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Cleaning up the environment: Dr. Valla receives NSF CAREER Award to remove sulfur from transportation fuels

Julia Valla, Assistant Professor at the Chemical and Biomolecular Environmental Department of the University of Connecticut received a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation to research the removal of sulfur molecules from transportation fuels. The award for $500,000 will revolutionize sulfur removal using adsorption in ion exchanged zeolites.  

Valla began working on sulfur removal as a Ph.D student. By the end of the five years of her CAREER project, Valla aims to develop novel filters that can efficiently and economically remove the sulfur molecules from fuels.  

“The CAREER award was very important for me because I can continue research what I started 18 years ago. It is important that I can evolve on findings that I have already created,” Valla said.  

She explained that sulfur molecules found in transportation fuel are toxic. They have adverse effects on the environment and subsequently on humans. Sulfur oxides which can be emitted from cars can cause acid rain, which causes environmental pollution.  

“The reason why I keep pushing this effort is because the sulfur molecules, this impurity has very detrimental effects on the environment and consequently on humans, and on our lives,” Valla said, “The fossil fuels, whether we like it or not, is still our main source of energy. We do need to, of course, be looking to renewable energy resources and put our efforts into research on renewable energy. However, it’s also important to do something about the fossil fuels that we use now.” 

Currently, sulfur is removed from fuels in a process called hydrodesulfurization in the refinery. Valla said the process requires severe conditions and the use of hydrogen makes it an expensive process. Her research will focus on utilizing ion-exchanged zeolites, specifically zeolite Y, which is a porous mineral. The zeolites will be tested for their selectivity in binding to sulfur and not to other molecules in the fuel, and how well they adsorb the sulfur to reach the mandatory government standards.  

The zeolites can be regenerated and reused, which makes them a more affordable alternative to hydrodesulfurization.  

“The major challenge is to create a sorbent that has high selectivity in sulfur molecules, meaning that it will adsorb the sulfur molecules, leaving the other molecules in the fuel intact, ” Valla said.  

This project will be an iterative process that uses experiments and models to “create fundamental knowledge on how the properties of metals and bimetals-exchanged Y zeolites, such as pore size, metals properties, location, oxidation state and interaction, affect the adsorption process.”  

Valla will be working to optimize a zeolite so that it can be extremely selective in finding sulfur molecules and then adsorb them.  

She explained that this research can lead to a product that can have significant impact on the environment and consequently humans. 

“As the regulations become more strict, the refineries need to use more severe and expensive conditions in the hydrodesulfurization process, so if we find something now that’s more economical and visible that will save us a lot of lives, and environmental problems,” Valla said.  

 

Written by: By Sarah Al-Arshani 

Photography by: Thomas Hurlbut

Dr. Burke: Mimicking Nature to Find a Solution: Polymer Program Receives Federal Funding for Bio-Inspired, Bio-Derived Projects

 

        In an effort to support the doctoral training of graduate students in the Polymer Program of the Institute of Material Science, a proposal by Kelly Burke, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, was recently awarded funding under the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) from the United States Department of Education. 

        Burke, a member of the Polymer Program, said that the proposal, which is focused on bio-derived and bio-inspired polymers, is meant to support graduate students as they complete their doctoral coursework and research. The funding permits the recruitment and support of a larger and more diverse cohort of STEM students, with particular focus in growing participation from females and other groups traditionally underrepresented in science and engineering. 

“Really the goal is to provide financial support in the form of tuition, fees, and fellowship stipends for graduate students,” Burke said. “What that means is that we can grow our graduate program. We can support more students, train more students.” 

She said that admitting and training a diverse group of students is important for better representation of our communities as well as for the generating of ideas from teams of people with different perspectives.  

“We want to provide more opportunity for students to earn graduate degrees. This award allows us to provide high-level technical training to our candidates to position them to be leaders and innovators in the field,” Burke said. “Our program aims to equip students with the research and communication skills that they need so they can go out and make the mark that they want to have on the world. This award also allows us to recruit and support qualified people who may not have previously considered graduate school.” 

The theme of the research is focused on creating materials that are “bio-derived” or “bio-inspired” meaning they originate from or are inspired by nature. 

“Nature is the best at doing pretty much everything, including making polymers,” Burke said.   

        The Polymer Program as well as this proposal is multi-disciplinary, combining professors and students from the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Physics, and Chemistry Departments. Burke said this proposal allows for great collaboration between members of the various departments. 

        The proposal supports 12 different projects that focus on mimicking natural materials to overcome some of the limitations of conventional plastics. 

        Burke explained that a wide range of materials can actually be considered polymers. The projects mainly deal with creating different materials that can interact with various type of surfaces. 

“Our materials are polymers, which are very big molecules. When people think of polymers, they often think about plastics that they encounter daily. Polymers are also things like rubber bands and gels. They can be hard or soft, and they can act like liquids, solids, or in between. There really is a wide variety of materials that are polymers,” Burke said. 

She herself will be working with a biopolymer, silk protein, in hopes of developing a material that can be used on the surface of the intestine to help with symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases. Burke explained that, in some cases, inflammation is caused when the mucus within the intestine erodes and bacteria enters a wound in the wall of the intestine. 

        Burke is interested in designing and chemically modifying silk proteins so that they can be injected into the intestine as a liquid and then form a gel layer to stick to the inside of the organ. 

“You can think about that gel layer just as a physical barrier to help if the mucus is eroded, but it also has a way to deliver treatment locally. A lot of inflammatory bowel diseases have what we call systemic treatments. You have either a pill or injection that treats the symptoms of the disease but that can have some serious side effects,” Burke said.” So, what we’re trying to do is design polymers that can interact at the site of inflammation and that are a localized delivery depot for therapeutics.” 

        For Burke this is a part of a larger interest in looking at how materials can interact with cells. 

        “I’m really interested in influencing cells to function in different ways just using materials. For example, often scientists need to be able to transition adult stem cells into different types of cells, like bone cells, fat cells, or nerve cells. They do this to understand how cells function when they are healthy and diseased. The most common way to do this now would be to deliver chemicals to cause the cells to differentiate and behave in a specific way,” Burke said. “One challenge with transitioning a technology or treatment from the lab into a clinical setting is that there can be undesired consequences when reagents diffuse out and travel to different places in the body.” 

        Essentially this would be a project looking at the possibility of promoting healing in intestinal tissue by delivering a localized treatment for inflammation with a material rather than delivering a potent treatment systemically. 

        “My lab has been very interested in trying to use the properties of a material to affect cellular behavior,” Burke said. “If you can control how cells and tissues function using materials, you may be able to reduce the need to deliver very potent biological molecules. This would open up many new possibilities in regenerative medicine and engineering.” 

        While this is only one project of the many proposed under the grant, all the projects focus on utilizing polymers derived or inspired by natural materials. Some projects focus on material synthesis, while others focus on complex characterization techniques and building computer models to predict their behavior. Many of the projects seek to understand and control the interaction of materials with various surfaces for tangible applications. 

 

Article by Sarah Al-Arshani 

Photography by Thomas Hurlbut

 

  

CBE Alumnus, Nikolas Franceschi-Hoffmann, Received UConn Accelerate 
Grant Based on His 2018 Senior Design Project

Nikolas Franceschi-Hoffmann, Geyser Remediation LLC.

Currently people in the drinking water industry are beginning to realize that a family of contaminants that had previously slipped under the radar, Per-and Poly-Fluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs), are almost certainly toxic, and cause a variety of issues from developmental to cancers. Environmental regulators have therefore begun to regulate PFASs in some states as a result. However, no good technologies exist on the market that can get rid of all the chemicals in the family effectively, or cost-efficiently. Through work that started as a senior design project, we think we have designed a reactor capable of doing just that. If we can prototype it to prove that, then there is a good chance we can push regulators in states currently without regulation over the edge to start regulating in their state, too. That would effectively create a hostage market for us, as water utilities would be forced into compliance. We currently do not yet have a patent, but are working with the UConn IP Law Clinic to get a provisional patent. Indicators in the market are good for us as one estimate suggests as much as 1/3rd of the US population, or 110 million people are affected by this problem. Additionally, our end customers: water utilities and government agencies that we have met with thus far are all very interested and have shown excitement at the prospect of having a potential solution on the way. 

Dr. Wagstrom Receives NSF CAREER Award for Evaluating Air Pollution in Hartford Neighborhoods

 

Kristina Wagstrom, Eversource Energy Assistant Professor of Environmental Engineering Education at the University of Connecticut, received a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation for a project that will evaluate air pollution in various neighborhoods in Hartford. 

The five year, $500,000  project entitled  “Engaging Communities to Bridge the Local to Regional Gap in Air Pollution Exposure Assessment” began in June 2018. Wagstrom and students in one of her service learning elective courses will be working with various neighborhoods in Hartford to tackle issues of near road air pollution. They will develop recommendations for individuals, communities, and policy changes to mitigate the impact of air pollution.   

“The motivation behind this project is to provide ways to better understand real world air pollution exposures and take into account near road exposures,” She said.   

One part of the project will involve monitoring air pollution in Hartford using low cost equipment. Wagstrom said that for every year of the project researchers will partner with different neighborhood associations in Hartford to do modelling and monitoring of air pollution in that neighborhood. Citizen will able to set up some monitors themselves as well.   

Wagstrom said the project will focus on using a hybrid modeling approach that will yield better estimates of air pollutant concentrations than other models. 

“A lot of the actual effort on the project is developing this complex new model,” Wagstrom said “The goal is to provide a tool that can be used anywhere to provide better air pollution estimates that can then be used to make recommendations to people about how they might want to change their own activity and make recommendations to communities and city planners about better ways of planning urban areas.”   

She said the new modeling system will allow them to better estimate, for example, the difference between walking or biking down one road versus another during different times of day. 

“So really giving us much better estimates to what your air pollution exposure would look like given different activity patterns. Different ways of going about your life day to day,” Wagstrom said. 

 

Article by Sarah Al-Arshani 

Photography by Peter Morenus

Dr. Xiaoguang Peng received prestigious fellowship from Anton Paar

Dr. Xiaoguang Peng – a postdoctoral research associate from Dr. Anson Ma’s research group – has received a prestigious fellowship from Anton Paar in recognition of his expertise in rheology and contributions to the science of complex fluids. Dr. Peng received his PhD degree in Chemical Engineering from Texas Tech University in 2016. Before joining UCONN in 2018, he was a PhD student and then a postdoctoral fellow in Prof. Greg McKenna’s group at Texas Tech. He has over 10 years of experience in the synthesis and characterization of polymers and colloidal dispersions.

 

The Anton Paar fellowship was established in 2016 as part of a strategic partnership between Ma’s research group and Anton Paar – a world-leading manufacturer of measurement instruments. The company has provided fellowships and loaned their most advanced rheometer, the MCR 702 TwinDrive Rheometer, to Dr. Ma’s lab. https://news.engr.uconn.edu/new-partnership-brings-high-end-research-equipment-to-uconn.php

UConn CBE Welcomes Assistant Professor Liang Zhang

Prof. Liang Zhang

The Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department welcomes Liang Zhang as an Assistant-Professor.  

Dr. Zhang’s research focuses on developing theoretical frameworks and computational methods to accelerate the discovery of materials. In particular, he is interested in catalytic materials and other functional materials that enable efficient chemical transformation and energy storage.

Dr. Liang Zhang earned his Ph.D. degree in Physical Chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin in 2015. After that, he worked at Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania for his postdoctoral training. The primary area of Dr. Zhang’s research is to use state-of-the-art computational tools to simulate and understand chemical reactions from first principles. His research aims to the in-silico discovery and engineering of materials for energy and environmental applications.

CBE Congratulates Dr. Lei on His New Appointment to a Centennial Term Professorship in the School of Engineering

Professor Yu Lei, Chemical and Biomelcular Engineering, has been chosen for appointment to a Centennial Term Professorship in the School of Engineering. The Centennial Term Professorships, established through an anonymous donation of $1 million, are aimed at recognizing outstanding faculty members who have left a lasting impact on the School of Engineering through leadership and innovation in teaching, research, mentorship, engagement, and institution building.

Dr. Lei received his Ph.D. in 2004 from the University of California-Riverside. He joined UConn’s Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in 2006.  Dr. Lei is a well-acknowledged expert in the areas of chemical and biological sensors. The primary area of Professor Lei’s research is to develop novel, simple, cost-effective, ultrasensitive, and universal (bio)sensor and/or nanomaterial-based sensor platforms for the detection of biological and chemical species, which combine the principles of chemical engineering, nanotechnology and molecular biology for homeland security, environmental, energy and biomedical monitoring.

Dr. Lei is an elected Fellow of American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) and an elected member of the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering (CASE). He is a licensed Professional Engineer (P.E.) in Chemical Engineering and was a recipient of UConn School of Engineering Dean’s Excellence Award in 2016. Dr. Lei has over 140 peer-reviewed journal publications, 3 invited book chapters, and more than 10 patents/disclosures.

UConn’s Dr. Parnas Works with REA Resource Recovery Systems LLC to Turn Wastewater Treatment Byproducts into Biodiesel Fuel

Richard Parnas of the IMS Polymer Program enjoyed a visit from Governor Danell Malloy to the site of UConn’s collaborative project with the Greater New Haven Water Pollution Control Authority and REA Resource Recovery Systems LLC on September 27, 2018. The visit celebrated the first milestone of the project, where the brown grease waste stream from the East Shore wastewater treatment plant is converted to biodiesel fuel in a process patented by Dr. Parnas that REA licenses from UConn. Dr. Parnas and REA installed a mini-refinery at the East Shore treatment plant with capability to produce approximately 400,000 liters per year of biodiesel fuel from the brown grease. That system serves as a 1/10 scale demonstration of a typical commercial system the company can install at many of the thousands of wastewater treatment plants throughout the world. For ease of installation, the entire demonstration system was constructed inside of 2 CONEX shipping containers at ProFlow, Inc. of North Haven, CT. Future plans include the installation of a turbo-electric generator to demonstrate a pathway to converting the waste stream to power at a cost much less then required with current biodigester technology.

Cong Liu, a chemical engineering graduate student working with Prof. Parnas, describes aspects of the conversion process to an aide to Governor Malloy while standing outside of the main reactor room of the mini-refinery.

Governor Malloy, Dr. Parnas, and UCONN Chemistry undergraduate Dylan Ramirez discuss the importance of waste management and power generation to the wastewater treatment industry.

REA managing partner Al Barbarotta, Governor Malloy and Prof. Parnas discussing the chemistry of the conversion process while standing in the main reactor room of the mini-refinery. A cluster of 3 continuous stirred tank reactors, a multi-phase laminar flow reactor, and a liquid/liquid extractor are visible in the background.

Faculty Spotlight: Professor Yu Lei Inducted into AIMBE, Looks to the Future

By: Taylor Caron

Professor Yu Lei (left) with graduate students Qiuchen Dong and Xiaoyu Ma. (Peter Morenus for UConn)

Professor Yu Lei has been inducted into the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering for his work in biological sensor design and testing. AIMBE is a one of the most prestigious institutes for medical and biomedical engineers as it comprises of only the top 2% of professionals in the field. While he is proud of his achievements, he said he has no intention of resting on his laurels. His research is heading toward a focus on digital technology which would make biosensors more affordable for individuals.

Lei spoke of the nature of his work that AIMBE is recognizing: “AIMBE considers professionals whose accomplishments are related to medical issues. It has always been my desire to work toward innovating more effective and affordable tools for medical professionals which is why this is so rewarding,” he said.

Lei has been credited with adapting the traditional area of electrochemistry for nanoscale structures for not only sensing, but also for applications in biocatalysis and chemical catalysis. The institute recognizes him as the pioneer in developing nanostructured metal oxide based enzymatic and non-enzymatic glucose biosensors with strong success in combating diabetes. AIMBE has seen these achievements, among others, as seminal advancements in public health.

 

He spoke about the process of induction which includes nomination, rigorous screen testing, and voting by the College of Fellows. He said there must be an affirmative vote of at least 74.5% in order to be inducted.

 

“It was certainly surprising to know that so many of AIMBE’s incredibly prestigious College affirmed my induction, but also was an excellent feeling that all this hard work paid off,” he said.

According to Lei, a professional network of AIMBE’s stature can significantly promote and advance a researcher and their university. He said that UConn is increasingly becoming a more recognized and accolated research university, and that being able to represent the Chemical Engineering and Biomolecular Department at AIMBE will only further highlight the program on a national level.

Lei said that networking opportunities with AIMBE can aid with research projects going forward. As previously mentioned, Lei believes the future of biosensors, a field in which he already is seen as a pioneer, needs to look to digital technology. A digital biosensor will not only be more affordable than electrochemical biosensors, but also can be more precise in detecting targeted molecules.

 

“We are looking to develop a biosensor which can detect a small molecule, allowing for medical professionals to detect and track dangerous or toxic molecules early on. This is the kind of technology which is available in some hospitals, but it is very large and expensive equipment. This technology needs to be available for individuals so they can communicate with their doctors regularly about the concentration level of toxic molecules or biomarkers for diseases,” Lei said.

 

Though Lei cannot disclose too much about the specificities of his current research, he was happy to comment that there have been reassuring successes. He mentioned that even the current biosensors used in hospitals can error in their use of the universal standard, and that a more personalized system is necessary.

“So different people have different thresholds regarding biomarker concentration. What is dangerous for me might not necessarily be dangerous for someone else and vice versa. What we’re looking for is home-use, so that different persons can track their own individual molecule concentration. If there’s a sudden spike one day, they can contact their doctor earlier rather than later.”

Lei’s research group consists of undergraduate and graduate students who work closely with the professor on this relatively new area of research. Lei admits that he has high expectations for his students, but it is because he believes in the power of this technology for the public health and beyond.

“Yes, sometimes I push them hard but I selected them because I know they are capable of pursuing this research with me. These kinds of biosensors could also have significant applications in environmental work. This is what excites me: I think it’s important to always be pushing forward, always looking to the future for new opportunities,” he said.