conglomerate Honeywell, TxCMP is now able to scale this technology in ways that will help carbon-intensive industries reach net-zero emissions.
Make the Impossible Possible
The problems engineers face in their careers may not be as significant or pressing as a global crisis, but it can feel that way. At UT Austin, our goal is to empower engineers to bring about positive change not only in the world but also in their careers, and professionals interested in becoming an industry leader and innovator should consider our 100% online mechanical engineering programs.
Career advancement won’t seem so impossible once you’ve earned a master’s degree from one of the top engineering schools and programs in the U.S. Apply to one of our 100% online programs to learn from some of the most accomplished industry experts at UT Austin.