Dr. Luke Venstrom has been honored with the Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Work by the Creative Work and Research Committee. Venstrom serves as an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering.
The committee bestowing the award is comprised of the Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs, the Director of Sponsored and Student Research, the Assistant Director of Student Research and eight faculty members.
The Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Work is intended to celebrate professors who have made notable achievements in their area of study and includes a prize of $3,000. Previous award recipients include Carmine Polito and Shahin Nudehi, both members of the College of Engineering.
Professor Venstrom was nominated by Scott Duncan, his department chair, for his research efforts during his time at Valpo.
“He [Duncan] said, I think, what you've accomplished so far here in your eight years, it's really incredible, and the service essentially for the quality and quantity of work that I've been able to accomplish,” said Venstrom.
Venstrom was given the opportunity to conduct research abroad in Cologne, Germany at the German Aerospace Center. During the year he spent there, he focused on a project to improve solar energy.
“A project that we've been working on for a long time [is] to produce hydrogen from water using concentrated sunlight…” Venstrom said. “One of the real challenges that hasn't been solved yet, is to figure out how to shift energy around to store excess energy that's available in the summertime, and use it in the wintertime.”
Other aspects of the research included how to store the hydrogen. However, Venstrom’s main focus was on extracting the hydrogen from water molecules.
The hydrogen is extracted from brackish water, water that is not clean enough to drink. This prevents using clean water that could go towards sustaining communities in need.
“What we need to do is we need to strip the oxygen atom away and leave the two hydrogen atoms combined together. That's the end goal. That requires energy input and that's where the concentrated solar energy comes in, it provides the energy required to split those atoms and get them to separate,” Venstrom said. “One way that you could do this with concentrated solar energy, when you concentrate the solar energy down, you get things really, really hot.”
Extremely high temperatures allow the hydrogen atoms to split from the oxygen in the water. Venstrom’s research with the Solar Energy Research Group at Valpo attempts to replicate this process without using sunlight.
“One step we do in the desert and when the sunlight’s available and the next step we do wherever the water is. So, what we like to say is, rather than bringing the water to the sun, we bring the sun to the water,” Venstrom said.
Iron oxide acts as a sponge that absorbs the oxygen and leaves the hydrogen molecules. When it is added to water, it acts as solar energy to grab the oxygen and separate it from the hydrogen. This same material can be reused many times through by being dried out and rewet.
“We've taken concentrated sunlight, stored it up, and then used it to split water, brackish water, into hydrogen and oxygen,” Venstrom said.
A previous project Venstrom worked on at Valpo was given funding by the U.S. Department of Energy. This research also included using solar energy, with the goal of producing magnesium, a lightweight but very strong metal.
Magnesium is currently solely produced by one company in the United States at a high price. Greater accessibility to magnesium would allow for its use to be more widely available. Cars made with magnesium instead of steel would be more fuel efficient and better for the environment due to the lighter frame.
“We were brought on to try to figure out a way to reproduce magnesium cheaper, using concentrated solar energy. I worked on that project for about four years, and we made a lot of really good progress. It turned out that in the end [that] we had a great idea for producing the magnesium, and the idea of coupling it with concentrated sunlight didn’t work out as much,” Venstrom said. “It was too costly to do that, but we did find that without that concentrated solar output if you were to add energy in a different way, in a way that is maybe more conventional, our technology did reduce the cost compared to what they were doing.”
The research was given to a company who is working on producing magnesium this way at a larger scale.
Venstrom’s current research revolves around addressing climate change through farming practices. Biochar, a substance made by heating up remnants from corn harvests, retains water and removes carbon from the soil when put into the ground.
“If you put this biochar out in the fields, it actually has a negative CO2 impact, it takes that CO2 out of the atmosphere. The one way you can produce this biochar is by heating up the leftovers from corn harvesting…” Venstrom said. “I'm trying to get some money to figure out a way to prove out some reactor technology that would use concentrated solar energy to do that conversion, to turn that leftover material into this biochar that farmers can spread into their fields. To improve the soil condition for farmers growing wherever they're growing and actually suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.”
Beyond his different research projects, Venstrom is looking forward to teaching an elective class next year, Solar Thermal Technologies.
Venstrom hopes his research will show others how solar energy can improve lives.
“We look at retrofits and buildings to make them more sustainable, using solar energy technology. Next year we're going to focus on looking at retrofits of buildings in low income communities and low income housing, trying to figure out a way to bring the benefits of renewable energy technology into the communities and in our country that need it most,” Venstrom said. “I'm really excited to be able to kind of pair the knowledge that I have about solar energy with a drive to serve the least among us.”