A 'silver bullet' awakening

M​ani Sarathy​​​, associate professor of chemical engineering in the University’s physical science and engineering division, has recently been appointed associate director of the Clean Combustion Research Center (CCRC).​

"I feel very fortunate to be given this new opportunity as the associate director of the CCRC," he said. "With this new position, I will connect not only with the many talented individuals within the Center and the University but also with the broader combustion research community."

Coupled with the aforementioned interactions with his peers, Sarathy perceives an immense opening for personal learning and development.​

“The CCRC is already a well-oiled machine thanks to the leadership of our founding director Professor Suk Ho Chung and current director Professor William Roberts. Our faculty team works together like finely tuned gears in a powertrain. My first goal will be to expand the translation of CCRC’s expertise with industry and government stakeholders so we can have greater impact within the Kingdom and abroad,” Sarathy emphasized.

“In addition, I will make the CCRC a hub for recruiting the highest quality students and training them to be world-class engineers. Finally, I aim to bridge CCRC with other KAUST research centers so we can solve the most pressing technical problems with true interdisciplinary expertise. This last point is what I think will take CCRC and other KAUST research centers to the next level of excellence,” he added.

Spark to a flame

The seed of Sarathy’s love of science—and combustion—can be traced back to his youth growing up in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and specifically to the year 1993. It was during this year that the 13-year-old Sarathy was amazed as he read an article describing the hydrogen fuel cell.

“[The article] was about the hydrogen fuel cell, a technology that would provide efficient energy with zero emissions—a ‘silver bullet!' Wow, I was fascinated by it and it motivated me to become an engineer so I could work on fuel cells. But, by the time I finished my undergraduate degree in 2004, the hydrogen fuel cell was still not a mature technology and research on it was diminishing. I had a passion to work on improving energy systems, so looked into various alternative energy fields. However, I chose combustion because that is the source of our energy problems, so that is where we need solutions. We must face this fossil fuel addiction we have head-on. We have to improve combustion technologies to have a minimum impact on our environment and stop waiting for a silver bullet,” Sarathy said.

Fast-forward to 2017, and a 37-year-old Sarathy still sees the hold science can create on a young mind. He relishes seeing the young students who visit KAUST—and specifically the KAUST Gifted Student Program (KGSP) students and the Saudi Research Science Institute (SRSI) students—benefiting from the University's many facilities and bright minds to expand their knowledge of the sciences.

Mani Sarathy, associate professor of chemical engineering in the University’s Physical Science and Engineering Division​ and recently appointed Associate Director of the Clean Combustion Research Center (CCRC). Photo by Meres Weche.​


“The KGSP students are amazing and are the future of KAUST and Saudi Arabia," Sarathy noted. "One of the most rewarding things is seeing the SRSI high school students that were in my team four years ago now as KGSP students completing their degrees in top U.S. colleges. Currently I have some KGSP students doing Ph.D. research in my team. When these students complete their Ph.D.s, I will feel so fulfilled, and someday these students will be leaders in the Kingdom and abroad. They will transform societies. King Abdullah’s vision will be a reality, and then I will feel so happy.”

The necessity of combustion

Sarathy’s research explores the environmental impact of conventional and alternative fuels—biofuels, synthetic fuels, etc.—and their combustion systems. He develops fundamental chemical kinetic models and experiments to predict fuel combustion and pollutant formation in energy systems. Sarathy is also interested in applying his chemical kinetics expertise to study a wide range of chemical engineering systems, including atmospheric air pollution, biomass energy and catalysis.

The main driver behind Sarathy’s research work has been his concern for the negative environmental impact of human activities and particularly pollutant formation. It is well-known how damaging the products of combustion and their various processes can be. Offshoots of the combustion process, such as burning large quantities of fuel, factory emissions and exhaust gases, can cause severe environmental impacts like air, soil and water pollution. It’s these impacts on the environment that Sarathy intends to reduce in the combustion process by studying fuel combustion at a molecular level.

“Combustion is notorious for its negative environmental impacts, but humanity relies on it greatly for survival. There are lots of improvements that can be made in various combustion technologies, such as automobile engines, aircraft turbines and stationary power plants. We can significantly improve efficiency and reduce emissions by understanding fuel combustion processes at the molecular level, which is achieved by fundamental chemical kinetic modeling combined with high-fidelity experiments,” he said.

Seeking to democratize combustion research

Much of Sarathy and his team’s work results in chemical kinetic models for various types of petroleum and alternative fuels. The fuel chemistry models are implemented and used by both engineers and industry worldwide as inputs into numerical simulations to design engines.

“My work on fuel combustion chemistry also allows me to connect with researchers in many other combustion areas, such as diagnostics, engines, quantum mechanics, high-performance computing, etc., and this networking opportunity is valuable for solving complex problems,” he said.

In 2014, his team spotted a gap in global research collaborations which they sought to correct through the development of their Cloudflame website. It's a platform that gives free access to experimental combustion data and simulation tools to those research universities, institutions and countries that traditionally lack access due to the high cost of experimental facilities, journal subscriptions and computer hardware and software.

“Our website has become really popular—so much so that we are getting thousands of hits a week. You run simulations directly from the website, and it’s a way for people to learn about combustion. The website is used by universities in places like China, Ecuador, India and Poland, and in places where access to the necessary computer services to run these simulations and programs is limited. Professors who want to teach combustion now use our website platform, and it’s easy for the students to pick up and learn. It is our way of democratizing combustion research. If more people learn about combustion technology, then it will help them understand how really complex these systems are, and it may help them think more about their energy consumption choices,” Sarathy said.

A cradle for dynamic research

Sarathy is keen to emphasize that he enjoys the freedom at KAUST to pursue dynamic research, not fixed research. More than anything he wants to continue to be part of the growing collaborative research being conducted between the divisions at KAUST to create even more in-depth, conjoint and multidisciplinary research.

“What we’re trying to do here at KAUST is to continue bringing centers together. KAUST has brilliant people—the students and researchers in my team are brilliant—I learn so much from them. The same is true of my CCRC colleagues. I’ve learned more about combustion in the past five years at KAUST than I learned during my seven years of Ph.D. and postdoc research,” he noted.

“Similarly, faculty all across the University are impressive. I can meet Xin Gao in the morning and talk about machine learning; then perform a catalysis experiment with K​azuhiro Takanabe; have a lunch debate with Bengt Johansson on the future of engines; grab a coffee with Manuel Aranda to discuss coral reef ecology and epigenetics; and then attend one of T​ad Patzek’s lectures on earth resources and sustainability. I even started exploring the kinetics of brain metabolism following a discussion with Pierre Magistretti,” he said.

Freedom and future goals

Sarathy also has future goals in mind when it comes to his own personal research.

“Solving major problems around energy systems and the environment is extremely complicated. I want to develop expertise and knowledge in multiple areas to bridge combustion with other disciplines. These include atmospheric chemistry, catalysis, machine learning and petroleum engineering,” he said.

“KAUST gave me something to aim for in my career. From the moment I heard about King Abdullah’s vision, I felt a strong inner drive that I wanted to be part of it. When I was being interviewed by KAUST, I recall the Vice President for Academic Affairs James Calvin’s words. He said that the success of young faculty members is what will define the University’s success. As a faculty member at KAUST, I am given lots of freedom, and this freedom inspires me to achieve greater success,” he concluded.

- By David Murphy, KAUST News

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