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Q&A with Mostafa Abuseada, 4th year PhD student in Mechanical Engineering

Mostafa Abuseada is a 4th year PhD student in Mechanical Engineering, majoring in Thermal Science and Engineering

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what brought you to UCLA:

A: I am originally from Egypt, but I lived most of my adult life abroad in pursuit of exciting opportunities that would help advance my knowledge and expertise to achieve my career goals and have a positive impact on the world. I received my Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Texas A&M University at Qatar in 2015. Later in 2017, I decided to move to the United States to pursue my thesis-based Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from University of Minnesota and follow my passion of working on exciting and challenging research projects within the heat transfer and sustainable energy sectors. Upon receiving my M.S. degree in 2019, I wanted to continue specializing in thermal sciences at one of the best universities in the nation, and that was when I decided to move to UCLA to pursue my PhD degree in Mechanical Engineering under the supervision of one of the renowned experts in the field of heat transfer, Professor Tim Fisher.

Q: Please share about your work on the Noble Fund research project with Professor Fisher:

A: My thesis and main PhD research work under the supervision and guidance of Prof. Fisher primarily comprises the work of the Noble Fund research project, which is to convert natural gas (primarily methane) into high-value products in a clean and environmentally friendly process that utilizes concentrated solar power.

My work on this exciting project, with the support and guidance of Prof. Fisher, included designing and building the experimental setup and testing capabilities, planning and conducting experiments and characterization measurements to improve our understanding of the process and its products, developing numerical codes to model and optimize the process, and scaling-up our approach for continuous processing in a laboratory setting to prepare for actual field implementation.

The work on the Noble Fund research project is additionally supported by the great collaboration  with Prof. Mitchell Spearrin on the chemical diagnostics and modeling and with Prof. Yves Rubin on the process chemistry and development of chemical precursors that could further enhance the process performance and product quality.

Q: What are the findings of that project so far?

A: One of the interesting and desirable findings of this project is that our process generates a high-quality graphite product when breaking down natural gas into carbon and hydrogen, rather than a lower-quality carbon form. This was primarily achieved through our approach of incorporating sunlight and by conducting our process at optimized conditions to produce such a high-quality carbon product. Additionally, our design and process permit confining the chemical reaction to a localized area to reduce thermal losses that decrease the process efficiency, and they ensure that the graphite product develops into an easily extractable form, which prevents the production of low-quality carbon in other areas of the reactor that could lead to flow restriction and reactor clogging over time; these issues were reported as great challenges in previous attempts. The process also has a very fast transient heating period (< 1 min) to reach optimum operating conditions, which is a desirable characteristic of our process to maximize the duration of solar power usage during day light. With our process optimized, we were also able to demonstrate its applicability for scale-up in a laboratory setting through the use of a roll-to-roll production technique that allows continuous production of the high-value products without any significant deterioration in the process performance.

Q: What drew you to your graduate research program?

A: I was fascinated with how sunlight has the potential to be used to drive industrial processes for power and commodities production without any greenhouse gas emissions. Given concerns of global warming and personally witnessing the effects of climate change, I wanted to be part of the drive towards cleaner and more sustainable energy sources, such as solar energy, in attempts to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, my work and research for my M.S. and PhD degrees have focused on supporting the transition towards concentrated solar power and ultimately supporting industrial processes of significance – the latter was only accomplished here at UCLA with the great support and vision of Prof. Fisher!

Q: What have you learned from your research experiences so far?

A: I have learned a lot during my research experience so far:

    1. I have learned how to properly plan for and custom-design, build, and fully-automate entire experimental setups and equipment that provide state-of-the-art testing capabilities.
    2. I have learned how to properly utilize new software and applications that enhance team collaborations and communications since team collaborations are key to success.
    3. I have learned to pay close attention to the little details and attempt to extract the most information from any given experimental data or observations; often these little details lead to interesting discoveries.
    4. I have learned to be persistent, to never give up, and to set timely objectives that ensure that I remain on track to reaching my final goals.

Q: What are the hoped-for impacts of your research?

A: The hoped-for impacts of my current research are very rewarding. As graphite is primarily imported into the United States for consumption (the U.S. currently does not produce graphite according to the latest report), successfully commercializing this process and research project should enable the U.S. and other countries to locally produce graphite and possibly export it. This outcome would not only allow us to meet the highly growing need for graphite to support the rapidly increasing demand for electric vehicles, but it also does so in a clean and sustainable manner with zero greenhouse gas emissions. I also hope to have this research work replace current graphite production methods with a cleaner approach, all while additionally producing a clean and desirable fuel – hydrogen. Unlike natural gas, hydrogen only produces water vapor (and heat) with no greenhouse gas emissions. Our research potentially demonstrates a more desirable way of making use of natural gas.

Q: You are the lead inventor (with Prof. Fisher) of two patent applications to date – what has that experience been like?

A: This experience with Prof. Fisher has certainly been extraordinary and surreal. It feels very satisfying to see all the hard work being rewarded and acknowledged. I certainly look forward to more work and greater impact in the upcoming future.

Q: What tips would you give to other student researchers or those interested in pursuing research in the future?

A: Research is fun and exciting, and it is even more rewarding when a student researcher is working on a topic of personal interest and of a significant impact. Three of the main tips that I would like to share with other student/potential researchers are to:

    1. Read a lot and familiarize yourself well with the past and current research developments and alternative methods in your research field.
    2. Properly plan/design your research work and always make sure to well-document any research work/progress – spending adequate time in the planning stages saves a lot of time and effort during experimentation.
    3. Never give up and always keep exploring more methods and alternative solutions, even if these methods are not directly linked to your research work.