Andres Clarens, an assistant professor of environmental and water resources engineering in the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science, was first runner-up in a competition sponsored by ConocoPhillips and Penn State.
The competition, held in Houston in the fall, was created to find actionable solutions to energy challenges.
Combining his interests in green engineering and alternative energy, Clarens conceived of a way to improve the efficiency of wind turbines using "smart" lubricants.
While wind turbines are a clean energy source, they are subject to reliability problems that increase costs. A third of these problems occur in components that are heavily lubricated, such as gears and bearings, and they are related to the widely varying weather conditions under which wind turbines must operate.
Clarens hypothesized that he could both address the weather-related problems of wind turbines and increase their efficiency by combining special synthetic lubricants with carbon dioxide, under slight pressure. The so-called "gas-expanded lubricants" – or GELs – could have properties that are tuned by increasing or decreasing the pressure or composition of CO2 in mixture. In this way, "smart" lubrication can be delivered to meet whatever weather-related demands are being placed on the wind turbines.
Clarens received a cash prize of $75,000, which now funds a graduate student in his lab. He also has filed a provisional patent for GELs and is now conducting experiments, along with Paul Allaire, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, to prove their effectiveness in an actual bearing.
"Once we do that, we can really promote this in industry," said Clarens, a 1999 graduate of the Engineering School.