Randy L. Vander Wal

Directory Info

Randy L. Vander Wal

Professor of Energy and Mineral Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering

203 Hosler Building


Biographical Sketch: 

My research career began in physical chemistry, studying quantum-state resolved, molecular photodissociation dynamics. In post-doctoral work, my research expanded into linear and non-linear laser-based optical diagnostic development and then broadened at NASA-Glenn to include the synthesis, characterization and applications of organic and inorganic nanomaterials. Presently, I would characterize myself as a research chemist with keen interests in realizing applications for nanomaterials.

Direct experience includes synthesizing a range of nanomaterials including carbon nanotubes, onions, capsules, metal oxide semiconductors, noble and transition metal catalysts and nitrides. Synthesis methods have included CVD, plasma and ablative methods with emphasis upon reacting flows for scalable production, e.g. carbon nanotubes production. Applications where fundamental studies will have profound impact include composites, tribology, sensors, Li ion batteries, catalysis and optical pressure and temperature sensing. A rather unique feature of my work has been use-inspired synthesis followed by application testing, which exploits the synergy between chemical and size-scale properties.

Through various research projects I have gained direct experience with a) the laser-based techniques of laser-induced incandescence (LIF) and laser-induced incandescence (LII) in "point" and 2-D configurations, Raman spectroscopy, Rayleigh scattering, degenerate four-wave mixing (DFWM), transient grating, photoacoustic and cavity ring-down spectroscopy, b) the solid-state spectroscopies of scanning and transmission electron microscopies (SEM & TEM), c) the chemical analysis methods of infrared spectroscopy, mass spectrometry and laser-induced breakdown (LIBS).

Professional Experience

  • Fall 2012 - Present: Professor, EME, MATSE, Penn State University
  • Fall 2008 - June 2012: Associate Professor, Penn State University
  • Sept. 1992 - Sept. 2008: Senior research scientist at NASA-Glenn: Adjunct Prof. (CWRU)
  • July 1990 - Aug. 1992: Post-doctoral fellow, Sandia National Laboratories 


Prior to arriving at Penn State, for ten years I managed a large and active research group at the NASA-Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio that included post-doctoral fellows, graduate students for whom I served as co-advisor and mentor, and undergraduate students in cooperative education and summer programs. In addition, I have hosted visiting faculty and their accompanying students. During my tenure at NASA, fundamental science has been motivated by and directed towards practical applications for space exploration and aeronautics. I believe applications can bring practical motivation to students. Having pursued engineering applications for materials will also permit me to convey the need for obtaining a sound foundation of fundamental physical science principles.

Educational Background: 

Ph.D. (Chemical Physics), The University of Wisconsin, "The Vibrationally Mediated Photodissociation of Water" (F. Fleming Crim - Research Advisor)

B.S. (3 separate majors: Physics, Chemistry, Math), Calvin College

Research Interests: 
  • Energy Generation - nanostructured catalysts for hydrocarbon processing
  • Energy Utilization - metal oxide (gas) sensors
  • Energy Conversion - development of nanostructured lubricants
  • Energy Storage - new battery materials
  • Laser diagnostics - species, temperature, pressure and flow
  • Analytical methods - microplasmas, laser-based analytical methods (e.g LIBS)
  • Physical chemistry - laser driven processes, photochemistry and spectroscopy (e.g. LIF, LII, CRD, and DFWM)
  • Materials Chemistry - nanomaterial syntheses (e.g. CVD, plasma, electrospinning, combustion, aerosol, mechanical and ablation), characterization and application testing
Active Research Projects: 

Carbon Science and technology:

Current research interests include CVD and flame synthesis of carbon nanotubes, their application to conducting thin films, fundamentals of graphene bonding, carbon graphitization kinetics, characterization by high-resolution electron microscopy, HRTEM with image quantification for nanostructure, electron spectroscopic techniques, XPS, EELs for bonding detail, and carbon materials’ oxidation reactivity dependence on nanostructure. Related study includes biochar production and its electrochemical applications.


Present research includes nanostructured catalysts for hydrocarbon processing, with plasma-assisted activation.

Fuel Conversion:

Current combustion research focuses on partial premixing and effects of alternative fuels, e.g. biofuels upon engine and combustor particulate emissions.

Energy Storage:

Sustainable materials research includes biochar production for capacitive deionization and carbons for Li ion batteries and beyond. 

Energy Materials/Characterization:

Prior studies included laser diagnostics for species, temperature, pressure in combustion and other reacting flows.  Related work yet includes micro-plasma processing and nanomaterial syntheses (e.g. CVD, plasma, electro-spinning, combustion synthesis), characterization and application testing, e.g. sensors, catalysis and photo-catalysis.


A major theme extending over more than two decades is combustion formed particulate. Otherwise known as soot, it contributes to direct and indirect radiative forcing in the atmosphere while severely impacting human health. Ongoing efforts include laser-induced incandescence (LII) for soot detection, concentration, understanding soot formation chemistry and physical nanostructure as dependent upon combustion parameters.

A complementary thrust is characterization of combustion-produced soots from engines, combustors, boilers, jet aircraft, pool fires and wildfires for composition and structure. These efforts have included collaborations with the US EPA, FAA, NASA, and national labs, ORNL, PNNL and SNL.

With interest in identifying the source of emissions, an on-going project is laser-based derivitatization for identification of soot emission source. High intensity pulsed laser heating accentuates unobservable nanostructure details with this evolution dependent upon the particle chemistry – specific to the combustion conditions, and hence source. 

A visual representation of the group's research can be found here:

A Detailed TEM Study of Carbon Nano-Onions’ Structure (.pdf 3.58 MB)

HRTEM and XPS Analyses of Soot: Microscopic and Spectroscopic Observations (.pdf 18.2 MB)

Energy Transformation by Interfacial Reactions (.pdf 2.31 MB)

Spectroscopic Characterization of Nanomaterials (.pdf 1.00 MB)

Methanation catalyst development using Graphene and CNT supported Ru for ISRU applications (.pdf 1.50 MB)

Sensing hydrocarbons using a micro-hollow glow discharge plasma under ambient conditions (.pdf 4.00 MB)

Characterization of Jet engine exhaust using HRTEM and XPS (.pdf 8.00 MB)

Selected Publications: 
  1. Vander Wal, R. L., Fujiyama-Novak, J. H., Gaddam, C. K., Das, D., Hariharan, A., and Ward, B., "Atmospheric Microplasma Jet: Spectroscopic Database Development and Analytical Results", Applied Spectroscopy 65:1073-1082 (2011).
  2. Yehliu, K., Vander Wal, R. L., and Boehman, A. L., "A comparison of soot nanostructure obtained using two high-resolution transmission electron microscopy image analysis algorithms", Carbon 49:4256-4268 (2011).
  3. Vander Wal, R. L., and Fujiyama-Novak, J. H., "Leading Fire Signatures of Spacecraft Materials: Light Gases, Condensables and Particulates", Fire Safety Journal 46:506-519 (2011).
  4. Vander Wal, R. L., Bryg, V. M., and Hays, M. D., "XPS analysis of combustion aerosols for chemical composition, surface chemistry and carbon chemical state.", Analytical Chemistry 83:1924-1930 (2011).
  5. L. Evans, G. Hunter, J. Xu, G. Berger, R. L. Vander Wal, "Controlled Fabrication of Nanostructure Material Based Chemical Sensors", Mater. Res. Soc. Symp. Proc., Vol. 1253, 1253-K08-04, (2010).
  6. R. L Vander Wal, G. M. Berger, M. J. Kulis, G. W. Hunter, J. C. Xu. "Metal Oxide Nanostructure and Gas Sensing Performance," Sensors and Actuators B, 138:113-119 (2009).
  7. Randy L. Vander Wal, Vicky M. Bryg and Michael D. Hays. "Fingerprinting Soot (Towards Source Identification) Physical Structure and Chemical Composition," J. Aerosol Sci., 41:108-117 (2010).
  8. Randy L. Vander Wal, Steven D. Mozes and Gordon M. Berger. "Nanocarbon Nanofluids: Morphology and Nanostructure Comparisons," Nanotechnology, 20:150702-10 (2009).
  9. Randy L. Vander Wal. "Laser Induced Incandescence: Excitation Detection Conditions, Material Transformations and Calibration," Applied Physics B, 96:601-611 (2009).
  10. Randy L. Vander Wal, Aaron J. Tomasek, Kenneth W. Street, David R. Hull and William K. Thompson. "Carbon Nanostructure Examined by Lattice Fringe Analysis of High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy Images," Applied Spectroscopy, 58:230-237 (2004).
  11. Randall L. Vander Wal, Lee J. Hall and Gordon M. Berger. "Optimization of Flame Synthesis for Carbon Nanotubes Using Supported Catalysts," J. Phys. Chem., 106:13122-13132 (2002).
  12. Randall L. Vander Wal, Paul A. Householder and Theodore III Wright. "Phosphor Thermometry in Combustion Applications," Applied Spectroscopy, 53/10:1251-1258 (1999).
  13. R. L. Vander Wal. "A TEM Methodology for the Study of Soot Particle Structure," Combustion Science and Technology, 126:333-357 (1997).
  14. R. L. Vander Wal, D. J. Rakestraw, R. L. Farrow, B. E. Holmes, J. B. Jeffries and P. M. Danehy. "Detection of HF using infrared degenerate four-wave mixing," Chem. Phys. Lett., 191:251-258 (1992).
  15. R. L. Vander Wal, J. L. Scott and F. F. Crim. "State resolved photodissociation of vibrationally excited water: Rotations, stretching vibrations, and relative cross sections," J. Chem. Phys., 94:1859 (1991).

EGEE 120 - Oil: International Evolution
ENVSE 406 - Sampling and Monitoring of the Geo-Environment
F SC 431 - Chemistry of Fuels
EGEE 451 - Energy Conversion Processes
F SC 503 - Analytic Methods in Fuel Science
EME 570 - Catalytic Materials
EME 581 - Research and Geostatistics Methods
EGEE 597/MATSE 597 - Nanotechnology for Energy and Environmental Engineering

Recent Activities: 

Professional Organizations

  • The Combustion Institute
  • The American Institute of Chemical Engineers
  • The Materials Research Society
  • The American Chemical Society
  • The Society for Applied Spectroscopy
  • The American Ceramic Society
  • The American Association for Aerosol Research


  • NASA Group Achievement Award in the Alternative Aviation Fuels EXperiment (AAFEX II) 2012, and AAFEX I in 2010
  • 2008 Paper of the year award (Tribology)
  • 2007 Center level milestone for IVHM Program @ NASA-Glenn
  • 2007 Paper of the year award (Surface Science)
  • 1999-2005 NCMR/NCSER Research Recognition Awards
  • 2003 ACS Nomination for RAND Medal; 1998 Laser Focus World Technical Paper Award
  • 1996 Nyma Inc., Paper of the year award; 1995 Applied Optics (Cover Recognition of Research Journal Article); 1994 Engineering Excellence Award (Sverdrup).
  • 6 NASA Technology Disclosures, 1 Provisional Patent, 2 Patent Application Submissions