Month: April 2015

Pie a Professor for AIChE

By Sydney Souder

MustainCaptionThe UConn student chapter of AIChE held a “Pie a Professor” fundraiser during the last week of classes this spring. Students lined up on the sunny Wednesday afternoon to let out a little steam on their professors right before the start of finals. The annual fundraiser took place on Fairfield Way, and charged $5 for students to shove a shaving cream pie in the face of the professor of their choice.

Dr. Bill Mustain, Associate Professor and Associate Department Head, is no stranger to the fundraiser. He was a popular target this year, and estimates he was pied “at least twenty-five times.” The good-humored professor went on to add, “I’m always happy to help the students with a good cause.”

AIChE is the world’s leading organization for chemical engineering professionals. “We’re raising money to support student travel to professional AIChE conferences” said Paige Orlofsky, next year’s AIChE chapter president and organizer of this year’s Pie event.  Last fall, the chapter brought home many awards from the 2014 Annual Meeting in Atlanta, and they are planning to be well represented again at this year’s meeting in Salt Lake City.

 

Research Insight: Nanostar

By Sydney Souder

NanostarCaptionDr. Mu-Ping Nieh hopes to discover elusive secrets in the nano-structures of functional materials using the new X-ray scattering machine he and his collaborators have secured for the University of Connecticut. His work focuses on the study of soft materials, and in particular, understanding their nanoscopic structures to optimize their functions. With the new, top-of-the-line Nanostar SAXS instrument, Dr. Nieh expects to take his research to the next level.

Acquired through a competitive National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) Grant, the Nanostar SAXS is a sophisticated instrument that allows researchers to probe the nanostructures of materials in a large sample area. Specifically, it can identify the shape, size, aggregation behavior, polydispersity, interparticle interactions and surface (interfacial) area of a system.

The instrument works by sending an X-ray beam at a sample of interest. As the X-ray hits the sample, the beam diffracts and scatters into different angles. This scatter pattern can reveal information on the nanostructure of the sample. The method can be applied to a broad range of materials including liquids, solids, thin films and gels. This makes the tool valuable for those investigating the structure-property relationship substances. It also enables industry partners to perform fundamental research and to design and develop materials . Dr. Nieh hopes to build on this interest by establishing a regional center for nanostructural characterization for UConn and industrial partners.

Beyond current and collaborative research, having access to the instrument is also an invaluable opportunity for students. “The Nanostar instrument will be used to train the next generation of scientists and engineers through hands-on research experience,” says Dr. Nieh. “I encourage potential research and industry partners to contact me if they would like to learn more.” Dr. Nieh will teach a webinar course “Small Angle X-Ray Scattering (SAXS) for Nanostructural Characterization” to the public through the Institute of Materials Science’s Affiliate Program later this year.

Bollas Receives Mentorship Excellence Award

By Sydney Souder

BollasCaption1Dr. George Bollas, Assistant Professor of the CBE Department, is the first recipient of the Office of Undergraduate Research’s (OUR) Faculty Mentorship Excellence Award. He received the award at the 18th Annual Frontiers in Undergraduate Research Poster Exhibition on Friday, April 10, 2015.

With this award, OUR recognizes the critically significant role that mentors play in supporting their undergraduates’ research and creative activity. A committee of OUR Peer Research Ambassadors selected one faculty recipient and one graduate student for the Mentorship Excellence Award recognizing their dedication to their students.BollasCaption3

Ari Fischer, one of his mentees who contributed to his nomination, presented the plaque to Dr. Bollas. Fischer commended Dr. Bollas’ extraordinary commitment to challenging and supporting his students. He attributes Dr. Bollas’ influence to helping his mentees achieve their research, personal, and professional goals. Dr. Bollas has helped his students formulate their own research projects, apply for fellowships and publish their own work.

Bollas’ current research group consists of seven Ph.D. students, one Masters student, and 10 undergraduates. Fischer asserts that Dr. Bollas’s dedication is not limited to just those in his lab, but to all of his students; he pushes them to get the most out of their education.

Although honored by his new plaque, Dr. Bollas explained what he considers his real prize. “At the end of the day we’re given the opportunity to spend time with these amazing, fresh minds hungry for knowledge and work, and that is what is most rewarding.”

 

Engineering Ice Cream

By: William Weir

DairyCaption1What happens when you mix UConn’s renowned Creamery and its top-notch Chemical Engineering department? If things go right, you get an ice cream that forgoes traditional sugar, but still earns a place along with the famously delicious ice creams at the Dairy Bar.

That’s the goal of two student teams working toward Senior Design Day. That event, May 1, is when students in the School of Engineering present their work toward solving a particular problem.  Both teams are working with advisor Anson Ma, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the Institute of Materials Science.

DairyCaption2One of the teams met on a recent morning at the UConn Department of Animal Science Creamery in the George White Building. This is where UConn’s ice cream is produced and later sold at the Dairy Bar next door. Bill Sciturro, manager of dairy manufacturing in the Department of Animal Science, helped the team work the batch machine, which freezes the mixture into ice cream. The aptly named machine makes one batch at a time – no more than a half gallon – and is used for testing purposes. Once a new recipe meets Creamery standards, it goes into production and is made with the continuous machine, which operates on a minimum of 50 gallons.

Instead of cane sugar, this team is using erythritol, a natural sweetener derived from corn. They did so after surveys indicated a demand on campus for ice cream with alternative natural sweeteners. Erythritol is up to 70 percent as sweet as table sugar and has almost no calories. Most ice cream companies would call this “sugar-free” for marketing purposes. The students call it “reduced-sugar” because they’re scientists, and they’re counting the sugar that already exists in the milk. Get rid of lactose, they say, and you’re working with a whole other set of circumstances.

DairyCaption3Ice cream’s semi-solid state is the result of a fragile balance of ingredients, and it’s no easy trick to replace old-fashioned sugar and still get the rich taste and texture that makes the Creamery’s ice cream so popular.

“It’s difficult to change the solids, because that changes the freezing point – and that determines the way it behaves as an ice cream,” said Nicholas Fleming, one of the three team members. Too many salts and carbohydrates, he said, and the freezing point becomes too high for conventional freezers. To get it right, the team did a lot of experiments and calculations with heat transfer and ice recrystallization to see how their product fared with the Creamery’s current storage practices.

Considering the complexities of ice cream’s makeup, Ma says he is impressed by the students’ achievements so far. “Both teams have applied what they have learned in their engineering classes to arrive at their final recipe, while being cognizant of the economic feasibility, environmental impact, health, and safety,” he says.

So why ice cream? Using examples from everyday life is one of the most effective ways to engage the younger generation and the general public in science, Ma says: “The ice cream project really satisfies my passions for education, research, and food simultaneously!”

DairyCaption4After finishing the first batch at the Creamery, the team handed out samples to a few observers. Even at the very non-ice cream hour of 9 a.m., it proved a tasty snack – smooth, creamy, and betraying no indication of a non-traditional sweetener. At least to the casual observer. The team members were glad that the erythritol left no chemical hints or after-taste, but they agreed that the batch could use more vanilla. Team member Anh Nguyen said his ice cream palette has become a good deal more discriminating since the start of the project: “I’m a lot more picky.”

For the next batch, team member Leonora Yokubinas was a little more generous with the vanilla extract, which she poured from a gallon jug into a graduated cylinder. They reached a consensus after a second taste test: erythritol-based ice cream is just about consumer-ready.

Ma’s other student team is using Splenda – an artificial sweetener derived from sugar. Team members Ivan Nguyen, Christina Fenny, and Mason Gao say they chose Splenda because it is FDA-approved, and has fewer harmful side effects than other artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame and acesulfame potassium). It’s also 600 times sweeter than sugar, so they don’t need to use much. This also means that there is less solid content in the base composition, however, so large ice crystals can form and make for a less creamy texture.

To address this issue, the team is flash-freezing their mixture with liquid nitrogen. This, they say, allows for some flexibility with the ice cream’s base composition because it freezes the ice cream quickly enough to form extremely small ice crystals – the key to maintaining a smooth texture.

Sciturro is just as invested in these projects as the students; the Dairy Bar could use a low-sugar option. They haven’t offered one in the past, but there have been requests. Rarely do people go to an ice cream parlor specifically for a low-sugar treat, he says, but if someone with special dietary needs comes with their family then it’s great to have that option: “After all, who doesn’t know someone who has a need for low-sugar foods?”

CBE Professor Receives Women of Innovation Award

By Sydney Souder

DMaricCaption2r. Radenka Maric, Connecticut Clean Energy Professor in Sustainable Energy in the Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, was honored with the Research Innovation & Leadership Award at the Women of Innovation awards ceremony on April 1, 2015.

Fifty-six finalists were honored for their innovation and leadership at the Connecticut Technology Council’s eleventh annual celebration. The Women of Innovation awards gala recognizes women accomplished in science, technology, engineering, math, and also involved in their community. The event allows like-minded, successful women to celebrate their accomplishments together.

MaricCaption1Ten of the finalists were announced as award winners during the event. Winners were chosen in eight categories. The Research Innovation & Leadership Award won by Dr. Maric is presented to a woman who has developed new knowledge or products, or improvements to products in a corporate or academic setting through original approaches to research. The Research Innovation and Leadership recipient also exhibits leadership ability by leading research teams, motivating staff and securing funding or resources to enable her research program.

Dr. Maric’s research innovation and leadership is remarkable. She is internationally recognized for her contributions in sustainable energy technologies supporting the development of efficient, fuel cell-powered vehicles; nanomaterials; and manufacturability. Dr. Maric’s research interests include: synthesis of nanomaterials, unique new materials and associated processes, catalysis, kinetics, electrochemical cell design and architecture, new analytical and diagnostic techniques, fuel cell and battery systems, alternative electrochemical fuels and reactant modification, hydrogen production and storage, and sensor technology.

“I look forward to continuing my work in research, teaching, and outreach here at the University of Connecticut,” says Dr.  Maric.