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Arash Nowbahar

College: City College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2013

Going With the Flow

Arash Ramin Nowbahar studies gunk, specifically the gunk that forms in ocean drilling rigs when seawater meets oil.

“It clogs the machinery and makes it harder to push out the oil,” he says. “It’s soap scum, which forms naturally when you pump in seawater. The water has ions that interact with the fatty acids in oil, which are like detergents. The same thing happens in your sink, when you have hard water and soap.”

These surface-active agents (surfactants), he says, “are found everywhere – the oil on our face or in our eyelids when we blink.”

Nowbahar (City College, B.E. in chemical engineering, 2012), now at the University of California-Santa Barbara, won a 2013 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to study these and other aspects of microfluidics and interfacial rheology, which he defines as “the study of flow, or why does ketchup flow differently from water?”

The $126,000 three-year grant is the most prestigious award for graduate study in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Dow Chemical Co. funds his research project.

Born and raised in Queens, he became interested in surfactants as an undergraduate at City College’s Grove School of Engineering, from which he graduated with a 4.0 GPA. Thanks to its honors program, he attended tuition-free.

At City, he studied with chemistry assistant professor Raymond Tu. “He was more interested in how surfactants came together to form crystals. They self-assemble, so their structures are really interesting,” Nowbahar says. “People want to know how we can build a self-assembled electronic device, without our having to tell the components where to go. We had a plan for letting interesting structures grow and then coat them with gold or another substance for use in electronics.”

Nowbahar secured two NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates that involved complex computations. One was at the University of Chicago, where he modeled vibrations in Antarctic ice shelves. “Something in global warming is changing the natural cycle and causing them to collapse,” he says.

The other was at KTH Royal institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, where he studied the flow of small dust particles in channels. This has applications in filters and engines alike. “Even in cloud formations, tiny droplets in air are moving around,” he says. “How do they come together?”

At UC-Santa Barbara, where he studies with associate professor Todd Squires, he hopes to continue learning about surfactants. He would like to use microfluidic devices to enable new capabilities in studying how surfactants like soap behave on an interface, such as where water and air meet.