Robbie Hable

Ph.D. Chemical and Petroleum Engineering
Previous Institution: Iowa State University
Hometown: Ankeny, IA
Primary office:

Why was the KU School of Engineering the right choice for you?

For my graduate engineering journey, I sought small research group with an influential, driven, and engaged advisor at a large, well-known institution.  I found all of this and more at KU.  I was fortunate to get a first-hand experience of what research and graduate school would be like at KU before being admitted from a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) summer program with Dr. Susan Williams in the Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Department.  From just that short amount of time, I knew KU and Dr. Williams Group was my top choice for graduate school.

During that summer at KU I saw how devoted Dr. Williams was to advancing her research projects while keeping teaching and educating students a priority along the way.  I admired her high dedication to her students, while at other large research institutions I observed a lack of dedication from advisors to their students because of the sheer size of the research group.  The exact opposite can be seen at KU.  One will see advisors working side-by-side and frequently meeting with students to stay up to date while offering advice and guidance with ongoing research.

In addition to the small and close advisor-to-student relationships, I enjoy the several other benefits a large institution like KU has to offer.  A few examples are the popular athletic teams and sporting events, a well-established network with industries in the region, and writing, teaching, and career centers to help students excel with their work and respective areas. 

What are you currently researching?

My current research project involves the conversion of algae to biocrude oil and other high-value products from a process called hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL).  HTL utilizes the wet environment algae grows in and reacts the whole biological cell, carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids, at high temperatures and pressures to produce the biocrude.  The process is similar to what takes place miles within the earth’s crust, but HTL is done in a matter of hours as opposed to millions of years.

The unique aspect of our research, compared to others who study HTL, is that we study algae that has been grown at a local wastewater treatment plant where it is used to remove nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, from wastewater before it returns to rivers and streams which prevent future, much larger algal brooms later downstream and damaging aquatic life. 

Because of the algae was grown in such a unique environment the products following HTL are also distinctive.  HTL from wastewater algae yield a much higher solid product than algae grown in a controlled, laboratory setting.  Further analysis of this char has identified it to be compound known as hydroxyapatite (HAP).  My thesis focuses on how the HAP is formed during HTL and its possible catalytic implications for both HAP and other various chemical reactions.

What do you want to do after graduation?

Although I enjoy teaching and getting younger generations excited and enthusiastic about science, I would first prefer to gain experience in private industry working for a company’s research and development program ideally in the area of biofuels or biorenewable chemicals.  After several years of conducting research at the academic level, I am interested in seeing how research is conducted for commercial applications for either a large, establish corporation, such as Shell, British Petroleum, or Chevron, or for a recent startup such as Algenol or Sapphire Energy.  I would also be interested in possibly joining a national lab such as Pacific Northwest National Laboratory or the National Renewable Energy Lab.  I wish to keep my options and opportunities open while staying up to date with current research in the biorenewable field.

What is your favorite thing on campus or in Lawrence that a prospective student should check out?

My greatest hobbies are playing sports enjoying the outdoors.  While KU offers a handful of intramural sports and a modern recreation center for students, I have spent most of my free time off campus.  I participate in a few intramurals with fellow graduate students in bioengineering and psychology, and I hope to continue to and do more.  However, what I enjoy more are the year-round adult soccer league I play with in Lawrence and the spring, summer, and fall softball league I play in with other CPE graduate students and staff.  In the winter I also play ice hockey in Kansas City.  Additionally, within a 10-20 minute drive west of Lawrence is a 7,000-acre (28 km2) lake and state park.   I enjoy several water sports in the summer including being a member of the Kansas Sailing Association and KU Sailing Club.  From time to time I also take out my new jet ski I purchased last summer after saving up for it since high school.  With Clinton Lake, various adult sports leagues, two local brewpubs, and a thriving downtown area with Massachusetts Street, it’s hard for one to be bored in Lawrence.

What advice do you have for prospective graduate students?

My biggest fear coming into graduate school was that I wasn’t smart enough to earn a PhD.  I was roughly a 3.0 student at my undergraduate institution, but I was heavily involved in several extracurricular organizations as well.  This fear quickly receded the first week I was at KU, and I continually gain and build confidence that I will accomplish my goal.  Graduate school in engineering is different than graduate programs in other fields in that the primary focus is one’s research and thesis as opposed to classwork.  After my first year I had completed half of the courses I needed to graduate, which is the typical route for students in the CPE program.  Class sizes are much smaller, 10-15 students at the most, and I found that made the classes more engaging, intriguing, and I got more out of them.  My GPA in graduate school is now much higher than it was as an undergraduate that I attribute to the classes, professors, and absence of distractions from several extracurricular activities.  I also feared that I would not be able to understand the complexity and scope of the research I would be doing.  However with the guidance of my advisor and continual work with the topic, I’ve found my learning curve increase exponentially, which motivates me to continue to explore and understand more.


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