A Catalyst for Biofuels—and for Self-Discovery

By By Marcia Faye

Gaby Sumampouw (CHE 3rd year) serves on the Executive Board of the IIT chapter of Engineers Without Borders, leads a vegan lifestyle, and gives plenty of thought to society’s dependence upon fossil fuels. During her second year at IIT, she was seeking summer opportunities to further explore her major; at the same time IIT Armour College of Engineering had just announced its Distinctive Education Program. The program was for undergraduates like Sumampouw who were focusing on the college’s themes of energy, health, security, and water.

Gaby Sumampouw
Photo by: Michael Goss

Sumampouw learned that Johnson Polymer Professor Fouad Teymour was investigating how to create energy from algae and spoke with him about the chance to join his research team.

“Biofuels derived from algae could be a renewable energy alternative,” she says. “These third-generation biofuels do not compete with food sources and use considerably less landmass than other biofuels, which is a major issue. Its potential is very exciting.”

Sumampouw is one student benefitting from Armour R&D, made up of PURE (Program for Undergraduate Research in Engineering) and MIND (Mentored INnovation for Development), the latter for faculty projects that have moved from the research phase into the development phase. Besides exploring research as a possible career option, PURE and MIND students also earn a stipend.

“We are now in the fourth semester of Armour R&D and have seen an increased interest from the students—many who have reported their positive experiences,” says Teymour, who is also a member of the Armour Distinctive Education Faculty Council, led by Dean Natacha DePaola. “Even more importantly, my colleagues have been eagerly seeking out students and creating projects with them. It’s a big success story, one that is helping both the students and faculty. Undergraduate research is not a staple everywhere and it’s becoming very important at IIT.”

Teymour says that Sumampouw has developed acute accuracy performing thin-layer chromatography, a technique that helps researchers identify compounds, determine their purity, and check on the progress of a chemical reaction. She uses the technique as part of her work extracting lipids from algae using a catalyst to produce biofuel. Because it’s inexpensive and easy to use, the catalyst sodium hydroxide is the industry standard for production of biodiesel, but the process is sensitive to impurities and requires energy-intensive separations. Sumampouw is attempting to develop a more time- and energy-efficient process for direct in situ conversion of algae oil to biodiesel. She is applying her newly developed chromatography skills to the production of biodiesel using this process. She is also exploring the use of high-quality enzymatic lipase catalyst in this regard.

Now in an environmental health and safety summer internship at TTX Company in Chicago’s Loop, Sumampouw is undecided about pursuing life in the laboratory. But she is certain that her time as a PURE student lent an invaluable perspective to her undergraduate education.

“Armour R&D has shown me what life would be like if I do decide to pursue research as a career option,” she says. Overall, this experience has done great things for me by giving me the opportunity to be part of an up-and-coming renewable energy alternative.