Month: April 2011

Plans to Build Tech-Park at UConn Announced

Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr., joined by state lawmakers, industry leaders, and University officials, on Friday announced plans to build a multi-million dollar technology park on the University of Connecticut campus.

The landmark proposal includes $18 million in state bond funding for the design, site development, and infrastructure improvements necessary to create the tech-park. Also included in the plan is $2.5 million to create the Innovation Partners Eminent Faculty Program, which is designed to attract some the nation’s top scholars and scientists, and to leverage millions of dollars in federal and private investment.

The tech-park will eventually include multiple buildings – many of which could be privately funded – and will house large, flexible-use laboratories containing specialized equipment for collaborative research. The complex, to be located in the North Campus, will provide space for business incubators and individual companies.

“The potential for Connecticut is outstanding. The state’s location – between Boston and New York – is a significant asset,” said Williams (D-Brooklyn). “A research and technology center in Storrs will provide companies with easy access to world-class metropolitan areas, specialized R&D equipment, and a highly skilled workforce. The net outcome will be more private sector jobs for Connecticut, increased research and development, and greater opportunities for students and faculty.”

In making the announcement, Williams was joined by State Rep. Greg Haddad (D-Mansfield); Sen. Beth Bye (D-West Hartford), Co-chair of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee; Sen. Gary D. LeBeau (D-East Hartford), Co-chair of the Commerce Committee; Catherine Smith, Commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development; Mike Brown, Vice President of Government Affairs at UTC Power; and Howard Orr, President of KTI Inc. of East Windsor; as well as University President Philip Austin, and Mun Y. Choi, Dean of Engineering.

Williams made the announcement at Gampel Pavilion, where hundreds of student-scientists, industry representatives, and engineering faculty were attending UConn’s annual Senior Design Demonstration Day.

“Connecticut is a state whose economic progress, indeed whose economic survival, depends on knowledge and innovation and very advanced technology,” President Austin said. “When the state succeeds in those realms it yields benefits almost beyond measure and keeps us at or near the top of the nation in terms of economic well-being. When we lag behind, we face problems that virtually defy solution. This is a wonderful, promising initiative, and I’m proud but not surprised that Senator Williams has looked to us as the place where it can come to fruition.”

<p>Mun Y. Choi, dean of Engineering speaks at a press conference held at Gampel Pavilion to announce a proposed technology park. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>

Engineering dean Mun Y. Choi speaks at the press conference. Photo by Peter Morenus

Research and technology parks are facilities, or clusters of facilities, that drive technology-led economic development by creating partnerships between research universities and industry. The parks are typically located adjacent to research universities, and support the growth of existing companies by offering proximity and access to advanced technology, faculty expertise, and engaged students.

“With visionary leadership and support from Senator Williams, UConn will continue to develop industry-university partnerships that will benefit Connecticut by producing high-tech jobs and technology commercialization,” Choi said.

The collaborations that result from these partnerships often lead to innovations and discoveries with commercial applications, create new jobs, and generate federal and industry research grants. A 2007 study of technology parks in the United States and Canada by the Battelle Memorial Institute estimated that the typical tech park generates 750 jobs. Many states, such as North Carolina, Illinois, and Indiana have built tech-parks that attracted hundreds of companies and thousands of jobs.

“People who live in Eastern Connecticut have long understood the importance of UConn to our local economy,” said Rep. Haddad, who served on the Mansfield Town Council for 11 years as deputy mayor. “I’m proud to stand here today, as a supporter of this initiative that has the potential to fuel an economic renaissance across the region. Seen to its completion, a technology park, anchored by an Innovation Partnership building has the potential to add hundreds of jobs for eastern Connecticut residents and to attract research divisions from some of the largest and most innovative companies in the world.”

Sen. LeBeau said: “This is another piece of the puzzle in terms of our ongoing efforts to create truly innovative businesses here in Connecticut. It should be clear to everybody that’s what we have to do. And we are well-positioned to do that here in Connecticut.”

“Just this morning I attended a manufacturing forum at Asnuntuck Community College that addressed the same issue: how do we best transfer our collegiate knowledge from the classroom to the shop room floor?” said Sen. Bye. “The link between higher education and employment advancement has never been made clearer than in this national recession, and today’s announcement provides us with a clear path for job growth right here in Connecticut.”

Mike Brown said the natural affinity between universities and industry is perhaps most profound for engineering programs, the training ground of the nation’s producers and knowledge workers.

“Engineers are vital partners in meeting challenges such as the need for clean drinking water, better transportation systems, smart buildings and sources of affordable and renewable energy,” said Brown. “Engineers are the engine that drives American industry and our economic competitiveness. UTC has enjoyed a long and rewarding relationship with the UConn School of Engineering. For decades, we have hired engineering graduates to work within our business units. It’s safe to say they have been instrumental in helping our company design and build some of the world’s most innovative products.”

Howard Orr of KTI said, “Today’s announcement is welcome news for KTI. It will give us access to unique equipment within the Innovation Partnership Building that we simply can’t afford on our own. These will include state-of-the-art lithography and thin film deposition equipment, surface analysis tools, and advanced microscopy for materials processing and analysis. We’ll be able to work closely with UConn researchers and students, and to exchange ideas with other manufacturers to improve our products. This center will contribute to our bottom line, provide a distinct learning core where students can gain practical skills, and help Connecticut strengthen its critical manufacturing sector for the challenges that lie ahead.”

Dr. McCutcheon Receives Coveted Early Career Grants

  • Republished with permission of emagination, a School of Engineering electronic publication

Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon has been awarded two grants in support of his research program, which involves the use of forward osmosis and membrane filters to remove contaminants from water.  The Environmental Protection Agency, through its “Science to Achieve Results” (EPA STAR) Early Career program, which focuses on research aimed at advancing public health through improved water infrastructure, awarded him $300,000.  He received the second grant from 3M Corporation, which presented him a 3M Non-tenured Faculty Grant.

Dr. McCutcheon, an assistant professor with dual appointments in the Chemical, Materials & Biomolecular Engineering department and the Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering (CESE), joined UConn in 2008. He received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 2007 and has conducted extensive research on forward osmosis (FO) processes, most notably for desalination, with his thesis advisor, Dr. Menachem Elimelech.

JeffreyMcCutcheonDr. McCutcheon described forward osmosis as an osmotically driven membrane separation process based on the natural tendency of water to flow from a solution of low solute concentration to one of higher concentration.  In this process, a relatively dilute feed water – such as seawater, brackish water or wastewater – flows along one side of a membrane, while a more concentrated ‘draw’ solution or osmotic agent flows on the opposite side of the membrane.  Clean water permeates through the membrane from the feed water to the draw solution, leaving behind salts, contaminants and other feed solutes as a concentrated brine stream.

In contrast with reverse osmosis, the wastewater treatment standard, Dr. McCutcheon noted, the FO separation process requires no energy.  The draw solution can then be used or removed, recovered and recycled.  Some researchers estimate that in certain applications, this method could result in a 50% cost savings over reverse osmosis, while dramatically reducing the carbon footprint.  In previous research, Dr. McCutcheon has identified several viable draw solutions, so his focus now is on the design of a suitable membrane; this, he said, is the single largest obstacle to adoption of the FO separation technology.

For the EPA STAR project, “We will evaluate how well different membranes remove the contaminants found in wastewater in forward osmosis,” he said.  Municipal wastewater is commonly contaminated with bacteria, viruses and other microbes; toxins such as arsenic, chromium and lead; emergent contaminants from pharmaceutical drugs (such as hormones) and pesticides, which disrupt endocrine function in humans and other creatures; salts, and other contaminants.

A second facet, he explained, “will focus on examining fouling of the membrane, which can result from the accumulation and interaction of the contaminants on the wastewater side of the filter. These include fats, oils and other lipids that can create a film over the membrane, slowing the flow of water.”  Dr. McCutcheon will evaluate this emerging technology for the first time for the removal of these specific compounds.

This work will result in the evaluation of a new technology that may lead to more energy efficient, cost effective wastewater treatment.  According to EPA reports, energy costs can account for 30 percent of the total operation and maintenance costs of wastewater treatment plants, and nationwide, these facilities account for approximately three percent of the total electric load. These factors make wastewater treatment facilities attractive focal points for reducing energy consumption while improving the production of clean water. Dr. McCutcheon’s project represents an important step toward the development of more sustainable water purification processes world-wide, according to Dr. McCutcheon.

Dr. McCutcheon’s 3M Nontenured Faculty Grant, which awards him $15,000/year for up to three years, will support his work on two types of electrospun nanofiber membranes for water filtration applications.  He was nominated for the award by Thomas J. Hamlin, Senior Vice President of R&D at 3M Purification in Meriden, CT.  Dr. McCutcheon explained that membranes made from electrospun nanofibers are especially attractive thanks to their high surface area for capturing contaminants.  This funding will support Dr. McCutcheon’s research efforts on polymeric nanofiber mediated water filtration. Polymer nanofibers are a new type of material with applications to water filtration.  Dr. McCutcheon’s work aims to optimize the nanofiber strength, size, and morphology.  The 3M grant will allow Dr. McCutcheon and his team to design, fabricate and test polymeric nanofiber material as novel filtration media.

Professor Leads Students in Microbial Research

  • By Kat J. McAlpine, republished with permission of emagination, a School of Engineering electronic publication

“Engineering ought to be more widely recognized as a human service,” remarked Dr. Leslie Shor. “An engineering education provides you with the right tools to understand problems and design solutions for issues such as protecting the environment and contributing to society.” Dr. Shor, an assistant professor of Chemical, Materials & Biomolecular Engineering (CMBE), is overseeing several student research projects aimed at understanding and replicating microbial habitats. While conducted on an extremely minute scale, the projects are relevant to a variety of large-scale, global issues.

Dr. Shor has always been committed to environmental protection and advocacy. Growing up in New Jersey, her exposure to the industrialized northeastern area of the state fostered her desire to help alleviate environmental issues resulting from industry. “I realized that chemical engineering would provide me with the skills I needed to build solutions and address problems in a systematic and logical manner,” said Dr. Shor.

After earning her bachelor’s degrees in environmental science and chemistry, she pursued graduate degrees in chemical and biochemical engineering. Her dissertation work predicted the bioavailability of contaminants in long-term contact with sediments through the sampling and study of two sites in the New York Harbor estuary. She participated in the New York Academy of Sciences Harbor Project; her efforts to understand sources of pollution contributed to the project’s overall goal of achieving long-term sustainability in high-density human habitats. Today, she is a key member of the environmental faculty associated with UConn’s Center for Environmental Science and Engineering (CESE).

Her research projects focus on microbial interactions at the micro-structure level and stand to contribute a great deal to our understanding of the integral nature of environmental systems. Current standards for microbial research cannot account for the extremely complex composition of microbial habitats; as a result, less than 1% of all microbial species have ever been successfully cultured in a laboratory. Typically, laboratory cultures favor strains of microbes that thrive in controlled, non-complex environments that are extremely different from natural settings. In her research, Dr. Shor strives not only to better understand how micro-scale habitat structures influence microbial communities, but also to successfully replicate micro-structure habitats in which microbial behavior and growth may be more accurately studied.

In addition, her projects have led to research opportunities for UConn students. Dr. Shor is currently mentoring and advising four student teams conducting microbial research in her laboratory. While many of the projects examine the symbiotic relationships between microbes and their environment, in effect the student pairings are also symbiotic; each team comprises one undergraduate and one graduate researcher (of which there are three Ph.D. students and one post-doctoral researcher). The teams are tasked with different research objectives, yet all four projects are interconnected in their quest for understanding a set of vital questions fixed by Dr. Shor. The researchers are undergraduates Leonela Villegas, Megan Nolan, Emily Anderson and Kristina Gillick, graduate students Grant Bouchillon, Jinzi Deng and Andrea Kadilak, and post-doc Jessica Chau.

 

UConn Engineers Without Borders: Making a Difference

  • By John Giardina, republished with permission of emagination, a School of Engineering electronic publication

On February 24, about 30 people gathered at the Student Union to recognize and celebrate the important work performed in the last year by the UConn chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB).  Members of EWB presented their current projects and described the ways in which they are attempting to change the lives of people in some of the most impoverished communities in the world.  The speakers included the president of EWB-UConn, Ethan Butler (CHEG ’12), and EWB members Aaron Aguirre-Castillo (CE ’11), Dana Boyer (ENVE ’12), Jorge Simbaqueba (CE Graduate Student), and Scott Cipoletti (CE ’12).  Each highlighted the impressive work accomplished by the group over the past year.

EWB resides in a special class of college service groups.  They are not only serving those who are less fortunate, but also practicing their professional craft at thesame time.  Their mission is to apply their relatively rare skills toward solving engineering problems, all the while adhering to the political, social and cultural boundaries of the societies they are serving.  Mr. Butler emphasized this point, saying, “We focus on the implementation of sustainable engineering projects.  There are many ways in which you can help a community, but we aim to utilize our engineering expertise in order to support their development.  We want to insure that, even if our community partnership comes to a close, the projects we implement can continue to work.”

Target: Nicaragua

EWB’s first project, focusing on a small, impoverished Nicaraguan village called La Prusia, is led by Ms. Boyer and Mr. Cipoletti.  The people of La Prusia are all but cut off from the nearby city of Granada, with the single connecting road almost entirely unusable.  This is because the road sustains chronic, destructive flooding during the rainy season, which then destroys the path and makes it impassible during the dry season.  The lack of a usable road inhibits the citizens of La Prusia from getting jobs, selling goods, receiving better health care, and obtaining higher education.  The lack of opportunities for bettering their circumstances stifles the citizens of La Prusia, keeping them in a continuous state of poverty.  EWB members plan to repair the road connecting La Prusia and Granada, opening up a lifeline that can bring vitality to the people along the road.  Read more about the team’s activities in La Prusia here.

EWB members want to return to La Prusia for further inspection in hopes that, soon, they may be able to begin work on the roadway.

Target: Ethiopia

Chapter members are pursuing a second project, involving construction of water purification systems in Ethiopia.  Water sources in Ethiopia are ravaged by both surface and ground water contamination by toxic metals and other impurities.  UConn EWB members hope to find a way to place sustainable filtration systems in villages throughout Ethiopia.  They are investigating alternative water purification systems and are particularly interested in a novel system employing forward osmosis, which is currently being researched in the laboratory of Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon.  They also intend to conduct on-the-ground assessment surveys to better understand the needs of the people they will be serving while also gathering certain health metrics.  In the long-term, the team hopes to create purification systems using easily obtainable, local materials, to directly serve the needs of the people.

Honoring Service

During the evening, the UConn EWB team also acknowledged the important contributions made by students, faculty and private-sector mentors.  Among those honored were advisor-mentors Domenico Carusone (’12 ME), Bob Benzinger, a UConn alumnus from The Hartford, and Gerry Hardisty of CES, Inc.  UConn faculty who have advised the group were also lauded, including Dr. Maria Chrysochoou (Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering – CEE), Dr. McCutcheon, and Dr. Amvrossios Bagtzoglou (Department Head, CEE).  Student Dana Boyer and Scott Cipoletti were singled out for special recognition.  In addition, the group expressed thanks to Dean of Engineering Mun Choi, Assistant Dean Marty Wood, and GEI Consultants for their generous support and funding of EWB.

Donations & Volunteers Needed

Through its projects, EWB-UConn is becoming a model for student service.  They cannot perform their work, however, without their dedicated volunteers and generous donors.  The cost of the La Prusia project alone will cost about $30,000 per year, for five years.  They are, accordingly, always open to new volunteers and donations.  Mr. Butler describes EWB as creating the next generation of leaders.  “EWB helps students develop the sort of expertise required for the future issues faced by our society and engineers: global warming, pollution control, water availability, and more,” he says.  “EWB creates engineers who are socially minded and dedicated to solving these global problems.”  After seeing the tasks EWB engineers have already accomplished, one can expect to see them solving problems at the forefront of their fields for years to come.  More information about EWB-UConn and its work can be found here.  Donations can be submitted online here.