Spotlight
Robert Kee
George R. Brown Distinguished Chair
Division of Engineering

“It was an act of self-defense,” says Robert Kee, describing the circumstances that first prompted him to develop Chemkin, today the most widely used chemical kinetic modeling software available.

Kee was an engineer working with a team of chemists at Sandia National Laboratory in the aftermath of the 1970s oil crisis. It was the early days of computational science, and Kee was writing programs to help the team understand and improve complex combustion processes to improve fuel efficiency. The problem was that whenever a chemist altered a parameter of the experiment, Kee had to laboriously modify the program to account for the altered chemistry.

“I couldn't keep up,” recalls Kee, who has held the George R. Brown Distinguished Chair in Engineering since coming to Mines in 1996. “Finally I said, ‘This is nuts. We’ve got to generalize the problem so that if the chemist wants to change his or her mind five times a day, what do I care?’ So I sat down and began to write some pretty capable code.”

More than 30 years later, his original code is still the core of Chemkin software. “It is the industry standard,” says Tony Dean, the William K. Coors Distinguished Chair in Chemical Engineering. “It’s the workhorse for any kind of detailed gas-phase chemical calculation.” For example, in the bid to increase fuel efficiency in all manner of combustion engines over the last 20 years, Chemkin has enabled engineers to “try out” thousands of combinations and thereby zero in on the optimal ratios that maximize efficiency. Similarly, miniaturizing electronics has depended upon shrinking the silicon chip, requiring exquisite command over the chemistry of silicon deposition - Chemkin has been an invaluable tool in accomplishing this.

The software’s ability to interpret complex chemical reactions, sometimes involving thousands of reactions among hundreds of chemicals at different concentration ranges and temperatures, is remarkable in its own right. The fact that Kee had the insight to design this kind of computational architecture in the late 1970s places him among the pioneers of computational science.

Since coming to Mines from Sandia, Kee’s research has touched on a variety of fields, including combustion, semiconductor processing, photovoltaic manufacturing, electrochemistry, and, in particular, fuel cells.

In fact, Kee helped established the Colorado Fuel Cell Center, and the technology has been a passion of his for years. To illustrate its potential, Kee pulls out a photograph of 16-wheelers parked at a truck stop. “They never turn the key off,” he says, explaining that truckers depend on the massive engines to supply power to their cabs for lights, electronics and air conditioning. The EPA estimates idling trucks use a billion gallons of diesel fuel a year this way; however, if diesel-powered fuel cells were used to generate the power instead, they’d consume a small fraction of this amount.

It’s not a feasible option yet, but they are making progress, says Kee. Including the work of Mines professors Neal Sullivan, Rob Braun, Tyrone Vincent, Tony Dean, Nigel Sammes, Ryan O’Hayre ‘99 and himself, the school is researching almost all aspects of fuel-cell systems.

Lately, Kee has also been focusing on battery technology - a hot topic, since improved energy storage is the key to increasing the range of electric cars and to the large-scale adoption of renewable energy sources like wind and solar. “A photovoltaic farm only makes energy when the sun shines,” says Kee. “Where do you get the electrons if you want to cook after the sun goes down?” Massive banks of advanced batteries may be a viable alternative. In conjunction with CoorsTek and Sandia, Kee is researching sodium-based battery technologies that can be manufactured from abundant raw materials and can store more energy in the same volume than the best of todays commercial batteries.

He’s got other projects on the go as well. This summer he’s at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China working on combustion processes for hybrid electric vehicles. When he returns, he’ll resume his collaboration with Dean on a project for the Office of Naval Research focused on how diesel engines and gas turbines must be modified to run on bio-derived and synthetic fuels such as methanol and ethanol.

Diverse as these projects are, the thread that runs though almost all of his work is the code he developed practically out of frustration back in the 1970s. His goal was to empower the chemists on his team so they would leave him alone. What he actually did was create a technology so effective it changed entire industries, delivering economies and convenience throughout the developed world. Far from leaving him alone, the chemists have kept coming to him for decades - the problems are just much more complicated.

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