Research

Senior Design Day 2015

By Sydney Souder

Team 10 CaptionMay 1, 2015 marked the School of Engineering’s much anticipated Senior Design Day. The Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering showcased the projects of 13 teams at the event, a school-wide poster competition held on the floor of the Gampel Pavilion arena.

Each team of students spent the entirety of their senior year on a single open-ended capstone design project. The teams began their journeys with a written description of their project, and a faculty and an industry advisor to mentor them as they tackled the challenge.

Over the next eight months, students presented multiple oral presentations and submitted a range of written reports. The poster competition is the final step where the student’s designs are summarized on a 2’ by 3’ poster board display for the public.

On this ultimate design day, both the posters and students are judged. This year, CBE was pleased to host 14 industry experts to judge the posters. Half of these judges were UConn chemical engineering alumni. Each team of students had their poster and verbal pitch evaluated five times.

Team1CaptionThis year’s assortment of projects varied from inventing a human habitat on Mars, to designing wastewater treatments for Unilever. Visitors were even treated to samples of sugar-reduced ice cream developed by a student team for UConn’s Dairy Bar. The following teams earned the highest scores:

First place was awarded to Team 10 whose project was titled “Novel Production and Purification of Manganese Dioxide.” The team consisted of Nicole Beauregard, Gianna Credaroli, Andrea DiVenere, Naomi Tennakoon and Abbey Wangstrom, and they were advised by Dr. Bill Mustain. Duracell sponsored their project to produce and characterize a more pure electrolytic manganese dioxide for use in alkaline batteries. By incorporating electrolyte additives, impurities in the material can be decreased. A battery with higher capacity can improve Duracell sales, lessen the environmental burden of battery waste products, and enhance the consumers’ trust in their power.

Team4CaptionSecond place was awarded to Team 1 for their project “Oxygen Generation via CO2 and H2O Splitting for NASA Manned Space Missions.” Thomas Gay, Ari Fischer and Oscar Nordness made up Team 1, and they were advised by Dr. George Bollas. Team 1 used a chemical looping process to implement a metal oxide oxygen carrier for the Oxygen Generation System (OGS) in NASA’s International Space Station. Potential benefits of their system could reduce size and mass of the OGS as well as improve its electrical efficiency.

Third Place was received by Team 4 for their project “Defluoridation of Ethiopian Groundwater for Human Consumption.” Dr. Doug Cooper advised the group of Jack Edmonds, Gabriella Frey and George Shaw. Due to the pressing health concerns from fluoride contaminated water, the goal of their project was to design a cost effective method of removing upwards of 90% of fluoride ions in groundwater used for human consumption. Current methods use imported technologies from China which are expensive and prone to shipping delays, especially in third world countries. Team 4 created a new method to defluoride water using magnesium oxide, a mineral already existing in Ethiopia.

“Design day is wonderful conclusion to the undergraduate journey,” says Dr. Cooper, professor and head of the department. “Our students show off their hard work, and visitors enjoy learning about the creative and sophisticated solutions they have developed.”

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?”

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Kelly Burke

By Sydney Souder

BurkeCaptionDr. Kelly Burke is excited by the multidisciplinary challenges of developing bio-derived polymers and stimuli-responsive materials in her lab. An assistant professor in the Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, her work encompasses elements of medicine, biology, chemistry, tissue engineering and materials science. As a key member of the Polymer Program in the Institute of Materials Science, she is well-poised to develop a program that answers her fundamental research questions.

In her words, Dr. Burke’s work is a marriage between her graduate and post-doctoral projects. During her graduate studies at Case Western Reserve University, she studied polymer synthesis and characterization. She then delved into the world of silk materials as an NIH postdoctoral fellow at Tufts.

SilkCaption“Typically, we think of silk as a means of creating fabrics or sutures. However, it is possible to chemically modify the proteins in silk materials to alter their functionality.” To this end, she is using her breadth of experience to create stimuli-responsive biomaterials from silk.

Dr. Burke’s goal is to manipulate silk polymers so that human cells respond to her materials. Specifically, she aims for her materials to moderate inflammation and promote healing. This could be invaluable for people with chronic diseases that impede healing, such as diabetes. Most existing wound materials are passive and only protect the area from bacteria and dirt. Dr. Burke seeks to create an interactive material that controls cells and encourages healing. Natural silkworm material is not recognized by the body, so the challenge is to ensure they respond to the chronically-inflamed environments.

“In many ways, being on the faculty at UConn is like coming home,” Dr. Burke says. An alumna who earned her B.S. in chemical engineering in 2005, she knows the people and the campus, including her favorite dairy bar ice cream flavor (Coffee Expresso Crunch).

With tremendous support from Connecticut state initiatives like Next Generation Connecticut, Tech Park, and Bioscience Connecticut, Dr. Burke says with a smile, “It’s an exciting time to be at UConn.”

 

 

 

 

 

Grad Student Spotlight: Christine Endicott

By Sydney Souder

christine 2Graduate student Christine Endicott is a true UConn Husky. Although a Vermont native, she received her B.S. in Chemical Engineering at UConn in 2008. Now, she’s back and in the second year of her PhD studies. And more? She’s still a Gampel season ticket holder.

“I had such a positive experience here as an undergraduate. I love the campus, and the environment in the Chemical Engineering department.” She adds, “My advisor, Dr. Srivastava, has been a mentor to me since I started at UConn back in 2004, so it was an obvious choice to return and work with him to complete my PhD.

The research performed here at UConn is highly relevant to today’s engineering challenges. Christine is currently trying to develop new antibiotic treatment methods for infectious diseases. “I love that I’m working on the potential next generation of infection control. Antibiotic resistance is a real problem, and the idea that I could save lives is extremely rewarding.”

Christine describes the graduate student environment here as one of comradery and collaboration. She and other students often take breaks together, and use each other’s experiences to help each other view their work in different lights. Pursuing her PhD at UConn has also provided her opportunities to grow outside of the lab. Christine has taught physics at UConn’s summer BRIDGE program, and has gained experience in writing grants by preparing a proposal for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As a National Science Foundation GK12 Fellow, Christine also interacts with students at AI Prince Technical High School in nearby Hartford to stimulate their interest in STEM fields.

“UConn is a great place to pursue a PhD. It has the right combination of great science, professors who care about you as a scientist and as a person, and great college basketball.”

 

 

 

CBE Professor Awarded Prestigious NARSAD Grant

By Sydney Souder

cho_yongku_profileDr. Yongku Cho, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has received a prestigious and highly competitive NARSAD Young Investigator Grant. Funded through the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, NARSAD grants are dedicated to research in brain and behavior disorders. The Young Investigator Grant supports promising young scientists conducting neurobiological research.

Dr. Cho’s two-year grant offers cho microscope captioncritical backing to enable him to collect pilot data for his innovative ideas. His grant will support Dr. Cho’s research group to develop a novel approach for rapid and reversible knockout of target genes. His group will research which regulated protein levels affect brain circuits. They will specifically study the mechanism of GABAA receptor dysfunction. Deficits in GABAA receptor function have been linked to multiple neurological and psychiatric disorders, such as epilepsy and schizophrenia. With his new technique, he intends to study the role of GABAA receptor interacting proteins, which may lead to therapeutic targets for such diseases.

First exposed to engineered antibodies during his graduate cho cell captionresearch at Wisconsin, Dr. Cho is now interested in manipulating these proteins to include new functions. “The broader objective of the work is to engineer antibodies with useful functionalities that they normally would not have,” says Dr. Cho.

If successful, this project could have wide applications and might connect with UConn’s interests as well. Dr. Cho foresees a potential collaboration with the Jackson laboratory for Genomic Medicine. The new laboratory at UConn’s Farmington campus seeks genomic solutions to disease, making medicine more precise and predictable. They are one of world’s leading institutes for transgenic mouse research.

“With the methods from this research, we might be able to pinpoint gene functions within such model organisms,” says Cho. For more information on Dr. Cho and his research, please visit his website.

 

REU Summer A Success

By Sydney Souder

reu caption 1For the third consecutive summer, UConn’s Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering (CBE) Department hosed an NSF sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) summer program.

“The unique aspect of our REU,” said Dr. Jeff McCutcheon, principal investigator for the NSF grant supporting the program, “is that we connected student participants with faculty mentors and company sponsors for a true entrepreneurial or business oriented research experience.”

Lasting ten weeks this past summer, participating students were advised by both faculty and industrial partners, providing them with a unique experience at the interface of academic research and commercialization.

Projects varied across the spectrum of chemical engineering and materials science. This summer produced the following projects: Ceramic Nanofilm Depostion for Vapor Detection Devices (Proton OnSite), Implantable, Wireless Biosensors for Diabetes Care (Biorais), Graphene Polymer Nanocomposites (Cabot Corporation), Water Based Anodes for Lithium Ion Batteries (BYK Additives & reu caption 3Instruments), High-Performance Nanostructured Organic/Inorganic Hybrids for Functional Applications (Nanocor), Development of Scalable Droplet Microfluidic Devices (BASF), Increasing Soil Water Retention with Bacteria (DuPont), Characterization of TiO2 Thin Films on 316L Stainless Steel Formed using a Sol-Gel Technique (VeruTEK Technologies), Plasmonic Nanodevices for Solar Energy Harvesting (Scitech Solar), and Sustainable Biofuels Production (RPM Sustainable Technologies).

reu caption 2Students spent their summer in a world-class academic research laboratory with state-of-the art instrumentation. They also toured local incubator spaces, and participated in an Innovation Accelerator event at a local private incubator.

Laboratory time was balanced with workshops to improve students’ writing and presenting skills. One unique aspect of the program was the short business seminar during which students experienced a flavor of the business side of innovation.

This preparation came in handy for the “Innovation Connection” networking event at summer’s end. Participants pitched their work to the region’s business community during their poster session, and networked with over one hundred people in the field.

The REU experience did much more than the name may imply. This summer’s group of students also held their own barbeques, organized outings to UConn’s Avery Point campus, Mystic, and even attended a New Britain Rock Cats baseball game. These recreational events enriched the already memorable program to an unforgettable summer experience.

Dr. Yu Lei Receives US Patent for Explosive Detecting Sensors

By Sydney Souder

Lei CaptionDr. Yu Lei, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Connecticut, received a US Patent for his explosive detection technology.Lei Sensor Caption

Working with Ying Wang, a former graduate student, Dr. Lei engineered a sensor that provides clear and near-instant results upon contact with explosive vapors. “We initially wanted to synthesize low-cost materials that change color almost immediately when in contact with explosives,” says Lei. The project proved successful and was recently awarded a patent entitled, “Explosives Detection Substrate and Methods of Using the Same.”

The detector senses a range of explosives, from TNT used in construction, to RDX used by the military. It reveals minute traces of explosives when exposed to UV light and viewed by the naked eye.

Lei is now expanding his detection technologies in other forms beyond vapor detection. His latest research seeks to develop a nanoporous florescent film and a fluorescent protein that can reveal explosives in aqueous solutions.

These projects acknowledge funding by the National Science Foundation, the University of Connecticut Prototype Fund, and the Department of Homeland Security. For more information on Dr. Lei and his research, please visit his website.

Students Design Artificial Kidney with 3-D Printing

UConnTodayBy Rob Chudzik.
Republished with permission of UConn Today.

 

 

MaCaptionThree-dimensional printing has garnered coverage in the popular press for its application in the custom manufacturing of tools and mechanical parts. But six School of Engineering seniors have recently taken the application of the technology into the medical field, using 3-D printing to create body parts.

Under the direction of Anson Ma, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the Institute of Materials Science, two three-person teams of chemical engineering students were tasked with creating an artificial kidney for their Senior Design Project using 3-D printing technology. 3-D printing is an additive manufacturing method capable of creating complex parts that are otherwise impossible or extremely difficult to produce.

The students participating were: Derek Chhiv, Meaghan Sullivan, Danny Ung, Benjamin Coscia, Guleid Awale, and Ali Rogers. They are one of the first classes of students to partner with a commercial 3-D printing company, ACT Group, to create a prototype.

The challenge the teams set out to tackle is rooted in a very real problem.

The United States Renal Data System reports that, as recently as 2009, End-Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) resulted in over 90,000 deaths. Options for treatment of renal disease are essentially limited to either an organ transplant or dialysis. However, there is a limited supply of transplantable kidneys, with demand far outstripping the supply; and dialysis is expensive and is only a temporary solution.

According to data from the National Kidney Foundation, there are currently nearly 100,000 people awaiting kidney transplants in the United States, yet only 14,000 kidney transplants took place in the country this year. An additional 2,500 new patients are added to the kidney waiting list each month. Faced with these challenges, the two UConn teams set out on a year-long effort to design and develop a prototype of a cost-effective, functional artificial kidney using chemical engineering principles and 3-D printing technology.

“The objective of the design project is to get these students to combine the latest technology and their chemical engineering knowledge, learned over their four years at UConn, to solve a technical problem where we can make a difference,” notes Ma. “Can they push the technology further?”

Guleid Awale, one of the seniors, said the two design teams each took a slightly different approach to the problem. “While the other team utilized techniques such as electrodialysis and forward osmosis in their prototype, our group opted for mainly hollow fiber membrane technology commonly found in traditional hemodialysis treatments.”

Benjamin Coscia ’14 (ENG) explains the hollow fiber membrane technology: “Because 3D printing resolutions are not currently low enough to print a structure which will actually filter blood, the file is of only the shell of the kidney. Hollow fiber membranes will be installed on the inside to do the filtration function. The kidney will then be sealed together using the threads and sealing o-rings. A fluid called dialysate will be circulated on the outside of the membranes, inside of the shell, which will cause flux of components from the blood. A waste stream maintains the person’s ability to urinate. The outside of the shell can be used as a substrate for growth of biological material for ease of integration into the body.”

After undertaking the research and development of the design, the teams designed the prototype using AutoCAD software. Then each team collaborated with UConn technology partner ACT Group of Cromwell, Conn. to select the appropriate polymers, as well as the right printer to use in printing the particular prototype design.

The two teams presented their projects on May 2 at the School of Engineering Senior Design Demonstration Day.

“The biggest challenge in approaching the project was applying the engineering knowledge we’ve gained during our undergraduate years to a more complex biological application,” Awale notes. “This forced us to come out of our comfort zone and rely on our problem-solving skills in order to come up with viable solutions.”