Chemical Engineering Professors Investigate Nano-Devices for Explosive Detectio

  • March 27th, 2012
  • By John C. Giardina, republished with permission of emagination, a School of Engineering electronic publication

Two faculty members in the Department of Chemical, Materials, & Biomolecular Engineering have begun a project that has the promise to transform the work and protect the lives of military and law enforcement personnel around the world.  Associate Professors Brian Willis and Yong Wang, working on a grant funded by the Office of Naval Research, are attempting to develop an electronic chemical sensing device that can identify the presence of explosives by sampling the vapor around an object.

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), regularly used in terrorist attacks around the world, present a persistent threat to the people who are tasked to investigate these devices and to the public at large.  Because IEDs are often hidden or disguised, they are hard to identify without some kind of sensing technology.  “Soldiers rely mostly on their intuition to identify and disarm IEDs,” Dr. Willis says.  “There is no ubiquitous sensor that can tell whether a suspicious object is an explosive or not.”  Thus, the goal of Drs. Willis and Wang is to develop a device that is sensitive and selective: able to detect specific chemicals that are present at only miniscule amounts in the air.

To do this, the researchers employ a type of molecule called an aptamer, which is a short strand of either DNA or RNA.  Specific aptamers, defined by their nucleotide sequence, will often bind to a specific chemical, like those found in explosives.  The challenges Drs. Willis and Wang face are to, first, identify specific aptamers and their respective chemical targets, and then design a system where the binding of chemical to aptamer can be detected.

Dr. Wang’s work focuses on the identification of the specific aptamers.  “My side of the project focuses on the identification, amplification, and modification of aptamers,” he says.  To do this, Dr. Wang starts with a library of billions of different aptamers.  He runs a target chemical through the aptamers and isolates the ones that bind to it.  He then amplifies the isolated aptamers and runs the process again.  Repeating these steps multiple times, Dr. Wang is able to isolate aptamers that have a high affinity for specific target molecules.  At that point, Dr. Wang has to modify the aptamer.  “Whenever the chemical binds to the aptamer, the conformation, or shape, of the aptamer changes,” he says.  If the aptamers can be designed to change shape in a certain way, the binding of the chemical can be detected more easily.

Now, Dr. Willis’ work comes into play.  He is working on designing molecular scale electronic devices that will detect the conformation changes.  His research focuses on using electron tunneling devices to electronically detect the target chemical.  Electron tunneling is essentially the flow of electrons through a gap between two wires.  Normally, one would expect that electrons could not flow through two wires that were not touching, but if they are close enough, on a nano-scale, then the two wires will act like a completed circuit.  As it turns out, the flow of electrons is strongly affected by what is between the wires.  So, if an aptamer is placed between the two contacts, it will change the electrical current.  Moreover, any conformation changes will alter the electrical current as well.  Because these circuits are so small, a sensing device could have millions of them, with groups of the circuits dedicated to different aptamers.  To use the device, air would be flowed past the circuits.  If any of the target molecules are present in the air, they will bind to their specific aptamer, changing the conformation.  The current running through the circuit attached to the aptamer will then change as well, giving an electrical signal for the presence of the specific chemical in the air.

This project has the capability to make explosives detection much faster, more accurate, and safer than it is now.  The benefit of such a sensor, though, goes beyond military and law enforcement applications.  Dr. Willis says, “One can think of lots of other applications for chemical sensors, commercial applications, in the future as well.”  It is not hard to imagine the benefits in many areas of life that can be derived from immediate and accurate chemical detection.

Team to Explore Oral Inflammation Resulting from Cancer Chemotherapy

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

Dr. Ranjan Srivastava, associate professor of Chemical, Materials & Biomolecular Engineering, is a co-investigator – with Dr. Patricia Diaz, a faculty member in the Skeletal, Craniofacial and Oral Biology graduate program at the UConn Health Center (UCHC) – on a $3.1 million, multi-disciplinary National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant. The project aims to better understand the role of cancer chemotherapy in enabling or producing painful oral lesions called “mucositis.”

Cancer patients receiving chemotherapy drugs or irradiation can develop the ulcers, which are quite painful and substantially impact nutrition and oral hygiene resulting in weight loss. The oral lesions may also be colonized by bacteria, with such infections resulting in significant and potentially life-threatening complications for immunocompromised patients, according to Dr. Srivastava. Additionally, severe oral mucositis may result in a reduction of a patient’s chemotherapy dose or complete interruption of radiation therapy, compromising the effectiveness of the primary cancer treatment.

The overall aims of the NIH project are to investigate the effects of chemotherapy on the oral microflora and to identify a possible association between the oral microbiome (the totality of the microorganisms, their genetic makeup and dynamic interrelationships within the mouth) and the clinical signs and molecular signatures of oral mucositis. Dr. Srivastava, who will oversee the computational biology aspects of the project, and his colleagues anticipate that their findings will result in comprehensive preventive approaches to improving patient well-being and cancer treatment outcomes.

The multidisciplinary team received the grant through the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) and comprises faculty from the UCHC and Storrs campuses. In addition to Drs. Diaz and Srivastava, the team includes Anna Dongari-Bagtzoglou (professor and chair, Division of Periodontology), Douglas Peterson (professor, Department of Oral Health and Diagnostic Sciences and co-chair of the program in Head and Neck Cancer and Oral Oncology), Rajesh Lalla (assistant professor of Oral Medicine) and Joseph Burleson (assistant professor, Community Medicine & Health Care program) – all associated with the UCHC; and Linda Strausbaugh (professor of Molecular & Cell Biology, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences).

The team seeks to answer a number of important questions that will ultimately lead to better understanding of the oral side effects, and avenues for reducing the severity of these side effects, in patients who are undergoing chemotherapy:

  • Does the oral microflora – that is, the collection of microorganisms within the mouth – change during the course of chemotherapy, and, if so, do these changes precede or follow the occurrence of mucositis?
  • Is there a connection between the differing microbiomes present in different individuals, and the incidence and/or severity of mouth lesions?
  • Are changes in the microbiome diversity or structure associated with a reduction in white blood cell function or availability in the oral environment?
  • Are there specific “signature” genetic characteristics associated with oral mucositis? If so, are these signatures associated with a specific microbiome?

CMBE Head, Barry Carter, Elected Fellow of AAAS

carter-barry-profileIn late November this year, it was announced that three members of the UConn Faculty have been elected to the rank of Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Dr. C. Barry Carter was elected from the Section on Engineering. The other two honorees this year are Douglas L. Oliver, UConn Health Center and the AAAS Section on Biological Sciences, and Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor Dipak K. Dey of the AAAS Section on Statistics. The three will each receive a certificate and a blue and gold rosette at the Fellows Forum during the February 2012 meeting in Vancouver. There were no honorees from UConn in 2010 and just 2 in 2009 when Dr. Sanguthevar (Raj) Rajasekaran of CSE and Dr. Leo Lefrancois, of the UConn Health Center are from the Section on Information, Computing, and Communication and the Section on Medical Sciences, respectively.  AAAS is active internationally and plays a critical role in promoting excellence in all aspects of science in the USA.  It is particularly well known as the publisher of the influential magazine Science (www.sciencemag.org). Dr. Carter was elected to be a Fellow of the Materials Research Society (MRS) in 2009 and of the Microscopy Society of America in the same year. He was made a Fellow of the American Ceramic Society in 1995. Dr. Carter was honored by AAAS for his distinguished contributions to engineering through his textbooks on ceramic materials and transmission electron microscopy, his editing of the Journal of Materials Science, and his study of crystal defects. The two textbooks have been concurrently listed on Springer’s 15 most downloaded books on Chemistry and Materials Science. The Journal of Materials Science has one of the most improved impact factors of any journal over the past 4 years; Dr. Carter is the Editor in Chief, working with 16 other Editors, including UConn Professors Dr. Mark Aindow (one of Dr. Carter’s two Deputies), Dr. Pamir Alpay and Dr. Chris Cornelius. Dr. Carter has published more than 700 articles on a wide range of crystal defects, in materials ranging from sapphire to gallium nitride to stainless steel; nearly 300 of his publications are in archival journals.

Five UConn Chemical Engineering Students Won Student Poster Awards at the 2011 AIChE Conference

UConn was well represented at the 2011 AIChE National Conference, held in Minneapolis, MN. Five UConn chemical engineering students won awards in their respective disciplines at the student poster competition, and over ten presented their work in either posters or oral presentations.

Congratulations to all.

aiche poster winner

Pictured, from left to right: Andrea Kadilak (2nd place), Hollin Abraham, Daniel Anastasio, Jessica Bogart, Erik Johnson, Breanne Muratori (3rd place), Ethan Butler (2nd place), Lela Villegas, (1st place), Daniel Manuzzi, Anthony La (3rd place), and Honorio Valdés.

CHEG Doctoral Student Vincent Palumbo selected to Receive Koerner Family Fellowships

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

Five engineering doctoral students who aspire to careers in an academic setting have been selected to receive Koerner Family Fellowships, which confer $10,000 to each. The Koerner Family Fellowships are made possible thanks to the generosity of Professor Robert and Mrs. Paula Koerner and their children – Dr. Michael Koerner, Dr. George Koerner and Ms. Pauline Koerner.

The 2011-12 recipients were nominated by their departments and chosen by a School committee.  They are:

  • Lance Fiondella, Computer Science & Engineering (advisor: Swapna Gokhale). Research interests: software reliability and performance, homeland security studies, and computer programming literacy.
  • Kathryn Gosselin, Mechanical Engineering (advisor:  Michael Renfro).  Research interests:  ignition limits at atmospheric and low pressures, with applications in the operation of afterburners in military jet engines and other types of combustion engines.
  • Chad Johnston, Civil & Environmental Engineering (advisor: Marisa Chrysochoou).  Research interests: contaminant mobility in soil and groundwater systems, for the development of remediation strategies and evaluating public health risks. Particular interest in chromate, a toxic metal and potential carcinogen.
  • Vincent Palumbo, Chemical, Materials & Biomolecular Engineering (advisor: Bryan Huey).  Research interests:  methods of enhancing the blast and fire resistance of the nation’s infrastructure, including bridges, buildings, tunnels, and the like.
  • Ernesto Suarez, Electrical & Computer Engineering (advisor: Faquir Jain). Research interests:  tunnel insulators for three-state logic field effect transistors (FETs) and nonvolatile memory devices, with a focus on radiation hardened devices.

Dean of Engineering Mun Y. Choi, said “Professor and Mrs. Koerner have been stalwart supporters of higher education for more than four decades.  Through their generous gift, a group of highly-talented Ph.D. students will pursue advanced studies in trans-disciplinary topics in engineering.”

Dr. Koerner is the H.L. Bowman Professor Emeritus of Civil, Architectural & Environmental Engineering at Drexel University and the Director of the Geosynthetic Research Institute.  Throughout his over 40-year career, Dr. Koerner has established a sterling reputation as a technological innovator, educator and engineering practitioner.  He has authored hundreds of journal papers and books on topics spanning soil deformation, waste containment facility construction, and the use of geosynthetics in erosion, filtration and drainage control.  In recognition of his accomplishments in the design and use of geosynthetic materials in the constructed environment, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in 1998.

Ethan Butler was awarded the Portz Interdisciplinary Research Fellowship Prize

Ethan Butler (’12) was awarded the Portz Interdisciplinary Research Fellowship prize. This is a nationally recognized award and Ethan’s proposal was evaluated amongst several very strong proposals and deemed the most promising.  Ethan, who is the president of Engineers Without Borders at UCONN, has built a team of 6 undergraduate students to work on his project entitled “A Response to the Water Crisis: Evaluating and Improving a Novel, Zero-Energy Water Filtration System for Use in Ethiopia.” The review committee felt that his proposal was well conceived and exceptionally well presented. Ethan, who is advised by Professor Jeffrey McCutcheon, will receive $5,000 to support his project.

Chemical Engineering Senior Renovation

Join us as we set out to modernize the Chemical Engineering Senior Lab!

Do you remember working in the senior laboratory? Would it surprise you that many of the same experiments and equipment are still there? Help us change that! We need to update the lab with new experiments and renovate existing ones to better prepare the next generation of UConn Chemical Engineers. Do you have suggestions for experiments, or equipment that your company wants to donate? This is your chance to impact the future of the lab for decades to come!

Some improvements we need:

  • A new computer control system for our pilot-scale distillation column.
  • Revamping the double-effect evaporator for desalination experiments, tying in with faculty research on clean energy and water initiatives.
  • New Plug Flow Reactor (PFR) and Continuous Stirred-Tank Reactor (CSTR) suites to tie in with our kinetics course.
  • A bio-fermentation experiment.
  • Computer control and data logging for all experiments.

We have 1100 ft2 of renovated laboratory space in the United Technologies building that’s waiting to be filled! We’ve added new experiments representing the cutting edge of faculty research and new directions for chemical engineering, but we need YOUR help to continue.

To Our Business Friends: Do you want to help educate the next generation of chemical engineers you’ll hire? Are there skills you feel are important for graduates to have? If so, we’re eager to hear from you! We’re interested in partnering with companies to involve our students in real-world challenges relevant to you. Whether through financial support, equipment donation, or mentoring students, we want to talk to you about your ideas.

To donate today, please click here:

Have questions? Want to talk? Here’s how to reach us:

Daniel D. Burkey
Assistant Department Head and
Assistant Professor-in-Residence
Chemical, Materials, and
Biomolecular Engineering

Donald Swinton
Development Officer
UConn School of Engineering

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.