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“The Joules of Science” Representing UH in BP Contest

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The winners of the Ultimate Field Trip contest will receive a two-week trip to tour BP facilities in Alaska and Chicago.
The winners of the Ultimate Field Trip contest will receive a two-week trip to tour BP facilities in Alaska and Chicago.

A team of University of Houston undergraduates – made up of two students from the Cullen College of Engineering and one from the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics – will represent UH next month in BP’s “Ultimate Field Trip” contest.

The contest asks teams of undergrads to present a solution to an energy challenge. This year’s challenge asked students to find ways for energy companies themselves to consume less energy. This year’s winning team will go on a two-week tour of BP facilities in Alaska and Chicago.

Students from just 12 universities around the United States are allowed to compete. In addition to UH, these schools are Georgia Tech; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Michigan State University; Pennsylvania State University; Rice University; Texas A&M University; University of California, Berkeley; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; University of Michigan; University of Oklahoma and University of Texas at Austin.

The UH team, named “The Joules of Science,” is made up of geology major Ysabelle Abraham, chemical engineering major Nora Elghetany and biomedical engineering major Heba Hijazi. The three met through the Cullen College’s Honors Engineering Program.

The team has proposed a method for using greenhouse gasses produced in refinery operations as an energy source. Often these gasses – typically methane and carbon dioxide – are simply burned off to prevent fires and explosions. Instead, the Joules propose using catalysts to transform the gasses into more useful products. Specifically, they propose using the methanotrophs bacteria along with a self-cleaning and restoring catalyst, called NADH (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide plus hydrogen), to convert the gasses into lipids, which could then be used to make biofuels or plastics.

This approach could be easily implemented in a refinery, the team said. The equipment needed to carry out this reaction is already onsite, and refineries have systems to generate the heat needed for this catalysis to take place.

The Joules will present their idea in April to a group of judges that include scientists and business professionals. Good Luck!

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