Rattner to use NSF CAREER award to improve power generation, energy systems

Chris Hennessey
March 27, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Alexander Rattner, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State, will research ways to increase the efficiency of power generation and other energy intensive processes by expanding knowledge of how heat is transferred during boiling and condensation, thanks to a highly selective National Science Foundation Early Career (CAREER) award.

Improved understanding of the critical processes of boiling and condensation can increase efficiency in power generation, refrigeration and freshwater distillation. In the United States, 40 percent of all energy consumption is applied as heat to boil steam for power production. Seventy-two percent of that energy invested in steam production is lost to the environment through gas-to-liquid condensation.

“If we can better understand these processes, we can design energy systems that are more efficient, reduce the cost of energy production, and ultimately help the environment,” Rattner said.

Boiling and condensation are governed by mechanisms that occur over a wide range of size scales, and the interplay between these scales is not yet well understood. For example, in flow boiling, vapor bubbles form in minute cavities just nanometers wide on heated surfaces, then grow and detach into the bulk liquid, and merge to form large gaseous structures that may be millimeters long. Flow and heat transfer effects at these three scales are thought to interact in a complex fashion.

Using the $509,000 CAREER award, Rattner’s Multiscale Thermal Fluids and Energy Lab will develop computational methods to predict interactions between these scales in boiling and condensation and then use thermal imaging and high-speed photography of laboratory experiments to assess and refine the computational models.

The award will also fund an education outreach component. Rattner will partner with the Penn State College of Education’s Center for Science and the Schools (CSATS) to create a research and learning module for high school science teachers to use in their classrooms. Through the module, students will use plug-in energy meters to measure the power use by their household appliances. Their measurements will be integrated to create a public web tool that provides estimates of efficiency and environmental impacts, and guidance on appliance age and cost tradeoffs.

“We want students to participate in engineering research, and not just read about it in class. We want them to be hands-on and get them excited about science,” Rattner said.

He and CSATS will hold several workshops to introduce teachers to the class module.

Rattner joined Penn State in August 2015. He received his doctorate in mechanical engineering from the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2015. He received a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009. In 2016, he was named the Howes Scholar for his outstanding leadership, character and technical achievement in the field of computational science. 

  • Alexander Rattner and student

    Rattner, right, and doctoral student Sanjay Adhikari work on a device in the lab.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Image of liquid flowing

    In the lab, high-speed photography and other tools will be used to assess the results of computational predictions.

    IMAGE: Penn State
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Last Updated May 17, 2017