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Student receives fellowship to study alternative fuel sources

November 29, 2007

UW-River Falls junior Lee Massey is concerned about the world’s over reliance on fossil fuels to power sedans and SUVs.

And with the prognosis looking grim for future coal, oil and natural gas supplies, he said he feels the time has come for alternative fuel sources such as biofuels and hydrogen to be taken more seriously.

“With the raising fuel prices and the fuel reserves depleting, it’s going to need to happen,” he said.

This is why the physics and mechanical engineering dual degree student from New Richmond, Wis., decided to spend last summer studying the feasibility of these fuel sources for automobiles.

Under the mentorship of University of Minnesota Professor of Mechanical Engineering David Kittelson, the 29-year-old examined existing research and synthesized his findings into a paper entitled “The Report on the Current State of Research on Alternate Fuel Sources,” which he hopes to present at conferences next spring.

Massey said he found that swapping gasoline for biodiesel will be a formidable task.

“I found that it’s going to take multiple fuel sources to replace fossil fuels and there won’t just be one magic replacement,” he said. “I also found that the cost will most likely be higher than what we’re paying for fossil fuels.”

A $4,000 national fellowship from the American Physical Society’s Forum on Physics and Society made the junior’s research possible. Massey was one of two recipients of the Student Fellowship in Physics and Society, for which both undergraduate and graduate students in physics were eligible to apply.

A desire to go through the extensive application process required for a fellowship and an uncertainty about job prospects for the summer prompted Massey to throw his hat in the fellowship ring last fall.

Assistant Professor of Physics Rellen Hardtke, who has taught Massey in four courses, said in an e-mail interview that she believed her student had a decent shot.

“I … knew that Lee would be a strong candidate despite the stiff competition of a national fellowship,” she said.

Hardtke said she felt the fellowship would be a good fit for Massey, whose professional interests include automotive engineering and design.

“The fellowship suited Lee’s academic interests,” she said.

Physics Department Chair Earl Blodgett said he felt similarly about Massey’s chances.

“He had good recommendations, good mentors and a well-stated project,” he said. “He did a good job of stating the case for why this is an area that will be crucial for science and society.”

But actually being chosen for the fellowship seemed an unlikely prospect to Massey.

“I didn’t expect that I’d get it,” he said.

His uncertainty drove him to apply for a position as a technical aide at Minnesota-based 3M, for which he was hired.

And it was a week later that Massey said he found out that he had been awarded the Student Fellowship in Physics and Society as well.

“I had to tell my boss [at 3M] that I had to work part-time instead of full-time,” he said.

Massey’s status as a fellow gave him the opportunity to attend his first academic conference in October. The Industrial Physics Forum and American Vacuum Society (AVS) Symposium took place in Seattle from Oct. 14-16, and Massey went as a student reporter for the Society of Physics Students (SPS). A national organization, the SPS has a chapter at UWRF.

A combination of funding from the American Physical Society, the SPS and the UWRF Physics Department alumni fund paid Massey’s way.

The topic of the conference was “The Energy Challenge,” and featured presentations given by top scientists and engineers in industry and academia, Massey said.

“It was very interesting,” he said. “Mostly I learned how the information is presented at these types of forums.”

Massey’s report for the SPS is posted on the organization’s Web site, which can be reached at http://www.aip.org/education/sps.

Massey completes his bachelor’s degree in physics at UWRF next May. As a dual-degree student, his next stop is the University of Minnesota, where he hopes to receive a second degree in mechanical engineering in spring 2010.