Engineering student cherishes research opportunities at ECU

It seems entirely appropriate that engineering graduate student Kenneth Weddle will soon be leaving East Carolina University for a job in Arizona. You see, he’s been dealing with heat for the last two years in Greenville — even in the dead of winter — thanks to a research opportunity through ECU’s Center of Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering.

Weddle is part of a team working to develop an innovative no-waste, sustainable water desalination system as part of a $1.4 million University of North Carolina System Research Opportunities Initiative grant awarded to Dr. Kura Duba in the Department of Engineering.

Kenneth Weddle adjusts a desalination unit in the Life Sciences and Biotechnology Building.

In his role, Weddle has been working with super critical carbon dioxide as a low-energy solution in the desalination process. To produce fresh water from saltwater, heat is needed to extract the salt and other minerals. The goal is to use renewable energy from ocean waves or the sun rather than fossil fuels or other sources.

The super critical carbon dioxide — which is essentially carbon dioxide that acts as a fluid —creates a more efficient desalination process, so heat energy that would normally be lost during desalination is recovered and reused to power the process, Weddle said.

“When you add renewable energy components, when you get that free energy, you’re using less money, less fossil fuels, less energy from your combustor to heat up the fluid, so it elevated the thermal performance by adding these renewable energy components,” Weddle said. “I would say that it definitely showed there was improvement and the potential for using super critical carbon dioxide as a working fluid for power generation for this cycle.”

As part of the project, Weddle worked on a prototype in ECU’s Life Sciences and Biotechnology Building where he examined the heat transfer characteristics of super critical carbon dioxide.

“The most fun for me was definitely doing the experimental work, being able to set everything up to build the heat exchanger, and to actually see the super critical carbon dioxide in a real-life experimental setting was something that I really enjoyed,” he said. “I’m a really hands-on person, so I really enjoy being able to get down in there and do the experimental work.”

Weddle presented his numerical work at the American Society of Thermal and Fluids Engineers conference and had his work published, an experience he said he cherishes. As part of the accelerated master’s program, Weddle will leave ECU with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering. With the support of his advisor, Dr. Tarek Abdel-Salam, engineering professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering, he defended his thesis last month.

“When you have that culmination of over two years of your work and you get to sit down and tell everybody about what you’ve done and present your findings, that was very satisfying to be able to do that after all of the hard work and all of the bad days — along with the good — where there are times when you’re frustrated and things might not be going the way you want,” Weddle said. “You might have a problem with your research, and being able to find that magnum opus where you’re able to present your findings to everybody, that was definitely the high point.”

Engineering graduate students Kenneth Weddle, right, and Michael Trapani look over the desalination unit.

Though his two older sisters graduated from ECU, Weddle said he was uncertain about ECU’s engineering program until he attended an orientation session as an incoming freshman.

“I really liked the smaller atmosphere where you have that one-on-one connection with your professors,” he said. “You know everyone in your cohort. That was something I really enjoyed and thought was attractive about the program, this atmosphere where you’re going to be able to have these one-on-one relationships where you get opportunities like the opportunity I got to do undergraduate research.

“… The relationships that I’ve made here with the professors is something that I feel like a lot of other engineering schools don’t have. To be able to have these professors you can talk to on a name-to-name basis, that is something that is a privilege, and I have great respect and great honor to be able to have these relationships with these professors that I’ll probably have for years to come.”

He believes the engineering program offers an unmatched experience.

“With my experience here, I feel like the ECU engineering program is real group orientated,” Weddle said. “It’s not just the equations and the X’s and O’s and calculations, but it’s being able to work in teams and communicate with people. It is very important for an engineer to have those communications skills. I think that ECU does a really good job of being able to teach students not just from a classroom perspective, but to give students learning experiences that you’ll be able to take with you throughout your engineering career.”

And for Weddle, that career starts next month with Raytheon Technologies, where he will work as a systems engineer in Tucson, Arizona.

“I’m very excited to be going out there to work and be a part of such a big and accomplished company, and to be doing the cool side of engineering — aerospace and defense contracting and things like that,” he said.

He believes working on such a large research project for two years at ECU helped lead to his success.

“I think it made me become a better engineer,” Weddle said. “With engineers, it’s a lot of problem-solving, and to have that mindset now that I can take a subject or a goal and be able to put in the hard work and to know the process now of how it works to be an engineer, I think that’s something that probably improved the most in myself. To be not just in a classroom environment where you’re taking notes and doing problems but in a real-life engineering setting is definitely something that’s helped me and will continue to help me through my future career as an engineer.”