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Faraji, Students Working On Ways To Help Clean Up Environment

Published: June 1, 2012

The world’s oil supply will dry up some day, but nobody knows when. That’s the belief of many experts, including CSULB chemical engineering assistant professor Sepideh Faraji.

“When I was in my country, I worked in the oil and gas industry for six years and that was a job focused on fossil fuels,” said Faraji, who received her B.S. and M.S. degrees in chemical engineering with honors from University of Tehran. “But, I always had it in my mind of what would happen in my country if we didn’t have any oil and gas because someday there is not going to be any oil or gas. From that time, I was thinking we need to replace oil and gas with a new type of energy.”

In Iran, she worked as a process engineer in oil, gas, and petrochemical industries, during which time she gained valuable work experience in process engineering, simulation, and modeling using different software programs.

The experiences have certainly fueled her work in higher education. Faraji, who came to CSULB in 2010 from the University of Kansas, makes the extra effort to involve her students as much as possible, realizing that hands-on experience is the best way for them to learn.

One of her largest projects involves working with a gas phase chemical reactor which is used for studying hydrogen production reaction. The reactor was built by Faraji and her students over the course of a year in the Catalyst and Reaction Engineering Lab which she designed and established within the department shortly after her arrival.

“We did everything here,” she proudly said. “We bought all the pieces and put them together. We didn’t buy a reactor already built because we had a limited budget. We did all the wiring, tubing, and welding here at CSULB; everything was done by me, my students and CSULB staff. We spent the whole fall and spring buying the parts and the tools and then the entire summer putting them together and installing it.”

Faraji estimates to buy an already built reactor would cost $50,000-$100,000, but she and her students were able to build it from scratch for about $15,000. Plus, the year-long experience in doing so was invaluable to contributing students. In fact, she noted that during a job interview one of her students was asked to name one thing he was proud of and the mention of their work with the reactor clearly helped land him a job.

“Fuel cells are a source of clean energy and the main problem in fuel cells is hydrogen production reaction,” said Faraji, who in addition to her regular teaching duties also serves as an undergraduate advisor. “People are trying to somehow make that reaction more efficient because there are a lot of issues. The gas phase chemical reactor is a good piece of equipment for the study of hydrogen production reaction at different temperatures. We are working on the reaction side to make sure we have a good reaction for fuel cells because a fuel cell is something that everybody can use and the more efficient the better.”

Something else everyone can use is clean water and Faraji and her students are working on that too through a greywater treatment project. “Greywater” is water comes from sinks, laundry and bathtubs, and is called such because water drained from those sources contains detergents, shampoo, soap, etc.

“It’s not that dirty,” she said, “It’s not like the water you would have in your toilet. We are focusing on greywater because in California we have a limited supply of water so we collect those waters from different sources and treat them in a building or house, for example; then the water that comes out of the treatment system is clean. It’s not clean enough to be used as drinking water because for that it would need additional treatment, but it’s clean enough to irrigate your yard and you can have a cycle of water in a green building if you properly use your drain water, so that’s something our group is working on.”

For now, her students collect water from their respective homes and bring those samples to the lab in order to try different chemical and physical treatment techniques in working to determine which one is more viable for a house.

Sepideh Faraji
Sepideh Faraji (in blue) working with a student in the Catalyst and Reaction Engineering Lab.

“We have a lot of restrooms on campus and in each one we have sinks for washing hands,” she said. “If we can just do some plumbing to collect those waters and then treat that water on campus and recycle back for irrigation, it could save a lot of money for the school.

“Greywater is not just for irrigation though,” she continued. “You can also use that water to flush the toilets and to wash the areas in front of buildings because to do that the water doesn’t have to be perfectly clean. You will save a lot of money if you do these things. I think it’s our responsibility to save the water here. It’s not just for us, it’s for everybody.”

She recently received a $10,000 grant from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) and will be working with CSULB civil engineering Associate Professor Antonella Sciortino in a collaborative research project on greywater.

A member of the campus sustainability task force, Faraji has also taken up the responsibility in helping to clean up the air we breathe.

“In California, there are air quality problems and carbon dioxide is something that pollutes the air. It’s not toxic, but it’s a kind of greenhouse gas,” she said. “One of the reasons you have global warming is because of carbon dioxide simply because there is a lot of it in the air. If you look at the concentration of carbon dioxide in the past 10 years, it has increased. Because of the regulations we have in California for other toxic chemicals, it has dropped the levels of others, but on the other side carbon dioxide has increased because there are no rules; so far there are no rules because carbon dioxide is not toxic.

“Pollution may be reducing, but carbon dioxide is one of those things that is increasing because of the human activities such as driving and power plants. They produce the most; they are the major contributor to carbon dioxide concentration in the air, especially in a congested area like Southern California.”

Faraji, who lived in Tehran, and says that city is very comparable to Los Angeles because of its size and high levels of traffic.

“I always felt I wanted to do something about air pollution,” said Faraji, who moved from Iran to earn her Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of Kansas in 2006. “I was always interested in air pollution and that’s part of the reason I chose the carbon dioxide capture project. I also was always interested in replacing fossil fuels with new types of energy.”

In order to do that, Faraji and her students work on capturing carbon dioxide from the polluted air with the goal of utilizing it in a chemical process. They have prepared a new type of carbon dioxide adsorbent material called ZIF-8.

“Researchers are currently investigating this new material, but nobody knows how you can recycle it yet,” she said. “After the capture, you should be able to separate CO2 from the material so it can be reused over and over again, but there are still a lot of questions.

“The reason you have global warming is because of carbon dioxide. People produce a lot of carbon dioxide,” she added. “I think carbon dioxide is as important as other toxic chemicals. So far nobody has really paid attention to the concentration of carbon dioxide, not seriously. People are doing research but the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has not set any rules about carbon dioxide yet. My hope is that we can have a decrease of everything, all chemicals in the air in California, not just toxic ones.”