Graduate research: Magic sponges to save the world
“I like carbon,” says Emily M. Yedinak, a first-year graduate student in materials science and nanoengineering (MSNE) at Rice University. “In the form of graphene aerogels, it’s like magic. They’re so porous. We haven’t even figured out all the applications.”
Yedinak is by nature an enthusiast. For her, the academic is never merely academic. Her research pitch for the 2015 Screech Competition, sponsored by the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership, was titled “Magic Sponges to Save the World, One Drop at a Time,” and in it she outlined plans to clean up oil spills quickly and efficiently using graphene aerogels.
“My ultralight, highly porous graphene aerogels, or ‘smart sponges,’ are composed primarily of carbon and can selectively adsorb a significant amount of oil while floating harmlessly over the surface of the water,” said Yedinak, who works in the lab of Dr. Jun Lou, professor of MSNE. “One gram of the aerogel has been shown to adsorb 28 grams of oil, much of which can be reclaimed with the application of heat.”
Several years ago, material scientists in China created what still stands as the world’s lightest material, a graphene aerogel seven times lighter than air. A cubic centimeter of the highly absorbent substance weighs 0.16 milligrams. In Lou’s lab, Yedinak works with a similar but slightly heavier version of the Chinese graphene aerogel.
Born in Illinois, Yedinak earned a B.S. in chemical engineering and another in chemistry from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., in 2013. Following graduation, she spent two weeks in Costa Rica participating in the GREEN (Global Renewable Energy Education Network) program, helping set up rain water collection systems in private homes and developing a suburban planning model focused on sustainability.
In 2014, Yedinak spent ten months as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Santiago of Chile. There she researched the effects of cobalt on the electrical properties of carbon nanotube-based composite materials, and co-authored a paper with Chilean colleagues titled “Effect of the Amount of Water on the Synthesis of LiMn2O4 Used as Cathode Material in Lithium-Ion Batteries.” As an alumna of the program, she will be serving as an Alumni Ambassador for Fulbright this year, attending professional conferences and speaking at universities to encourage eligible students to apply for the Fulbright.
For a month in December 2015-January 2016, Yedinak visited China as an exchange student for the new Joint Center for Carbon Nanomaterials between Rice University and Shandong University to continue research on aerogels and foster scientific collaborations. All of these experiences point toward her eventual plans after earning her Ph.D.
“I’m not looking at either industry or academia, really. I’m looking at advocacy or policy, especially international policy. There’s a lack of scientists in this area. That’s a voice that needs to be expressed,” Yedinak said.