FIU chemist Alexander Mebel was recently selected as a fellow of the Combustion Institute.
A theoretician, Mebel uses quantum mechanics and quantum chemistry to help develop more efficient combustion processes. By changing mere inputs in computer simulations, Mebel can help predict how fuels will burn and what pollutants they might produce without having to run costly experiments.
He is widely known as an expert in the field and is perhaps most recognized for calculating how much energy and what particular products are produced during the progress of a chemical reaction depending on the reaction conditions, like temperature and pressure.
“Because I selected to explore the important reactions of immediate and central interest to combustion, it made an impact on the area,” Mebel said.
For these significant contributions to the quantum mechanical calculations of potential energy surfaces of complex reaction systems, the Combustion Institute selected him as a 2021 fellow. Founded in 1954, the Combustion Institute is an international organization that promotes and disseminates research activities in all areas of combustion science and technology.
Mebel’s research runs the gamut from combustion reactions taking place here on Earth to those occurring elsewhere in the solar system. On Titan, a moon of Saturn, Mebel studied how polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs formed in such a frigid environment. Generally, combustion scientists want to avoid the formation of PAHs because they are pollutants.
Much of his work on PAHs is primarily funded by U.S. Department of Energy grants. Since joining FIU in 2003, his grants have been renewed six times.
Despite the recent proliferation of electric vehicles and other technologies meant to reduce the need for fossil-fuel produced energy, Mebel said there’s a bright future for combustion.
The cleanest combustion of all, Mebel said, uses hydrogen for fuel and produces water as exhaust.
“Water is not a greenhouse gas and hydrogen combustion doesn’t produce carbon emissions,” he said. “But there are lots of technological difficulties to overcome before hydrogen gas can be stored efficiently enough for it to become viable.”
Thinking back on the start of his career as a Ph.D. student in Russia, Mebel had designs on receiving such accolades.
“I was just interested in science because doing science and research is always fun,” Mebel said. It is creative. It’s rewarding in terms of feeling that you solved some problem and you feel good about that — especially if the problem is related to something important like cleaning our environment or a discovery about chemistry in the universe.”