Black History Month: NASA scientist inspiring by example

7:34 PM, Feb 18, 2011   |    comments
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CLEVELAND -- The kid in a candy store metaphor fits Dr. Bilal Mark McDowell Bomani's job description well.

The NASA senior research scientist, who had a fish tank instead of a television set in college, is surrounded by fish tanks as part of his task to develop alternative fuels from the renewable energy resource of salt-tolerant plants and bacteria.

And there are some pretty tough parameters in place for the national NASA project he leads -- turning seeds into aviation fuel.

"Don't use freshwater," said Dr. Bomani, "it's a scarce resource. Don't use arable land. And don't compete with food crops."

Dr. Bomani works in a 28-by-40 foot greenhouse called the Green Lab Research Facility at NASA Glenn in Cleveland.

"We have six different ecosystems representing places from around the world," he said, while pointing to plants anchored in sandy soil floating above fish in saltwater tanks.

Each fish tank simulates coastal conditions with different levels of salinity.

Using saltwater, salt-tolerant plants, algae and arid land halophytes, like Salicornia Virginica (pickleweed) and fish waste for fertilization, Dr. Bomani has created a geotropic model that could be expanded to a larger scale project.

From the algae and halophytes lipids are removed and turned into biofuels. Currently though, the extraction costs to create the biofuels is still high and not cost competitive with other fuel sources.

"This right here is what we're using for the next generation of aviation fuel," Dr. Bomani said. "Based on our theoretical and some practical predictions, let's take the state of Maryland for example. If you had algae and halophytes in the entire state of Maryland, you can essentially have enough fuel for the entire United States.

"If you take that same concept to the Sahara Desert, we'll have enough fuel for the entire world," he said.

A teacher turned Dr. Bomani toward his career path when he told him he had a good mind for math.

With six college degrees and five patents issued in his name, Dr. Bomani views himself as a role model for students. He is also an adjunct faculty member in the math department at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland.

"I take away that excuse from the inner city youth," Dr. Bomani said. " 'Well, I can't do that, I can't be a scientist.' Yes, you can."

"My college passion is now my profession," he said. "And it's good."


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