A Quest for Better Materials Fueled by Curiosity
When Kwang Kim was an undergraduate engineering student at Yonsei University in Korea, his mentor, Dr. Wook-sik Kim a former Minster of Science and Technology of South Korea, once told him: “You have to do what you enjoy the most.” Kim, a professor of mechanical engineering in the University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Engineering, has followed these words of wisdom throughout his career, starting with his early studies in thermal engineering.
“I found out that if I was looking at just one field of research,” Kim says, “I wasn’t going to survive or contribute enough. I had to look at my own interests plus look at how my research could make a greater impact.”
What Kim enjoys most spans a spectrum that includes active materials and renewable energy systems. He has also served as department chair of mechanical engineering for the past two and a half years and mentors a number of graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and visiting scientists/professors. “I have graduate students who are all dynamic and very smart,” Kim says. “We have one-stop shopping in the mechanical engineering department because we have a lot of research options that they can choose.”
Kim is also director of the Active Material and Processing Laboratory (AMPL) and the Low Carbon Green Technology Laboratory (LCGTL) at the University. Kim’s research has focused on novel heat transfer enhancement techniques in condensers for use in geothermal power plants, as well as thermal compression of hydrogen utilizing geothermal energy. He is also developing new barrier coating materials for geothermal-fluid-wetted process equipment. In these instances, Kim’s work is helping close the gap between the reality and the possibility of geothermal energy, with the ultimate goal to make geothermal a more viable, less costly source of energy.
Kim joined the engineering department in 2001. He came to the University of Nevada, Reno “because there is a tremendous opportunity for growth,” he says. “Our department has two nationally competitive research programs, one in energy and also one in mechanical structures--small or smart structures. Both areas fit well into renewable energy.” Mechanical structures research includes developing multi-functional materials for use by the aerospace industry, for example. By studying structure and fluid interaction, one of his colleagues is also finding new ways of adding strength and noise absorbency to the materials. These composite materials could help build stronger and quieter windmills suitable for homeowners.
Kim has also been developing smaller, quieter and more affordable condensers that could have practical applications such as in industrial conditioning units. He is also researching a more efficient and less costly method of hydrogen compression as an alternative energy to use in fueling hydrogen cars. Compressing hydrogen using current technology could be expensive, Kim says. “We are competing against traditional hydrogen compression technology,” he says. “We have developed hydrogen-absorbing, sponge-like porous material and we have compressed the hydrogen around the material. With controlled heat, the material releases and compresses the hydrogen. “The unique thing about our method is that we manipulate the material and do micro-encapsulation to palletize it. Our reaction rate is a lot faster than other methods and it’s less expensive to produce – and more powerful. You need to look at efficiency versus power.” Kim’s research in heat transfer enhancement could also prove to be groundbreaking. “What we are trying to develop,” Kim says, “is a polymer-based, very thin coating to extend the lifetime of heat exchangers and reduce the rate of corrosion/fouling.” He looks at the transfer process like a two-way business plan: coat the heat exchangers before installation or retrofit existing heat exchangers with protective coatings.
“I study what I’m curious about and I have to do what you enjoy the most,” he says.