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Reducing Landfill Waste through Pyrolysis

Racing, Recycling, and Reclamation

Matt Jacobs’ desire to innovate in his field of Manufacturing Engineering has culminated in his Honors Thesis, “Novel Methods for Composites Recycling via Pyrolysis”. His research was inspired by the interdisciplinary connections Jacobs discovered between his Engineering major and his minor in Environmental Science, leading him to a practical alternative recycling method to reduce landfill waste. Jacobs plans to graduate in April 2020 and is well on his way to making a difference in the world, evidenced by his numerous awards and contributions to breaking multiple land-speed records. We asked Matt to tell us a little about his Honors experience at BYU:

To begin, tell us about what makes you YOU!

“I grew up in Franklin, Tennessee and am now a senior at BYU. I've tried to position myself to be in a place to learn about things that will matter more in 20 years than they matter today. Advances in materials and processing are exciting to me, and I always enjoy learning about new technologies and ideas. I always have something to tinker on; just today, I've made a CAD model for a better heating duct for my old drafty house, bought some fenders and lights to get my bike ready to ride through winter, and learned about programmable logic control in my industrial automation class. I find that I always have a greater quantity of interests than I have time available to pursue them!”

Your undergraduate years have been action-packed and you have earned quite a few accolades. What have been some of your favorite experiences during your time here?

“This year, I am the only student from my major that was selected to participate in the Boeing AerosPACE senior capstone competition team. Together with students from Georgia Tech, and Tuskegee University, my group is building an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that can fly autonomously and perform a mission with various search and rescue functions. We recently returned from a trip to Atlanta and will be traveling to South Carolina next spring for our fly-off competition. I was also named a Weidman Global Leader Scholar in 2018 for my commitment to developing global leadership agility. With this award, I travelled to Taiwan for a work study program where we helped a company learn a new manufacturing process and helped train their staff to begin manufacturing via injection molding.”

“Another favorite experience was in 2017 when I received the Mike Waters Memorial Scholarship from the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) for participation in several events in the Land Speed Racing community: 1) the annual El Mirage Cleanup day in May 2016 to prepare the lake bed for record-setting land speed runs; 2) testing Gary Sircy's Omega-class streamliner – which aims to be the fastest steam-powered vehicle on the planet; and 3) preparing two vehicles for record-setting runs at Bonneville Speed Week. This last event resulted in the induction of two new members to the SCTA 200 MPH club and five new internationally-recognized speed records.”

How did you select your topic for your Honors Thesis? What excites you about the recycling and composites industry?

“I first grew interested in working on the problem of recycling in the composites industry when I took some extra elective classes in my major that taught me about the uses of carbon fiber, kevlar, and other high-performance materials and their use in industry settings. I was surprised that these materials were becoming more common every year, but for most all of them, when they reach the end of their useful lives, they are thrown away. There is a tendency to accept this in the industrial world and I refuse to admit that this should be the case. There are viable alternatives to creating more landfill waste; I want to explore these waste-reducing options and prove their viability for use in the industry.”

Enlighten us a bit on your Honors Thesis research, and exactly what viable option you are proposing to reduce landfill waste.

“Composites are unique materials in many respects. When fabric woven from carbon fibers is joined with a thermoset resin in a controlled environment, it results in a very strong material. One aspect of this construction that provides great strength lies in the crosslinked chains of plastic polymers, which form strong bonds as the resin cures. It’s a double-edged sword though— once bonded the resin and the composite are quite strong but are very difficult to pull apart and use again in the future. As such, composite structures formed with industry-standard thermoset resins have a single-use lifespan. The cheapest thing to do is simply throw them away. However, by isolating the dry fibers by burning off the resin (a process called pyrolysis), the fibers can be processed again in useful ways – they can be reclaimed. My research focuses on pyrolysis and ways to optimize its process. I aim to showcase its environmentally-friendly capabilities through making new composite structures with fibers reclaimed via pyrolysis to lessen landfill waste.”

What are some pro tips you can share with Honors students who may be earlier in their studies?

“Don't be afraid to try and approach the mountain of the Honors Thesis- all you really need to understand is that it is just a hill, a series of small steps. The Honors Advisement office does a great job at keeping you on track and if you're really passionate about the work, you'll already be well on your way.”

What compelled you to join the BYU Honors Program?

“Sometime in my sophomore year, I walked into the Maeser building looking for a quiet place to study for a test in the nearby testing center. There was a room on the first level of the building that was stuffed with comfy couches, nice tables, and lamps with stained glass shades - it was the perfect study space. Pretty soon though, I began to feel curious about why the building had such nice facilities (even the bathrooms had marble features!) and eventually I wandered over to the Honors Advisement office at the other end of the hall to see what it was all about.”

What has been your favorite part of your Honors Experience?

“My favorite part of the Honors Program is the potential it helps me recognize within myself. There's a feeling of satisfaction I find when I outdo myself, and Honors helps me get that feeling more often than any other place on campus that I've found. The interdisciplinary methods found throughout the Honors Program have also helped inform the connections between my major, Manufacturing, and my minor, Environmental Science, which has made my thesis stronger.”Jacobs says once he has defended his Honors Thesis, his goal is to publish his work and present at multiple academic conferences. We wish him all the best!