If it hadn't been for an unfortunate accident, Dr. Ryan P. Rodgers might never have become one of the world's top researchers studying the chemistry of fuels.
“I got into a pretty serious car accident in college that nearly ended my life and definitely put an end to my football career, so I had to figure out what I was going to do,” he recalled. “I was naturally drawn to chemistry and physics, so I just continued on that path, and got my bachelor’s degree in analytical chemistry.”
The NFL's loss was science's gain. Instead of going on to a career as a deep snapper, the former University of Florida Gator has spent the past 17 years working to unlock the secrets of petroleum, most recently at Florida State's Future Fuels Institute (FFI).
The FFI was established to serve as a global center of excellence for fuels research and development derived from biological and fossil resources, with a special focus on understanding the science of fuels at the molecular level.
“We analyze both conventional fuels and unconventional fuels, from heavy hydrocarbon resources to biofuels and algal-based fuels,” said Rodgers. “We help demonstrate the utility of advanced analytical platforms to both industry and academia in an effort to advance the field and the ability to predict the utility and economic value of various fuels and to aid in their processing to usable materials for the market.”
However, the FFI's work is not solely focused on the commercialization of fuels. Rodgers and his team of four staff scientists have helped to develop a deeper understanding of molecular science and the interaction of petroleum compounds with the environment.
“A lot of these petroleum applications help other fields, as well,” he explained. “When you start moving into complex, naturally-occurring mixtures, you have a lot of environmental applications, you even have metabolomic, and other type applications as well. So a lot of the same approaches that we’ve been able to use for petroleum are now finding applications in bio and environmental areas.”
Rodgers and his team have found themselves at the center of some of the most important petroleum-related subjects today, including the environmental impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill as a member of the Deep-C Consortium, the science of extracting oil from oil sands, and the study of the effect of oil exploration on water quality.
“We actually do a lot of water research, because most oil companies produce more water than they do oil,” said Rodgers. “When water invades the reservoir, then you’re co-producing water and oil, so you can have emulsion issues. You have water separation issues. You have water purity issues. There’s a lot of environmental ramifications for water cleanup. So we’ve done a ton of work on understanding interfacially-active species, and species that partition in and out of water back to the oil.”
To support its research, the FFI relies heavily on mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography technologies. The Institute's three homemade Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance (FT-ICR) systems are the primary instruments for discovery mode research. Rodgers relies on Waters Alliance HPLC systems to perform prep and analytical HPLC and Waters time of flight mass spectrometers. He recently took delivery of a new ACQUITY UPLC System and Xevo TQ-S tandem quadrupole mass spectrometer with an APGC source. This source that allows his laboratory to perform both UPLC-MS and GC-MS experiments with a single tandem quadrupole mass spectrometer to do structural characterization work.
“The history of the petroleum industry is the history of mass spectrometry,” said Rodgers. “The first major investors in mass spectrometry were all petroleum companies, and they became the true drivers of the field.”
“For me, mass spec allows you to see essentially what species are driving a problem,” he continued. “So it’s not a peak on a chromatogram. It’s an enormous distribution of species. Everything in petroleum is a Gaussian or a pseudo-Gaussian distribution of chemistries. And to actually see that, and see how it changes as a function of whatever you’re doing to the crude oil, gives you amazing insight into what’s driving the change. That sort of intuition - started decades earlier, but now obtainable at a much higher level of detail - has enabled petroleum companies to refine their processes to make them as efficient as they possibly can be.”
This problem-solving aspect of the FFI's work is what Rodgers finds most satisfying. He traces that love of scientific inquiry back to his childhood.
“My dad was an electrical engineer for the US Air Force,” he said. “So, tearing apart things around the house was common. When something needed to be fixed, we didn’t call a repairman. We just started taking it apart.”
After high school, the Fort Walton Beach native moved on to the University of Florida. When his football dreams were dashed, he spent several semesters working in the laboratory of Prof. Sam Colgate, who was building acoustic detectors for the petroleum industry at the time and studying gas hydrates. After graduating in 1995, Rodgers pursued his Ph.D under Dr. Alan Marshall at Florida State, earning his doctorate in 1999.
Aside from a year working with Prof. Michael Ramsey at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Ryan Rodgers has spent his career associated with the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State. In 2011, he received the ACS Division of Petroleum Chemistry Emerging Researcher Award. He greatly appreciated the recognition, but added,”I mostly want to be the guy that people go to to solve problems.”
Outside of the lab, Ryan Rodgers enjoys fishing on the Gulf Coast, working out, and family, which involves “chasing my kids” – his two daughters, age 8 and 4.
As for career aspirations, Rodgers has his eye on one major goal.
“I would love to progress towards a comprehensive model of petroleum,” he said. “This would be a whole new analytical approach for determining the true value of a crude oil, and the best way to use it to get the maximum amount of products, and the minimum amount of environmental contamination. To be able to say that we exhausted everything to understand how to best use the resource, and not waste any more than we have to, that would be the crowning achievement of my entire career.”