Graduation day, S12E4

Graduation day students lined up.


The final episode of the season occupies a time of transition, as spinoff company Espiku ramps up. We get an update on two systems that received patents and a third that could provide an environmentally benign technology for extracting lithium. We also hear from four graduating students who reflect on their experiences.

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Season 12
Episode number

RACHEL ROBERTSON: Hi again. Rachel here. We’ve made it to the last episode of Quest for Clean Water — a season of podcasts following the research of Bahman Abbasi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, who had an idea for a better way to desalinate water Along the way, he also turned the technology to the problem of cleaning up industrial wastewater. When I started following this project in 2018, I didn’t have a good idea of how it would end, because research tends to continue on with no clear ending. So, when Bahman told me he had students graduating in June of 2022, I thought, “Ah-hah!” This is the ending for the podcast season. Graduation marked a transition for the students, and also for the research. But, it was certainly not an ending for either. And, as you will hear at the end of this podcast the technology they have all built together is now being applied to a completely different problem — lithium extraction.

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ROBERTSON: From the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, this is Engineering Out Loud.

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The timing of this interview marked a kind of graduation for the desalination and the wastewater treatment projects that are moving out of the lab and into the world. Bahman’s summary of the desalination system started with a surprising confession.

BAHMAN ABBASI: When we first proposed this, when we first conceived of the idea, I had convinced everyone that this was going work. I was not convinced. And now, after three and a half years, it works better than we ever imagined. It desalinates water in a once-through process to potable water, no matter the salinity of your input. Sea water, concentrated brine, or oversaturated water with salt, run it once through this process and you get drinking water.

ABBASI: It still needs some pieces to it. We still need some pre-processing and some integration with the whole system. So, there is more engineering primarily work to do in order to move it from this operational successful lab unit to something that can be deployed. The engineering part will include energy transport to and from the system, as well as processing, pre-processing the water. Once that is done it will be ready for packaging and deployment.

ROBERTSON: What is it going take to get there?

ABBASI: Some money, some engineering, person power. At this stage, to be honest with you, the funding that we need is not nearly as much as we needed before when we were doing the research because research takes a lot of trial and error, but now the engineering part of it, we can have the design and the operation ready all in about a year and with a fraction of the funding that we have received so far.

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ROBERTSON: That part is moving forward through Bahman’s spin-off company, Espiku, that we talked about in the last episode. The wastewater project is also moving to a new phase with some additional funding from ARPA-E, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. The team was also awarded a patent for the wastewater system that they call Scepter.

ABBASI: The lab module is ready, is operational. We have demonstrated the parameters, the operation envelope, and now we are in the process of designing a pre-pilot unit. And the role of that is to focus more on the engineering part of it. How we can scale this up by some factor, in this case by factor of 10, and how we can prove our process outside of the laboratory with real oil and gas wastewater or industrial wastewater, and show that if you give it the actual product in the field, it will give you 99% clean water.

ROBERTSON: In the lab they can process wastewater that is 25% contaminated and output 99% pure water, which is a percent higher than a year ago. But Bahman is not satisfied with that.

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ABBASI: Because right now the 99% is not suitable for agriculture. It's a big success. It's beyond our original scope — still not good enough for agriculture. So, we're going to take that extra step, do everything we can to make the suitable for agricultural use.

ROBERTSON: Since we spoke, the team has tested the system with brackish water from the Permian Basin in Texas and cleaned it to over 99% purity with no fouling. To commercialize the technology, Espiku has partnered with companies that can help them build and demonstrate a pilot plant.

ABBASI: We have an Oregon company which specializes in containerized wastewater treatment units. They have deployed units from Alaska to Iraq, and they are ready to fabricate these. We have a design firm who’s ready to design the whole pilot plant for a containerized unit, and we have commercial partners who are ready to market this and put it in the field.

ROBERTSON: The students got a chance to showcase the technology at the ARPA-E Energy Summit where their project got some much-deserved attention.

ABBASSI: We all ran out of business cards. So, whatever that tells you.

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And, I have to say, it was such a good, rewarding experience for us, for our research team. So, people saw them, saw the device, saw what they had accomplished. And in addition to really valuing the research that we had done, the personnel, the staff, the students, the postdocs were there and all of them found opportunities that could lead to other things for them.

ROBERTSON: Bahman’s entire team has included four Ph.D. students, six master’s students, three postdoctoral scholars, and 19 undergraduates, who all dedicated a portion of their lives to the research. Four graduate students, three of whom had been there since the beginning, were graduating the week we spoke. It was a time for Bahman to reflect on what they have accomplished.

ABBASI: I really look at my students today, as they graduate, and they're going to walk in just a few days. And honestly, this is what I told them, and this is what I tell you here, is: I look at what they have achieved, and I think to myself that, “My life has meaning.”

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It is what I want my life to be known for, both the educational aspect of it, the mentorship aspect of it, as well as the technology, research, development, and the impact it has on people's lives. I look at my students and my team, and I tell them most days and most weeks that none of this would've happened without them. And I hope that they realized how valuable their efforts have been.

ROBERTSON: Without further ado, here are they are.

MOHAMMED ELHASHIMI: My name is Mohammed Elhashimi, and I’m getting a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. I’m from Sudan, east Africa. So, I was working in the oil and gas industry, which, you know, all the controversial talks about it because as much as you do at the end of the day, you're just destroying the environment. Right? So, like, I wanted to get out of that environment and do something that’s actually good.

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So, my research was basically focused on minimizing the energy consumption and developing technologies or components that can help in transforming this technology into zero liquid discharge technologies. So, the artificial intelligence algorithm I developed was mainly to optimize this technology and bring it to the best performance in the least time and with the minimal testing.

I want to stick to the research field. I don't have like a preference regardless if it's in a university, in a company, in a national lab. I want to do research because I like how we deal with something new, how we uncover the unknown every day.

It’s funny that now I feel like I know the least. I learned a lot more, but at the same time, the most thing that I learned is that there is much more to learn in the world, especially in my field. So, I think that's the irony of it. Like, I came and thought that I know a lot, but now after I finish my Ph.D., I know that I know the least and there is still a lot to learn about in the future.

HANNAH O’HERN: I'm Hannah O’Hern, and I'm graduating with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.

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There was always a lot of talk about water growing up in New Mexico. And so, I think I've always been a little bit more aware of it. And I’m really interested in the water-energy nexus.

So, on this hydraulic fracturing wastewater treatment project, I was the first graduate student. When I first showed up, my job was to sort of figure out what are we actually doing? Here's our proposal, how do, how do we start on this? And then as more and more grad students joined the team, which was excellent, my job was to sort of make sure everyone was on the same page. So, trying to keep track of all of the very complex individual components and make sure they're still all communicating with each other correctly.

The biggest outcome of my work has been what I'm calling physics-guided artificial neural networks. So, taking these, sort of, like, black box artificial neural networks that don't really care about the underlying physics, and trying to introduce some physics into that, to try to get a more accurate solution at a lower computational cost.

In addition to this being a large lab, it was an extremely diverse lab. my first year in the lab, I think we had six people of six different nationalities with six different first languages. And that was a really cool experience being able to see people approach problems so differently based on where they grew up and how they were taught to approach problems.

I am going to become a lecturer at Boise State in the fall. I am really excited about teaching. I had the opportunity to be a lecturer on the Cascades campus and that was just a life changing experience for me, and I realized I want to be doing this every day. And so that really changed the whole trajectory of my career. And I’m just really excited to be interacting with students and the mentorship aspect of being a lecturer.

DEEPAK SHARMA: I am Deepak Sharma, and I graduated from a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering with specialization in water purification.

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When I was doing my masters in India, I realized that research is one of my great interests and I always like to use my interest when they align good with the social development and on the humanitarian side, and water, oof is, yeah, just very, very important.

So, my role was to make sure that the whole system runs on the solar energy. And then the second one is to suppress the fouling in the system so that it becomes more reliable. And, for that, the choke point in the system is the atomizer. And so, we designed a novel air blast atomization mechanism that demonstrates a hundred percent suppression.

Coming from a different culture also gives you a different way of looking at technologies and having people from five, six cultures in one place. It was definitely very innovative because if you walk in our lab, you will see, like, so many things are just novel, novel. We created novel this, we created novel that. So that is like, that comes out of this having a great diversity in the group.

I want to work with a couple of more research labs, so that I can see the different working styles. At the end, I want to be a professor, I want to stay in the academia, and I want to have my own research lab. And a very diverse one too.

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My intentions with Ph.D. were pretty fine. That I definitely knew that I needed it. I wanted it. And it is not something that is, like, served to you. You earn it, and there will be a time that you yourself realize that, oh yeah, I earned it.

MORGAN MESSER: Morgan Messer, and I'm getting a Master's of Science in mechanical engineering.

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I did my undergraduate here at the Oregon State Cascades campus, and got to know Dr. Abbasi pretty well through that. And then he invited me to come work for his lab which was a great opportunity.

I did a couple different studies, one of them in surface roughness, in looking at how that impacted the fouling buildup and fouling resistance over time. And then I also developed and designed an evaporation pan for hydraulic fracturing that can mitigate fouling for 20% saline water with about a 54% evaporation rate.

I learned a lot about communication and trying to communicate with so many people, especially during COVID. And understand everybody's kind of roles and also the bigger picture to make sure that my component fits with theirs at the end of the day.

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I think I'm most proud of being able to work on such a large team on, like, a real-world problem. And I think it's been really interesting to see, like, how this could really be applied somewhere. And, actually being able to put together the system and have it run for several hours, I think was the most rewarding part.

I am looking for jobs in industry. I think I like that it's a lot closer in like the research and development side of it to becoming like a real solution. And getting to work a lot more with customers.

It was a great group to work for. I really liked the projects. They were very applicable to real problems that you see out there. So, everybody’s theses, if you take away all the technical jargon, are very real-world problems that are happening right now. And I think that that was a really valuable experience and makes a lot of the lab very passionate about what we do.

ROBERTSON: Amazing individuals.

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Since I spoke to them, Mohammed started working as an R&D Engineer for Energy Recovery in the San Francisco Bay Area, Hannah O’Hern began teaching at Boise State University, Deepak Sharma became a faculty research associate here at Oregon State, and Morgan Messer got a job as a sustainability engineer at Autoliv in Utah. Jessa Sequeira, the undergraduate from an earlier episode, is an associate energy systems engineer for Enel X where she with works with battery storage for solar power systems. Which is coincidentally related to the next chapter for the desalination technology — lithium extraction. The story about how Bahman got the idea to take his technology in a completely new direction starts with the origin story for all of this work, which I’d never heard before!

ABBASI: I'll tell you a funny story. Years ago, I was at the conference and I was, I was at this table and someone was talking about using a cyclone separator to extract some sort of carbon from some sort of flow. And I sat there and thought to myself, “Wait a minute. What if instead of carbon from an exhaust fume, we used a cyclone to extract salt from a humid airstream? That would be a desalination device.” And from that, I conceived of the idea of our desalination system, which relies on cyclonic separation. So, very similar to that, I was reading an article about the need for lithium, the need for concentrated brine, and the need to find environmentally benign ways and rapid ways to concentrate this brine and extract lithium. And I thought to myself, “Well, that's exactly what we do with our desalination.” And at the same time, some of my colleagues suggested, by the way, that's an avenue for you.

ROBERTSON: Indeed, it was. The Espiku team were semifinalists in a competition funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Geothermal Lithium Extraction Prize, and were awarded a grant from the U.S Department of Defense Small Business Innovation Research Program. Why is lithium important? Well, electric cars, cell phones, computers, solar and wind energy storage … all use lithium-ion batteries. And currently, the U.S. produces only 1% of the world’s lithium. That means we depend on bigger producers like Australia, Chile, and China. Bahman saw an opportunity to extract the lithium that is in the U.S. Mining is one way that people get lithium out of the earth, but there is another way.

ABBASI: The other avenue is to extract lithium salts from continental or geothermal brines. These are subsurface brines, warmer brines that have trace amounts of lithium in them. And here in the U.S. we have tremendous resources of such brines. We can't extract much lithium out of them because the process of doing that is very time consuming and it's very environmentally damaging.

So, what we are going to do with our system, and what we have proposed, and we have had some success with, is to operate our desalination unit. Instead of running just salty water, run these continental and geothermal brines through it. We will run the brine that has about 160 parts per million of lithium, and we concentrate this to increase that 160 to 7,000 parts per million. And that is concentrated enough to extract lithium salts and make lithium-ion batteries. It has no environmental impact and damage, it requires no fossil fuels, and it can very quickly and nimbly respond to market fluctuations as we produce in real time on site.

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ROBERTSON: I could not have imagined when I started interviewing Bahman and his team that the research could have turned out as successfully at it has. Here’s Bahman to summarize the experience.

ABBASI: It was a lot of hard work, a lot of long hours and long days, and all of it was done wholeheartedly because of a goal, which was producing clean water, developing these technologies, and developing these students and engineers who will be at least as impactful to the global engineering community as they go out and pursue their careers.

ROBERTSON: So, there you have it my friends. I want to give a shout out to Jens Odegaard who had the crazy idea of following a research project over several years. This episode was produced by me, Rachel Robertson with help from my friends. Steve Frandzel, Owen Perry, and Chris Palmer gave me comments on the script. Chance Saechao helped with the recording and Cooper Mitchell gave me a hand with polishing the audio.

ROBERTSON: Can you get sleep yet? Are you able to sleep?

ABBASI: I slept eight solid hours last night. Yes, I can sleep. I've been sleeping well since last week when the final Ph.D. student graduated. It was actually really, really nice.

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