College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

New faculty member Xianglan Bai seeks collaboration for research

Xianglan Bai

Xianglan Bai just started her first year as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, but it’s not her first position with Iowa State. Since 2011, she worked as an adjunct assistant professor at the Center for Sustainable Environmental Technology, collaborating on research with other faculty members.Xianglan Bai

Bai received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering from Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in China, and earned her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in from the University of Tokyo, Japan. She also completed a postdoc at Michigan State University in the mechanical engineering department.

She says Iowa State has already proved itself as a great place to do valuable research related to biorenewables, and that she is excited to integrate her experience with biomaterials in the classroom.

Bai started working with biomaterial during her time as a Ph.D. student. Although the focus of the research back then was to preserve cells and prevent damage to biological materials using well-controlled heat transfer, her research focus in recent years has shifted to thermochemical conversion of biomass and other waste materials for biofuels and chemicals.

“This mainly focuses on thermal conversion technologies called fast pyrolysis and solvolysis,” says Bai, adding that it will be her main focus for the foreseeable future.

Fast pyrolysis is the process of rapidly heating organic materials to 450 to 600 degrees Celsius in the absence of air. Solvolysis is a chemical reaction in the presence of a solvent at elevated pressures and temperatures. Both the technologies are able to provide liquid products that contain many useful chemicals.

Since she joined ISU in 2011, Bai has collaborated with several faculty members through joint projects and has received funding from several sources already.

Last year, she started a project with Robert C. Brown, Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering, which was supported by Phillips 66 and titled “Investigation of Oxidative Pyrolysis.”

She recently received funding for two projects from the Iowa Energy Center: “Conversion of Biomass into Fuels and Chemicals Using Solvolysis,” as a PI with co-PIs Robert C. Brown and Mark Wright, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and “Municipal and Hydrocarbon Waste Streams—An Alternative Source for Fuels,” as a co-PI with Atul Kelkar, professor of mechanical engineering.

Solvolysis is a new addition to the existing thermochemical conversion technologies ISU researchers have been working on.

“We apply this concept to biomass and other waste materials to produce biofuels and other platform chemicals,” says Bai. “Solvolysis is especially advantageous to raw materials such as microalgae and municipal sludge.”

Her knowledge of heat transfer will benefit the students taking her class—Engineering Thermodynamics II—during the fall semester, which she says will be a learning experience for her as well.

“Teaching is not only beneficial to students,” says Bai. “As an instructor, you learn a lot from preparing for the course, teaching and conducting experiments.”

With her new position, Bai is looking forward to the opportunities of research collaborations and new discoveries in her field. But she’s also aware there will be many challenges.

“Basically, I’m working on how to convert waste products into useful chemicals like biofuels,” Bai says. “It’s a lot of trial and error to figure out the best process.”

Collaborating and finding solutions to those challenges is part of her favorite element of research: the experiments.

“By carefully observing the experimental phenomenon and interpreting the results, you can discover many new things, and that’s also how you decide your next step. That’s why this area is very exciting and interesting.”