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Eric Grulke: Harnessing the Power of Carbon

by Jeff Worley

In Eric Grulke's LexCarb lab at UK's Coldstream Research Campus, you'd see vacuum manifolds and graduated cylinders, flasks and beakers. But at the moment, perhaps the most essential research tool, parked just outside, is a two-year-old Humvee.

"Yes, the army's all-terrain vehicle is an important part of our research right now," says Grulke, a UK professor of chemical & materials engineering. "We've been working to turn diesel fuel exhaust into drinking water, a filtering technology that's attracted a lot of interest, especially from the Army."

So, cars and trucks make water when they move?

"Yes, for every pound of fuel you make about a pound of water through the combustion process. It's most visible on a cold day when you see steam coming out of a tailpipe," explains Grulke, who also serves as associate dean for research in the College of Engineering. "If you drive 50 miles, you'd easily make enough water for a day or two."

The Department of Defense, which awarded Grulke and his co-investigators a Small Business Innovation Research Grant so this work could be continued, hopes this filtering technology will someday turn the exhaust pipe of a Humvee into a water supply for soldiers driving or riding in the vehicle. "Soldiers need to carry fuel, water, food, and ammunition," says Grulke, whose continuing role in this work is research development. "We're working to remove the trace hydrocarbons from the combustion process in the engine so soldiers can drink that water. Then they'll have one less thing to carry with them."

LexCarb, founded in 1994, is based on patented technology developed by Marit Jagtoyen and Geoff Kimber, formerly of UK's Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER), and the late Frank Derbyshire, former CAER director. Jagtoyen, who from the beginning has played a major role in the development of this technology, is an expert in the production of carbon materials; Kimber's primary focus is on the production of carbon fibers and composites as well as coal science technology.

LexCarb was formed, Grulke says, when the carbon fibers group at CAER was contacted by a consumer product company and the army, both of which were interested in various potential applications of the research under way. LexCarb needed a place to work and grow, so in 1998 they turned to ASTeCC, UK's business incubator located in the middle of campus.

"If we hadn't gotten into ASTeCC, we couldn't have moved on with our company," says Jagtoyen, who left her faculty posistion at UK in order to head up the company. "You can't mix company stuff and UK stuff, so when LexCarb got the rights to use the patent on our activated carbon filter composites, this meant we could no longer practice that art in our UK research labs," Grulke explains. "One of us needed to stop doing UK work and start growing the business, so Marit decided to do that."

An essential partner in this work, Grulke says, is Don Challman, who, armed with an MBA in business administration in energy research, serves as business manager. "We're very lucky to have him. Don handles the books and taxes. You know—all the fun stuff," says Grulke. "He's excellent at talking with companies and negotiating contracts and making sure we perform as we say we will on our contract." Challman is associate director of CAER.

LexCarb "graduated" from ASTeCC in December 1999 and relocated to UK's Coldstream Research Campus. "It was great to be able to graduate to first-class lab space like Coldstream," says Grulke. "This has been a very good address for us in working with clients and conducting business. It's an excellent location."

The technology now being marketed is all about carbon fibers—how to activate them and find convenient ways to make them useable. "If you threw carbon fibers up in the air, they'd disperse in the wind like Styrofoam peanuts," Grulke says. "They need to be bunched together so they have a three-dimensional strength, just like conventional filters." It's the various designs of this structure that these scientists are continuing to develop.

Grulke says that the beauty of working with carbon fibers is they can be formed to any size or shape, and high rates of adsorption can be achieved with low pressure drop. Commercial applications, in addition to the water filtration process the army is interested in, include gas and liquid separation, environmental processing of gas and liquid streams, removal of pollutants, and medicine, and food and beverage processing.

"All of us together have contributed over 100 publications and patents to the field," Grulke says. "The bottom line is, we want to work to transform scientific fundamentals into a device, a fixture or a process that can work reproducibly with controlled costs and known results at a price that's attractive to the market."