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Justin Webber
From Experiments to Models, NETL Researcher Knows Multiphase Flow

Since beginning his federal service at NETL 11 years ago, Justin Weber has worked on projects that span both the computational and experimental research domains, with the study of multiphase flow as the thread that ties them all together.

“Multiphase flows are observable throughout advanced energy systems,” Weber said. “Anywhere you have solids, liquids or gases interacting with each other, you will have a multiphase flow. Understanding this flow is key to designing and optimizing next generation power generation technologies.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Pennsylvania State University in 2009, Weber joined an NETL team assembled to work on just such a technology. He and his colleagues began work on designing a 50kWth pilot-scale chemical looping reactor (CLR) — a cutting-edge energy system that involves the combustion of fossil fuels with an oxygen carrier, rather than air, to create an opportunity to simplify carbon dioxide (CO2) capture in power plant applications.

“I’ve been involved with the CLR from the beginning,” Weber said. “In addition to the design work, I’ve continued to operate it and process the data.”

Beyond his work with the CLR, Weber also tackles the study of multiphase flow from the other side of the research coin: computer modeling. Computer modeling and physical experiments go hand-in-hand, as the experiments help validate the models and the models help design the physical systems. Weber explores modeling of multiphase flow using the Labs’ award-winning Multiphase Flow with Interphase eXchanges (MFiX) software suite, which is a suite of computation fluid dynamics code that has been specifically designed for modeling reacting multiphase systems.

MFiX is an important tool for designing advanced energy systems because about 75% of the manufacturing cost of any product is committed at the conceptual design stage. Computational models can be used to simulate a multiphase device to help understand its performance before the design is finalized, thereby reducing cost. These computer models drastically shorten the time and cost associated with developing new power generation technologies, allowing the public to benefit from clean, affordable and more reliable power in less time.

Weber has also developed a graphical interface (GUI) for the software, which is now available for download.

“When I first started using MFiX, because it didn’t have a GUI, the learning curve was really steep,” Weber said. “I realized that if I could develop one, more people could use the software.”

Another common theme of Weber’s career is promoting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Whether through support of the Science Bowl, Take Your Children to Work Day, or more recently, as one of NETL’s STEM ambassadors, he can be found educating the next generation of scientists through engaging STEM events.

“I’ve been involved in things like the Mountain State Invitational’s STEM Carnival,” Weber said. “We had a variety of activities for the students, including a desktop wind tunnel, an electric generating bicycle, a fluidized bed and other fun stuff. It’s always a really positive experience to see the curiosity of future engineers and scientists.”

Weber’s involvement with cutting-edge technology doesn’t end at the Lab. In his free time, he enjoys building and flying drones – small radio-controlled quadcopters.

“I use a first-person video interface to fly the drones,” he said. “They have cameras in the front that transmit the video image back to the goggles I wear. It’s a really fun experience – at least when the cameras aren’t cutting out mid-flight and you end up stuck in a tree!”