Wenting Sun received his B.E. and M.E. degrees in Engineering Physics from Tsinghua University, Beijing where his studies focused on non-equilibrium plasmas. After that, he graduated from Princeton University, department of mechanical and aerospace engineering working on plasma assisted combustion and combustion kinetics. Shortly after graduation, he joined Georgia Tech in 2013. His primary research interests lie in a broad range of reacting flows (combustion & plasmas) and propulsion systems. His current research activities involve plasma assisted combustion, chemical kinetics of different fuels, and laser diagnostics and spectroscopy of reacting flow systems.
Q: Tell us about your energy-related work and research interests?
My research focuses on combustion. About 85% of the energy we are using today is from the combustion of fossil fuel. A simple calculation can show that when we fill the gas tank of our car, the power carried by the fuel “flowing” into the tank is about 10 MW. Owing to the unsuppressed energy density, fossil fuel will play an important role for a foreseeable future. However, fossil fuel is not renewable. While we are consuming the treasure from nature, we need to look for new future fuels, such as biofuels. Different fuels have different characteristics which affect combustor and engine design. My research is to figure out how these different fuels affect combustor and engine design and whether we can create technologies to control combustion to improve the performance of combustor and engines. This can only happen when we understand combustion.
Q: What roles will these and other combustion technologies play in addressing environmental concerns and our growing need for energy?
One of the biggest concerns from combustion is its environmental impact, such as emissions, regardless of what kind of fuel we will use. Different fuels have different emission properties, for example, some types of biofuels may have higher NOx emission comparing to their fossil counterpart. The combustionists have to figure out why and how we can control it. But the good thing is that technologies really make it happen. If we look back from the 90s, the NOx emission level from our passages cars reduced one order of magnitude owing to the improvement of engine technologies. At the same time, the mileage also improves. By 2025, the standard of passage cars is 50 mpg. So with the increase of number of cars, the total fuel requirement does not actually increase thanks to the research on combustion. For air transportation, the fuel consumption rate and emission property are also improved significantly. There is also a significant research thrust to study how to use biofuels in jet engines. For ground power generation, new fuel resources, such as shale gas, put huge challenges to the combustor design. Fuel compositions vary from different wells and change time by time. New combustion technologies are needed to control the combustion process. Combustion research is to ensure we use these energy resources safely, efficiently, and wisely.
Q: How are biomass derived fuels and other renewable resources shaping the combustion systems of the future?
In the past five thousand years, we use combustion as is. The emergence of new alternative fuels pushes current combustion technologies into limit. We need to design new combustors and engines with fuel flexibility and develop new technologies to control the progress of combustion process. Future combustors and engines will also be more efficient, cleaner and more compact. Combustion system will also need to be integrated with other energy technologies, such as thermoelectric system to harvest the energy in the waste gas to further improve the energy efficiency of the whole system. In the future, I believe researchers from different disciplines need to work together to solve the energy problem.
Q: Most exciting new combustion technologies and why?
There are many new exciting new combustion technologies being developed aiming to improve the efficiency and emissions of combustors and engines. Among them, plasma assisted combustion is the one excites me the most. Both plasma and combustion can be called reacting flow. But they have very different characteristics, such as time scales, temperature sensitivities. Plasma assisted combustion is to use plasma to create new reaction pathways in a combustion system to modify the fuel oxidation pathways. In this way, some of the reaction pathways, such as soot and NOx formation, can be by passed therefore improve the performance of combustor and engines.
Q: If you weren’t teaching or conducting research, what would you be doing?
I love to spend time with my family. I also like soccer very much. I play soccer together with Prof. Tim Lieuwen also from the combustion lab. This might be another evidence of the collaborative environment in the Ben. T. Zinn combustion lab.