The first day of my Princeternship began with a short meeting with the president of Exelus, who gave us a brief overview of the company and the energy industry. His short talk really helped put into perspective the importance of research in clean energy technologies and further solidified my desire to enter into the research sector of the energy industry. Following the talk, I was eager to begin observing all the various experiments, and my host Belinda Slakman ‘10 did not disappoint. After a quick tour through the facility and cursory introductions with many of the other employees, Belinda began showing me and Alex, my fellow intern, the experiments that she would be running that day. We looked at two different reactors, one that produced the compound styrene, which is used to produce a variety of different polymers, and one that produced the compound ethyl benzene, which is a precursor to the compound styrene. Belinda and fellow Princeton graduate, Nizette, showed us how to operate the reactors and take and analyze gas and liquid samples of the products using gas chromatographs. We also learned how to assemble the core of the reactor. The rest of the day was spent imputing and analyzing data using differential rate laws while taking hourly samples from the reactors.
On the second day, we started by setting up two different reactors for experiments. We then learned how to prepare the zeolite catalyst that was used for the experiments, which required hourly washes of a potassium hydroxide base. In between waiting for the catalyst and taking samples from the reactors, Alex and I talked with a few of the other employees about their projects. One of the only chemists at the company described how her project proposes to take the short hydrocarbons formed from biomass and alkylate them to form longer hydrocarbons that can be used as gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Another researcher also employs biomass in her project. Her goal was to use a non-biological, non-gasification method to break down any type of biomass into glucose before generating a mixture of various alcohols. The idea was to avoid the time consuming enzymatic route and the high energy costs of gasification. We also wrestled with new experiments that Belinda was running, which required propylene to become a liquid at 200° C. After consulting Antoine’s law, we realized the experimental route would be impossible because propylene was above its critical temperature at 200° C and thus cannot be compressed into a liquid (similar to how nitrogen cannot be compressed into a liquid unless it is at a very low temperature).
The third day was much less hectic, mainly because it was a Friday. Alex and I spent part of the day preparing a short presentation to show what we learned. We did find out about another exciting experiment, which related to photocatalysis. The main goal, or as one of the head of researchers described one of the “holy grails” of engineering, was to attempt to reduce carbon dioxide into an alcohol which can be burned as fuel. The idea was fascinating to me, but the technology was still in its infancy and was not fully developed yet. However, it was exciting to see how many people were working on so many different cutting edge technologies. This Princeternship was an experience that I am sure will benefit me greatly in the future when I’m deciding upon my career.