Author: Kelly Cosgrove

Grad Student Spotlight: Andrea Kadilak

By Jayna Miller

andrea1The Chemical Engineering graduate program at UConn provides the opportunity for students to obtain a thorough understanding of the principles of chemical engineering and gain the practical skills needed to succeed in the workplace. Students have the chance to get involved in a number of useful research and teaching opportunities to better prepare for their future.

Grad student Andrea Kadilak has taken advantage of many of the programs and activities that UConn had to offer. Her most rewarding experience during her years at the university was her involvement with the NSF GK-12 Fellowship Program, where she worked with high school students to inspire an interest in science.

“I worked with students at Windham Tech to raise awareness of career options in physics, chemistry, and engineering – I also showcased the fun side of science through experimental demonstrations,” she says.

In addition to the NSF GK-12 Fellowship, Andrea was also involved in a number of on-campus engineering groups. She is currently the Chairperson for the CBE Grad Student Association, and is the Activities Director for the local chapter of AIChE.

“These leadership positions provide an opportunity for me to plan events, network, and organize meetings that bring together all of the engineering programs at UConn, to create a collaborative atmosphere and provide a wide variety of research opportunities for students,” she says.

These positions were not Andrea’s first leadership and work experiences. Prior to attending UConn, she worked as a Process Engineer at Solutia for two years, but decided that she wanted to return to research in a university setting.

Andrea’s research currently focuses on the NSF EFRI Termite Grant, which involves working with a team of engineers, including CBE professor Leslie Shor, to simulate the termite digestive tract in a micro-fluidic device. Termites are able to efficiently break down cellulose and other woody materials into biofuels to use as a food source. Through this research, the team hopes to culture the digestive bacteria in the micro-fluidic device in order to observe it, and perhaps recreate the biofuels, which will have an environmental benefit because it can reduce fuel needs.

Andrea has received multiple accolades for her research at UConn.  She received the Women’s Initiative Committee Travel Award at the Minnesota AIChE Meeting in 2011, and earned 2nd place in the Poster Presentation Competition. In addition, she was the recipient of an ACS Meeting Certificate of Merit in 2012.

In the future, Andrea hopes to work in industry, but also to continue her personal research. She enjoyed working in a chemical plant in the past, but would like to achieve a balance and bridge the gap between research and the implementation of research practices in a process.

AIChE 2013 Annual Conference Draws Strong Attendance from CBE Undergrads

By Jayna Miller

aichemeet1The University of Connecticut Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering undergraduate students recently attended the AIChE 2013 Annual Meeting in San Francisco. The AIChE Annual Meeting is an educational forum for chemical engineers focused on research, growth, and innovation. Industry and academic professionals discussed a variety of topics relating to new research, technologies, and studies in chemical engineering.

During the conference, undergraduate students attended events designed to present current research on the latest advances in core areas of chemical engineering, while also covering specific topical areas. Specialty topics included related fields such as alternative energy, sustainability, bioengineering, and process safety.

Several undergrad students gave presentations on their research. William Hale, working with Chemical & Biomolecular professors Ranjan Srivastava and Richard Parnas, presented “Design Optimization by Response Surface Methodology for Continuous Fermentative Production of 1,3 Propanediol From Waste Glycerol By Product of Biodiesel Processes.” Oscar Nordness, a Junior working with Zhiquan Zhou and professor George Bollas, presented in both the oral and poster competitions, and won the 2nd award in the Student Poster Competition. Oscar’s poster title was “Reactivity Analysis of Ni, Cu, Fe Oxygen Carriers in Fixed Bed Chemical Looping Combustion.” His oral presentation was “On the kinetics of Ni-based oxygen carrier reduction and oxidation studied in thermogravimetric analysis and fixed-bed reactors.”



Research Insight: Biomass Pyrolysis

Mr. Shoucheng Du, Prof. Julia Valla, and Prof. George Bollas are making exciting progress in developing the process of biomass catalytic pyrolysis. Their recent achievements are published in Green Chemistry (link to article), and were presented at the 2013 Spring Meeting of the American Chemical Society (link to presentation).

Biomass pyrolysis is the thermal decomposition of solid biomass into a liquid, which after additional processing, can be employed in the manufacture of chemicals, fuels, and other products normally made from petroleum.

According to Mr. Du, a Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering (CBE) graduate student, biomass pyrolysis is one of the process options most likely to solve the challenge of renewable fuels. “We let nature and photosynthesis develop biomass, such as plants and trees, from carbon dioxide in the air,” Mr. Du says, “then our work focuses on upgrading the value of that natural product, lignocellulosic biomass, into liquid bio-oil, which can then be upgraded by a catalyst into liquid products of more value to society.”

“The challenge,” says Prof. Bollas, “is that the byproducts of pyrolysis, coke and char, deactivate the catalyst by coating the surface. Hence, the most important objective is to first identify the exact amounts of coke (a catalytic product) and char (the thermal byproduct of pyrolysis) that lead to deactivation, which will further our understanding of the reaction mechanisms.”bollaspic2

Prof. Valla is studying the related issue of tar, a thick viscous form of the liquid bio-oil. “When we focus on biomass tar, the challenge is even greater. Coke dominates the product distribution and it would be invaluable to understand how it is formed,” she comments.

By studying the reactions likely to lead to coke and char, and the properties of the catalyst used (Figure 1), Prof. Bollas’ group was able to identify hemicellulose as a dominant coke precursor, separate the pathways that lead to the formation of coke and char, and propose possible reactions to minimize the deactivation of the catalyst.

“Now the challenge is to connect these findings to the production of the useful liquid product,” Prof. Bollas says. “We believe the same precursors produce the most desired and most undesired products.” In the future, Prof. Bollas and his team will continue to study these reactions further, to perhaps determine a method to control their negative side effects.

UConn Student Receives Presidential Scholar Enrichment Award

By Jayna Miller

Rodney Sutherland, an undergraduate researcher working with CBE assistant professor Dr. Anson Ma, is the recipient of a Presidential Scholar Enrichment Award. The Presidential Scholars Program was established by the University of Connecticut to support educational enrichment in a variety of subject areas, providing up to $2,500 for undergraduate students.

The grant will be used to fund Sutherland’s research on constructing an experimental platform for understanding the fundamentals of inkjet and 3D printing. The research aims to improve the reliability and the resolution of existing printing technology for digital fabrication. The project will impact many practical applications – most notably, perhaps, is the potential for flexible electronics.

Flexible electronics are elastic, bendable devices that may have several advantages in applications such as cell phones, cameras, and e-book readers.

Another promising application relates to the medical field. Sensors, for example, can be printed on the skin as a “temporary tattoo” to monitor the health of patients. Similarly, skin grafts may also be printed to accelerate healing in the case of burns or extensive wounds.

Lastly, with improvements of printing reliability and resolution, it may one day be possible to use this technology to print organs. This means that essential organs can be designed and manufactured in the lab, and patients in need of a transplant will not have to endure a long waiting period. Dr. Anson Ma is currently advising two CBE Senior Design teams working on the 3D printing of artificial kidneys.

Grad Student Spotlight: Yixin Liu

By Jayna Miller

yixin1At the University of Connecticut, Chemical Engineering graduate students enjoy access to an outstanding combination of academic excellence, student resources, financial support, and a vibrant community.

For grad student Yixin Liu, this is especially true. “I really appreciate that the program gave me so many opportunities to attend different conferences to present my work and communicate with others, such as AIChE annual meeting every year,” she says. She also enjoys the setting of UConn’s campus – which is very different from her hometown.

Yixin moved to Connecticut in 2010 after completing her undergraduate education at Zhejiang University, which is near the east seacoast of China. UConn was her first offer, and after admiring the respected graduate program and the helpful financial support she would receive, she decided to choose UConn to complete her Ph.D.

During her time at UConn, Yixin has worked with Dr. Yu Lei on the development of a high temperature gas sensor which will improve combustion efficiency.
“Real-time, in-situ monitoring and control of combustion-related gases are a top priority in many industrial applications, such as power plant, automotive, metal processing and casting, chemical and petrochemical industries,” she says. These high temperature gas sensors are designed to monitor gas concentrations after combustion and to optimize the combustion process via feedback system, which can improve the combustion efficiency, save more energy, and also reduce the emission of pollutants.

“Our goal is to develop sensors which can be operated right after combustion, so we can immediately get the full picture of combustion conditions and provide more precise control of combustion,” Yixin says.

Yixin’s work on this research throughout her graduate career has been publicly recognized. She has published 10 papers in various scientific journals, four of which she was the lead author. Following her graduation this fall, Yixin plans to work in industry, preferably at a large company. She would especially enjoy continuing her research in a practical, applied setting.

Research Study Targets Rice Husks for Chemical Extraction

By Jayna Miller

luyi1Dr. Luyi Sun, an associate professor at UConn, is leading a research group in an EPA-sponsored project that is investigating the use of rice husks to produce two valuable chemicals, lignocellulose and silica.

“Rice husk biomass is a massive byproduct from rice milling. Applications of rice husks have been very limited, and they are often considered biowaste,” Dr. Sun says. Through  this study, he plans to extract both lignocellulose and silica from the rice husks to take full advantage of the rice husk biomass.

Previous studies in this area have focused on the extraction of silica from rice husks, while the lignocellulose was ordinarily burnt and thus wasted. Dr. Sun’s approach is unique two ways: (1) it involves a comprehensive use of rice husks, obtaining both lignocellulose and silica; (2) the mild treatment maintains the original microstructure of silica in rice husks, leading to the synthesis of high quality porous silica nanoparticles.luyi2

“The lignocellulose is extracted by dissolving the rice husks in ionic liquids, and then the chemical is separated and collected. The remaining residue after extraction, which contains a high concentration of silica, is thermally treated to synthesize amorphous porous silica nanoparticles with a high purity and surface area,” Dr. Sun explains. After extraction, lignocellulose can be used as an ingredient for biofuel and paper, while silica is a useful component in many products and the chemical industry. This research is expected to promote effective utilization of rice husk biomass globally in the near future. Some of the benefits of implementing this process include saving landfill space, minimizing pollution, and profits from the extracted lignocellulose and silica.

This project has been ongoing for two years under the sponsorship of the US EPA. Dr. Sun has published four research articles relating to this work. He will work with several graduate and undergraduate students on continuing this project, and the research opportunity will be available as a capstone class. For more information on Dr. Sun’s research, please visit:

REU Student Innovators Wow Business Community

Screen shot 2013-06-26 at 1.29.22 PMRepublished with permission of Momentum,
a School of Engineering electronic publication.


reu3The Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program provides undergraduates with exposure to a stimulating research environment.  The students participating in the REU program had the opportunity to present their work during the July 26 Innovation Connection academic/industry networking event hosted at Nerac in Tolland and co-sponsored by Nerac and OpenSky. Nerac president Kevin Bouley, who hosts a number of UConn start-ups in his Tolland facility, noted “This event showcases the collaborations between students, faculty and the private sector.  It was very interesting to see RPM Sustainable Technologies participate, given that they are located in the Nerac building as a launching pad for their commercial enterprise.”

Before an audience of entrepreneurs, small business gurus, state government officials, IP experts, faculty and members of the investment community, each young researcher/entrepreneur delivered a two-minute “elevator pitch” presentation of his/her work and then spoke in greater detail with attendees during the informal networking event.  The forum enabled the students to test their mettle in the real-world situation faced by entrepreneurs every day.

While all REU programs entail scholarly research, this innovation-oriented REU requires the students to participate in a business and entrepreneurship seminar taught by professor Richard Dino of the School of Business. Furthermore, the students’ research was co-sponsored by commercial businesses – a novel twist that underscores the commercial intent of the research challenges they addressed while working in the UConn faculty laboratories.

The REU theme was conceptualized by Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon, assistant professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, and Entrepreneur-in-Residence Robin Bienemann, and NSF began funding the project in 2012.  In his introductory remarks to the audience, Dr. McCutcheon explained the genesis of the Innovation REU and noted that his goal was to “introduce the students to applied science and the way products make it to market.”

The eight innovation REU students and their projects are summarized below.

reu15-300x220Joseph Amato (Univ. of Minnesota – Twin Cities) researched reactive spray deposition technology for the one-step production of catalysts and electrodes in fuel cells. His research aim was to improve the efficiency of proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells for the fuel cell and fuel-cell automotive markets. Sponsor: Proton OnSite; faculty mentor: Dr. Radenka Maric (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

Isaac Batty (California State Univ. – Long Beach) researched bio-oil production from the fast catalytic pyrolysis of lignocellulosic biomass (trees).  His objective was to investigate the effect of temperature and various catalyst/biomass ratios on the quality of bio-oil produced from biomass. Sponsor: W.R. Grace & Co.; faculty mentor: Dr. George Bollas (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

Ryan Carpenter (Univ. of Buffalo)designed an experimental apparatus enabling researchers to observe the antimicrobial susceptibility of multispecies biofilms. Biofilms are common (e.g., dental plaques) and often contain multiple species of bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus. Biofilms are a costly problem for many industries, including food processing, oil recovery and medical implant operations.  Sponsor: BASF; faculty mentor: Dr. Leslie Shor (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

William Hale (UConn) sought to understand whether acetate and butyrate influence the anaerobic fermentation of waste glycerol – a byproduct from biodiesel production – into 1,3-propanediol. 1,3-propanediol is used in the manufacture of polyesters, solvents, lubricants and other products. Sponsor: RPM Sustainable Technologies; faculty advisor: Dr. Richard Parnas (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

Justine Jesse (Univ. of Massachusetts) researched heat treatments that produce the strongest possible electrospun nanofibers, used in water filtration and industrial plants, without compromising performance. Sponsor: KX Technologies; faculty mentor: Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

Kyle Karinshak (Univ. of Oklahoma) researched the photocatalytic degradation of a specific fluorescent dye in aqueous environments through the use of a titanium oxide/metal doped catalyst. Kyle found titanium oxide/metal-doped fly ash to be an effective catalyst enabling the degradation of the dye, which is released from textile plants and inhibits the passage of sunlight through water/ Sponsor: VeruTEK Corp.; faculty mentor: Dr. Steven Suib (Chemistry; Institute for Materials Science). Poster.

Zachariah Rueger (Iowa State Univ.) sought to maximize the specific surface area of activated carbon nanofiber nonwoven mats, which are used in water purification and for electricity generation in certain fuel cells. A greater surface area allows greater volumes of wastewater to be purified quickly. Sponsor: KX Technologies; faculty mentor: Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

Kyle Stachowiak (Vanderbilt Univ.) researched techniques to optimize the atomic layer deposition of copper on a component, the rectenna, used to enhance the performance of solar cells. A rectenna collects solar radiation and converts it to usable energy. Techniques for applying copper more reliably will improve the efficiency of solar cells. Sponsor: Scitech Associates LLC; faculty mentor: Dr. Brian Willis (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

Grad Student Spotlight: Jason White

By Jayna Miller

JasonWhite2The chemical engineering graduate program at the University of Connecticut is comprised of bright, innovative leaders who are motivated by change and challenge. The program offers the opportunity for students to enhance their skills and develop their potential.

One student who can attest to the merits of this program is Jason White. Jason completed his undergraduate degree at UConn, and decided he wanted to continue his research here after enjoying his undergraduate experience. Throughout his time at UConn, Jason has worked with Dr. Ranjan Srivastava on analyzing biological systems and developing computational tools that deal with human health-related problems. These analyses have implications towards personalized medicine for each patient.

“Our goal is to use computational tools to understand how a disease progresses and to analyze whether treatments for patients are optimal,” Jason says. Genetic algorithms are one such method that Jason employs to develop mathematical models of biological systems from experimental data sets. He anticipates that these models could be used to help personalize medicinal treatments on a patient-by-patient basis. For instance, he created a mathematical model of an oral mucositis system, which can be simulated to help predict the outcome and potential treatment options for patients suffering with this disease.

In addition to his research, Jason has also been involved in a number of campus activities. His favorite was the GK-12 Program sponsored by the National Science Foundation, which allowed him to work once a week with technical high school students.

“I enjoyed the GK-12 experience – it gave me the freedom to develop lessons and projects, but also to continue my research as well,” he says. Through this program, he was able to work with students to build a compost water-heating system, which was presented at Lemelson-MIT’s Eureka Fest. Jason has also helped motivate students to get involved in engineering by tutoring undergraduates from Grasso Tech and by serving as a TA at UConn. In the future, Jason plans to pursue these interests and become a professor, so he can maintain the balance between teaching and his research.

During his time at UConn, Jason has earned a number of accolades for his work, such as a Unilever Scholarship, an Arnold Griffin Scholarship, and an NSF GK-12 Fellowship. He has also published two proceedings in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.