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green chemistry students win $5000 innovation prize

team
Randy Yakal, Christine Lambiase, and Derrick Ward

A team of Chatham University graduate students came away with $5000 to pursue their innovation at the Department of Energy-sponsored Allegheny Region CleanTech University Prize (CUP) competition, held at Carnegie Mellon University during Energy Week, March 14-18.

The team—called Saloleum, from the Latin stems sal (salt, or “ionic”) and oleum (oil)—consists of Randy Yakal, Christine Lambiase, Derrick Ward, all second year M.S. students studying Green Chemistry. Their efforts were supported by faculty advisor Thomas Macagno, PhD, Assistant Professor of Sustainability and Business and by Cierra Snyder and Tom Hall from the Falk School of Sustainability.

The project started in fall 2015, when Randy was a student in Dr. Macagno’s Leading Organizations and Projects course (BUS575). “Dr. Macagno had found out about this competition and tapped me because they needed a science guy,” he said.

Through much discussion, the team decided on an idea that worked perfectly for the competition criteria. “HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) technology was even in the drop-down menu,” notes Randy.

So what is this $5000 idea? “It’s a new compressor lubricant for a cooling unit,” says Randy. “The compressor circulates a refrigerant through the system. The refrigerant picks up oil particles on its way, and those particles get deposited inside the heat exchange lines.” Randy likens it to how arteries can become clogged, forcing the heart to work less efficiently. “The same thing happens with the compressor,” he says. “It has to work harder and longer to cool the an area than it would if the lines were clean.”

Saloleum’s insight is to replace the oil with a low vapor pressure lubricant that won’t create the same “gunk build-up.” Randy envisions it as the first in a new line of eco-friendly products.

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Click here to download a PDF of the poster. 

“The commercial building sector consumes 18% of all energy produced in America,” he says. “Of that, 32% is used in climate control. If all the buildings in the country experienced a 20% efficiency boost (the anticipated effect of Saloleum), we’d save enough energy in one year to power all of New York City for 288 days.”

The team is proud that they won the prize without a working prototype, on the strength of the idea alone. That’s why they’ll use their prize money to see if it works. “We’ve got all the theory down, now we need to walk the walk,” says Randy. “That should be soon. We’re currently in the process of speaking with a lawyer and becoming an LLC.”

Saloleum logo
Saloleum logo

The Chatham team held their own against a competitive field which included Carnegie Mellon University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Pennsylvania, Case Western Reserve University, University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University, and others. The objectives of the competition were to catalyze clean energy technology start-ups, support educational opportunities, and encourage clean energy student entrepreneurs.

“I never thought I’d be a co-founder of anything,” says Randy. “It’s really exciting.”

Chatham’s Master of Science in Green Chemistry is the first program of its kind in the United States. Focused on delivering a truly unique educational experience for students with undergraduate degrees in biochemistry, biology, and chemistry, the M.S. in Green Chemistry program will delve into the design of products and processes that minimize the use and generation of hazardous substances.