Monday, September 1, 2008

Introduction

Hallo, Jeder. This is my first time posting to this blog, so let me introduce myself. My name is Joseph Eby, from the University of Tulsa. When I get back to the states in December, I'll finish my fifth year of undergrad Chemical Engineering and Biochemistry. I'm writing this from the campus of the Paul Scherrer Institut in Villigen. Please forgive me if this post runs long; I'll try to be brief hereafter.

I'm now in my fourth day in Switzerland and have finally settled in. I spent my first and second day here sleeping off my jet lag. The third I spent touring Zurich on foot looking for a church. I started work this morning, but have yet to do any real work, so let me give you a little background on what I will be doing this fall.

The Paul Scherrer Institut (PSI) is a federally-funded research facility that is loosely associated with ETH Zurich and EPFL. A variety of sciences have representatives here investigating a surprising number of fields. More info, if you're interested, is available on Wikipedia. I'm working in the general energy research department in Dr. Frederic Vogel's group. For several years, his group has studied the conversion of biomass feedstock (wood chips or manure, e. g.) into a useable fuel product. The general idea is to take what would otherwise be a waste product and turn it into something that could be used as a heat source, to produce electricity, or even power cars. Their project is unique in this field because they use supercritical water as a reactant/solvent.

The assignment for my stay here is multifaceted: develop catalyst testing protocols that could be used to identify likely candidates for testing in one of the reactor set-ups they have running; analyze a "real" feed solution for levels of contaminants; help run the online reactor unit and collect data. Today I was given a tour of the facility and met most of the people in the research group. I had plenty of time to ask questions and get acquainted during our coffee breaks and long lunch. The group is German and Swiss doctoral students, an intern from Crete, various techs and post-docs (of undetermined origins), and me. My immediate supervisor is in the third year of his doctorate program and a chemist by education. One of the things that I love about this project is the mix of physical/biochemistry and engineering. Those three don't overlap as often as you might think. More on that as my project gets going.

One last thing: you might have asked, "where is Villigen?" Why, it's in the middle of nowhere! I found it on Google Earth before I left, but it was still a surprise to take a bus through smaller and smaller towns/hamlets out into the country and wind up at a state-of-the-art research facility that shares the street with a dairy farm and corn fields. I'm not entirely sure, but I think it's because of the particle accelerators (one of which I got to see today). Anyway, the closest major city is Zurich, which is at least an hour away by public transport. I'm within biking distance of the German border. That makes it a little more difficult (and expensive) to travel, but hopefully I'll have some fun to report later on. Now, I'm sorry that ran so long. I'm off to get some chocolate.

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