Welding Industry Tech to Student Opportunities

David Grewell has his thumb on the pulse of industry. He also has a unique approach to problem solving, which he uses in his research and encourages among his students.

A professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, Grewell brings a wealth of real-world experience to the next generation of industry professionals. His goal is to see industry adopt cutting-edge manufacturing strategies by increasing their usage of sustainable materials and the creation of new materials.

As the director of a National Science Foundation center and his long-standing mentorship of undergraduate and graduate students, he has already made a significant impact in his field.

“I have two main research interests. I’d like to see industry-wide adoption
of sustainable or renewable materials to augment petroleum-based chemicals and industrial use of ultrasonics to enhance biofuel production,” says Grewell. “The benefits of high-powered ultrasonics can be used in a number of fields, especially in food processing.”

Ultrasonics—the use of acoustic vibrations to improve materials and industrial processes—can be used in welding, sealing, emulsions and cutting.

For example, using ultrasonics to cut
 a candy bar leaves a smooth edge compared to a rounded edge, and there is no residue or food buildup. It can also speed up processes like sealing yogurt cups. While at Emerson Electric, Grewell worked on a system that was able to seal 120 cups of yogurt in one second.

Grewell’s work in ultrasonics and interest in using alternative materials began when he was an undergraduate student at Ohio State University, majoring in welding engineering. He spent 15 years at Emerson Electric in roles from engineer to research project manager. He then became interested in the welding of plastics to metals. When he joined the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, Grewell expanded his ultrasonics work into biofuels.

“With ultrasonics, the process to convert soybean oil into biodiesel can be reduced from 45 minutes to 15 seconds,” he says.

Grewell’s research portfolio includes biorenewable biodegradable polymers (binding agents), nano-composites (materials improved by adding micro- scopic particles), biorenewable fuel sources, high-power ultrasonics, ethanol and biodiesel production, micro-fabrica- tions and polymer and metal welding.

Grewell’s work also has applications in the automotive industry, which is something he teaches to students in his introductory manufacturing class.

“I often include case studies based
on my 15 years of industry experience challenging students to propose possible solutions to problems I faced,” says Grewell. “I want students to have an appreciation that other materials can be used.”

Grewell also teaches a class on bioplastics and biocomposites once a year, which builds upon the concept of using sustainable materials in manufacturing. He cites large companies such as Ford and Coca-Cola that are already using bio-based feedstocks in production materials. He challenges his students to think of ways they can reduce their environmental footprint by developing new plastics
that behave exactly like other petroleum- based plastics.

Grewell employs several students in his research labs. Jake Behrens (’13 agricultural systems technology, MS ’16 agricultural and biosystems engineering), a research associate, has worked in Grewell’s labs as an undergraduate and graduate student. Behrens credits his time in Grewell’s lab with providing him career experience in leadership, research and networking.

“I have been assisting in Dr. Grewell’s labs since fall ’10 when I was hired as an undergrad research assistant. I typically helped with extrusion, injection molding, compression molding or mechanical testing,” says Behrens.

After being accepted into the department’s graduate program, Behrens took on additional responsibilities such as hiring undergrads, assisting with the manufacturing processes lab, going to trade shows to promote research and visiting industry partners.

“Throughout my time with Dr. Grewell I have had a lot of opportunities. Traveling with Dr. Grewell has been one of my favorite things about working with his research group. I got excited learning about the opportunities I might have doing this research, but when I started in 2010 I had no idea how much I would learn and grow,” says Behrens.

When he’s not teaching or in the lab, Grewell directs the Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites (CB2), which was established in 2014. CB2 is a National Science Foundation Industry and University Cooperative Research Center that focuses on developing high-value biobased products from agricultural and forestry feedstocks.

“Industry really drives the focus of CB2,” says Grewell. “We have 26 board members, each from a different industry partner, and we communicate once a month. Eventually, I hope CB2 can achieve critical mass and support itself without NSF after it makes it past phase II. I also hope that the discoveries we achieve with CB2 can be widely implemented.”

Grewell’s ability to form partnerships and his expertise have made him a leader in the industry. His honors span the gamut from research to student service to industry recognition. Grewell holds 15 patents;
 has been recognized by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences with the Student Recruitment Award, International Award and Early Achievement in Research Award; is a fellow of the Society of Plastics Engineers; and is a U.S. Delegate of Commission 16 of the International Institute of Welding.