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Graduate Student Wins AIChE Travel Award for Biomass Research

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Natalie Thayer
Lars Grabow and Sashank Kasiraju

Each year, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) presents travel awards to outstanding students from across the nation to present their research at the annual AIChE meeting. Sashank Kasiraju, a chemical and biomolecular engineering graduate student at the UH Cullen College of Engineering, is one of just 20 students to receive this honor from AIChE’s Catalysis and Reaction Engineering (CRE) Division this year.

AIChE is the world’s leading organization for chemical engineering professionals, boasting more than 45,000 members from over 100 countries. The organization is dedicated to promoting excellence in the chemical engineering profession through advancing education, career development and professional standards within the field.

Kasiraju’s research focuses on hydrotreating bio-oil obtained from biomass to lower its oxygen content and convert it to renewable and sustainable biofuels. Hydrotreating refers to a process using high-pressure hydrogen gas to remove unwanted contaminants, such as oxygen, sulfur, and nitrogen from fuel products.

The petroleum industry currently uses a method of hydrotreating that removes sulfur from fossil feedstock to produce clean diesel and gasoline. This hydrodesulfurization technology is well established and practiced daily in every refinery worldwide.

Under the guidance of his faculty advisor Lars Grabow, Kasiraju is attempting to translate this existing knowledge to explore efficient catalysts for the related hydrodeoxygenation process of bio-oil. By building on existing industry technologies to improve the hydrotreating process, Grabow and Kasiraju hope to accelerate the discovery of hydrodeoxygenation catalysts and, ultimately, to contribute to the development of renewable biofuels.

Kasiraju, who is in his fourth year at the University of Houston, has been fascinated by science for as long as he can remember.

“As a kid, I was always building gadgets and breaking things apart to put them back together afterwards,” he said.

As a teenager, Kasiraju’s father took him to visit the cement manufacturing plant where he worked. Kasiraju said that the moment he saw the advanced technology in the process control room and the high temperature coal fired reactors in action, he was hooked on chemical engineering.

Before moving to Houston to attend the Cullen College, Kasiraju earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in chemical engineering in India.

“Starting off [at the University of Houston] was a very interesting experience because everything in this country is different, even the way of teaching,” he said.

But Kasiraju said he learned to adapt and found that he enjoyed the unique challenges and opportunities that his academic career presented to him.

“I did research before, but it wasn’t at this level,” he said, adding that the opportunities for travel are a highlight of his experience at UH.

For this award, Kasiraju will travel to Salt Lake City, Utah, to attend his first annual AIChE meeting from November 8th through 13th. At the meeting, he will give an oral presentation on the results of his research. Kasiraju will be officially recognized for his award at the formal CRE Division Dinner.

Kasiraju said he most looks forward to the opportunity to meet fellow students and leaders in the chemical engineering field at the AIChE meeting.

“There will be a lot of experts in my field [at the meeting] and I look forward to meeting them. I’d like to talk to them and get new ideas that will help to propel my research forward,” he said.

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