Justin Pommerenck didn’t intend to go to graduate school. In fact, he didn’t intend to go to college at all. Growing up in rural Salem, he planned to enter the workforce after high school and help put his brother through college. But with encouragement from parents and professors, and after receiving an $18,000 ARCS scholarship, Pommerenck is now putting himself through school as a PhD candidate in chemical engineering at Oregon State University. Happily, his brother is also to attend medical school at OHSU.
Pommerenck thanks his mother for first sparking his interest in college. She gave him a newspaper clipping of a free advising appointment at Chemeketa Community College, where Pommerenck heard about different engineering disciplines before whittling it down to chemical engineering.
“It combined the physics and chemistry that I loved in high school. I love learning how the world around you really works,” he said. “So I canceled my plans to join industry and decided to pursue something that I never thought I’d be able to. Now it’s so much fun, I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said.
Pommerenck is working with Associate Professor Alex Yokochi on a number of exciting research projects. Chief among them is a technology called liquid-phase non-thermal plasma (NTP). Plasma, one of the four fundamental states of matter besides solid, liquid, and gas, typically occurs when molecules are heated at very high temperatures. As the name implies, non-thermal plasmas can occur at room temperature if the molecules are exposed to a strong electrical field.
Pommerenck is researching how to apply liquid-phase NTP to treat wastewater. When produced in water solutions, NTP forms the basis of an innovative advanced oxidation process that can remove chemical and biological wastes.
“I’m really concerned with fertilizer runoff that can produce harmful compounds in people’s drinking water. It’s a biological contamination. And it would be great if we had a strongly oxidizing process to see if we can’t change that to purely CO2 and water, or at least partially degrade those compounds,” he said.
Non-thermal plasmas have a number of advantages. Because the process doesn’t require high temperatures, it eliminates the need for expensive or energy-intensive equipment. Pommerenck is looking at generating the plasma around highly contoured nano objects to enhance the local electric field and produce additional energy savings. With reduced energy expenditure, developing nations, for example, could more easily and affordably deploy the technology to sanitize water.
“I would find it satisfying to demonstrate this technology’s potential to help countries in need gain access to safe drinking water, with applications beyond that in chemical processing,” said Pommerenck.
From wanting to join the workforce right out of high school, to working with advanced nano-scale technologies as a PhD student, Pommerenck has covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time.
“To be able to step in and look at a phenomenon that very few people in the world will ever get to study, and to do something cutting-edge with it is a little daunting,” he admitted. “But even though it’s daunting to begin, it’s really fulfilling to continue.”
— Abby P. Metzger