Honda Funds Student Research to Promote Sustainable Aviation

Honda Funds Student Research to Promote Sustainable Aviation

Oct 24, 2023

American Honda Motor Co. (Honda) is helping the research of four graduate students and several student capstone teams to take flight as part of a grant to The Ohio State University for sustainable aviation research and learning. 

The grant targets the difficult challenge of decarbonizing the aviation industry by mobilizing the talents of students who understand the serious threat that climate change poses to the world today.  Although aviation accounts for only 2.5 percent of global carbon emissions, that figure is expected to increase as other transportation sectors such as automotive move toward electrification.  Honda provided the $100,000 grant as part of its commitment to support programs that aim to build a carbon free and sustainable future.  

Hannah Pinault, the top recipient of the graduate student awards, received $10,000 for her research on sustainable aviation fuels.  Pinault is pursuing her PhD in chemical engineering, with a focus on decarbonizing the aviation industry. Like the auto industry, some manufacturers of small aircraft are exploring the use of batteries to power electric motors.  However, batteries are too heavy and do not provide high-enough energy density for takeoff of larger aircraft.  Instead, Pinault's research centers on replacing traditional jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) consisting of hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids.  Pinault and her team are exploring alternatives like ethanol conversion into jet fuel that presents the potential for a closed-loop cycle that captures carbon dioxide emissions and transforms them into valuable biomass and fuel. 

Because scalability of SAF is currently limited, Hannah's research centers on utilizing catalytic materials to improve production. Her work focuses on ethanol conversion and the integration of cyclic compounds like furfural, known for enhancing SAF characteristics.  

Pinault stated, “The hope is to make these materials industrially relevant, incorporate them, and scale them up. We really focus on material design. But another important part of engineering is scaling that technology and making it accessible.” 

The Honda grant is also supporting Payne Reed, who received $7,500 for his research using unmanned aerial vehicles to investigate the complexities of the wildfire continuum. Reed is pursuing his PhD in aerospace engineering and plans to use unmanned aerial vehicles to comprehend how the practice of “prescribed burns” -- fires that are deliberately set to reduce the amount of excess fuel in a forest -- can help mitigate wildfires and return carbon to the soil.  His research is timely as many regions of the United States have recently experienced catastrophic wildfires that have led to loss of life and property.   

Reed stated, “People are concerned about prescribed burns because of the carbon emissions that are released.  But if we can demonstrate how they help add carbon back to the soil and prevent larger wildfires, we might see greater public acceptance of them.” 

The Honda funding will help Reed deploy unmanned aerial systems to gather data about a wildfire-supporting fuel type, condition before the burn, fire spread, intensity, and emissions. Among other equipment, hyperspectral cameras will capture vital data for identifying and predicting fuel conditions, fire spread, and carbon flux. Reed will then apply machine learning techniques, sensor fusion, and path-planning algorithms to develop a more comprehensive understanding of wildfire dynamics. 

“This grant exemplifies the core values and visions we believe at Honda: devote resources to power the ideas and dreams of future generation, stay fully committed to achieve zero environmental impact, and collaborate with universities and government to tackle the challenge of our time,” said Kui Ou, Ph.D., Senior Director of Flight Sciences at Honda Aircraft Company.  

“Through the awards, we proudly support the student recipients at Ohio State University to pursue their bright ideas to expand their life’s potentials and to bring forward a more sustainable future. We are very honored to be part of their journey in collaboration with our prestigious public partners.” 

Other graduate student awardees benefiting from the Honda grant including Irem Efe, who received $7,500 to research the impact of maintenance practices on aircraft metal corrosion, and Mac Lang, who was awarded $5,000 to study the influence of airport arts programs on the public. 

In addition to the four graduate students, the Honda grant is funding several student capstone teams from the departments of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering as well as Materials Science and Engineering.  The company has made the experience more tangible by connecting the students to engineers at the Honda Aircraft Company who have suggested real-world challenges for the capstone teams to tackle.  These include fluid dynamics simulations to optimize aircraft weight and balance and investigations into varying bondline thicknesses of multiple layers of film adhesive to enhance aircraft manufacturing for lighter and more fuel-efficient aircraft. 

Kate Bartter, executive director of the Sustainability Institute at Ohio State, applauded the difference the Honda grant is making for these students.  “These initiatives exemplify Honda's commitment to nurturing innovation and sustainability in aviation through the support of emerging engineers who have a personal stake in solving the problem of climate change.”