Milcarek Wins NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

 Ryan Milcarek

June 7, 2016

Ryan Milcarek ’14, a mechanical and aerospace engineering Ph.D. student, has earned a prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The award will fund three years of his fuel cell and combustion research.

With the resources of Professor Jeongmin Ahn’s Combustion and Energy Research (COMER) lab, Milcarek is seeking to reduce the formation of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in combustion processes using a recent innovation developed by Milcarek and Ahn. Their concept utilizes a two-stage combustor, also known as a rich-burn, quick-mix, lean-burn or RQL combustor, with a fuel cell integrated between the fuel-rich and fuel-lean combustion zones. This flame-assisted fuel cell, as it is called, generates electrochemical power at high efficiency, as well as heat for a range of applications including combined cycles, space heating, and jet engines. This concept builds on much of the work conducted in the COMER lab which seeks to create cleaner combustion through the combined use of fuel cell and combustion theory and technology.

Ahn says, “To earn an NSF Fellowship is a truly remarkable accomplishment and Ryan is deserving of such an honor. His commitment to learning and advancing the science of combustion continuously elevates the work that we do in the COMER lab.”

Milcarek’s NSF Fellowship will support his efforts to study NOx formation in the RQL combustor with and without the flame-assisted fuel cell. The formation of NOx has many adverse environmental and health effects including smog, acid rain, and respiratory problems. Thermal NOx, the primary NOx formation mechanism, can be reduced with the flame-assisted fuel cell concept. However, the formation of NOx in the RQL combustor is also subject to turbulence intensity, the boundary layer, and combustion equivalence ratio, among other factors. Milcarek will study these formation mechanisms and seek to reduce the amount of NOx generated during combustion.

Using resources from Professor Jianshun Zhang’s Building Energy and Environmental Systems Laboratory, Milcarek will also conduct system modeling and analysis to better understand the potential of these flame-assisted fuel cells for enhancing the energy efficiency and resilience of building systems.

Broader impacts of research on society are an essential part of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program. Milcarek is seeking to fulfill that vision by helping high school students become more engaged in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. In addition, he is seeking to establish greater collaborations on campus and with local industries to promote, spread awareness, and develop technologies like the flame-assisted fuel cell.

On top of the NSF Fellowship, Milcarek was recently awarded a $10,000 Grant-in-Aid from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and, as one of the top recipients of the grant, was named an ASHRAE “Life Member Club Grant Recipient.”

Chemical engineering alumnus Joshua Woods ’16 was also awarded a Graduate Research Fellowship from the NSF, and bioengineering alumna Alexis Peña ’16 earned an Honorable Mention.

About the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program supports outstanding graduate students by providing three years of funding for the completion of research-based master’s and PhD programs in supported fields at U.S. institutions. Supported fields are STEM disciplines, but also include psychology, social sciences, and STEM education. 30 Nobel Laureates and 440 members of the National Academy of Science have been past recipients. The program seeks individuals that show the potential for innovation and transformation in their chosen field.