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Someday when Rufaro Mukogo ’07 (Harare, Zimbabwe) returns to Zimbabwe, the knowledge he gained by conducting chemistry experiments linked to fuel efficiency could be of great use.

In collaboration with Javad Tavakoli, associate professor and head of chemical engineering, Mukogo worked on creating a chemical compound or catalyst that could improve the burning characteristics or combustibility of diesel fuel.

“Diesel fuel is preferred from a combustion point of view,” Tavakoli says. “It has better burning efficiency than regular gasoline, but it has a lot of environmental problems – one of these is smoke. Adding this oxygenate has been shown to reduce the smoke formation and also the particulate formation.”

Mukogo, who is pursuing a B.S. in chemical engineering and an A.B. with a major in international studies, says in his home country, environmental contamination from automobiles is fast becoming a major issue.

“Pollution is a big problem in the sense that policing it is not quite what it could be,” he explains. “We don’t have the same volume of cars, but the policing of what’s there is not that good.”

He believes that knowing how to decrease the amount of smoke and microscopic particles that diesel engines produce when they convert fuel into energy could be extremely useful in keeping the air clean.

Mukogo and Tavakoli worked together through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, which allows students to conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

Although much more research must be done to determine whether adding the chemical to fuel will actually reduce emissions, Tavakoli says Mukogo is paving the way for those who will follow.

“It’s very new, not much has been done, and I am hoping we will come up with some ideas that will help others to work on it,” Tavakoli says. “Catalytic processes contribute to about 20 percent of [the United States] gross national product. So it’s a very important area. Basically, what I hope is that the students involved in this research get a feel for the field and see the importance of it and learn the so-called secrets of the field. Hopefully, they will get excited and interested and follow the field into the industry or to graduate-level study.”

In addition to discovering new ideas, Mukogo learned how to use laboratory techniques, how to perform chemical reactions to create the chemical compound from scratch, and the importance of catalyst research.

He has not decided whether he wants to pursue this line of research beyond the undergraduate level. Even so, his work with Tavakoli has taught him what it would be like in a research career.

“I’m really happy that I’ve had this opportunity to see for myself,” he says. “My own perception was totally different from what the experience was like. Before I got involved in this project, my only sense of research was running experiments, analyzing the results, making changes, and starting again.

“Learning in this environment, for the most part, I’ve found that you’re responsible for teaching yourself a lot. You’re working with people who are not going to ‘dumb’ things down for you and some things go over your head, but somehow you have to find a way of teaching yourself.”

Mukogo is a member of the African and Caribbean Students Association and the Rugby Club.

A recipient of the United Nations TOKTEN Award and a Fulbright Summer Scholarship, Tavakoli has presented his research in numerous publications and at conferences such as the World Water & Environmental Resources Congress, the World Congress of Chemical Engineering, and the National Science Foundation International Symposium and Technology Expo on Small Drinking Water and Wastewater Systems. He has served as a consultant for the Department of Environmental Protection and companies based in the U.S. and abroad.

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Thirty-nine students have been accepted to present their work at this year’s annual conference.

Categorized in: Academic News