UConn Partners in $100M DOE Innovation Hub on Water Technologies – Jeff McCutcheon leads UConn’s participation in NAWI

October 31, 2019


Around the world, fresh water scarcity poses a major economic, environmental, and humanitarian challenges. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and other federal agencies have forged important collaborations with universities, the private sector, the National Labs, and other organization to find innovative and practical solutions to address this threat.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry announced Monday that the National Alliance for Water Innovation (NAWI), a research consortium including the University of Connecticut, has been awarded a five-year, $100-million Energy-Water Desalination Hub (pending appropriations) to address water security issues in the United States. The hub will focus on early-stage research and development for energy-efficient and cost-competitive desalination technologies and for treating nontraditional water sources for various end uses.

Jeffrey McCutcheon, Al Geib Professor of Environmental Engineering Research and Education in UConn’s School of Engineering, is leading UConn’s participation in NAWI. McCutcheon is an internationally recognized expert in membrane technologies for sustainable water and energy production. He serves as a deputy thrust area lead for the hub’s R&D activities involving materials and manufacturing, and is also the UConn site representative to NAWI.

“UConn is excited to join a team consisting of top researchers in the field of water treatment and desalination,” says McCutcheon, who is also executive director of the Fraunhofer USA Center for Energy Innovation at UConn Tech Park. “While Connecticut does not suffer from severe water shortages, we do have water quality challenges that could see solutions emerge from this effort.”

McCutcheon anticipates that NAWI will tap into UConn’s expertise in areas like membrane technology, waste water treatment, computational development, and systems design, to create a stable and resilient water supply for agriculture, industry, and communities. NAWI hopes to achieve these goals through a “circular water economy,” by which water is treated for a specific purpose and reused at the local level rather than being transported long distances.

As a DOE Energy Innovation Hub, NAWI will not only conduct research but also develop a roadmap to prioritize the highest impact technology options, then identify and solicit projects to support those priorities.

NAWI’s goal is to advance a portfolio of novel technologies that will secure a circular water economy in which 90% of nontraditional water sources – such as seawater, brackish water, and produced waters – can be cost-competitive with existing water sources within 10 years.

According to McCutcheon, many of UConn’s research strengths align well with NAWI’s goals.

“Not only is UConn home to one of the highest quality material characterization facilities in the country, many UConn faculty members also already contribute to important water safety initiatives like Governor Lamont’s task force on hazardous chemicals in the Farmington River,” says McCutcheon. “I’m confident that UConn’s preeminent researchers and high-tech infrastructure will allow us to play a significant role in the NAWI innovation hub.”

Meet the Researcher: George Bollas, UConn Tech Park

 Consider the complexity of a modern passenger airliner. An aircraft is a self-contained “system-of-systems,” consisting of a diverse assortment of interdependent subsystems and components working together. Electrical, hydraulic, flight control, fuel handling, cabin pressurization, and engine systems are all crucial parts of a functional aircraft, each with their own constraints and requirements in addition to those of the aircraft as a whole.

The complexity of engineering interconnected systems like aircrafts — or, for that matter, power plants, smart buildings, and modern manufacturing facilities — has led many industries to migrate toward formalized systems engineering, considering large systems holistically.

Led by George Bollas, the United Technologies Corporation Institute for Advanced Systems Engineering (UTC-IASE) has been solving these real-world problems for industry since 2013.

Bollas, who is a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering in UConn’s School of Engineering, focuses his research on process design, simulation, optimization, control, and diagnostics. These research interests align seamlessly with the needs of industry partners like United Technologies Corporation.

Located in the University of Connecticut Tech Park’s Innovation Partnership Building, UTC-IASE is working on some of the most pressing challenges for businesses and research sponsors using innovative approaches to model-based systems engineering.

“We have converted it to something that is self-sustained and can work with United Technologies at many levels, but also engage other satellite industry partners, the state, and federal agencies to have a greater impact,” says Bollas.

Location, Location, Location

At UConn Tech Park, students from different departments and research groups in the School of Engineering who are working on different projects managed by the UTC-IASE can come together in a central location. Much like the complex operations the students are researching, their individual projects and skills all work together to make systems more efficient. Bollas says this allows for close collaboration and frequent discussion of what each individual group is tackling.

“For the first time we’re all in one place,” Bollas says. “To develop that culture for students, where they work next to each other, day and night, and all that good competition that comes out of it is very positive for the mindset and culture both at UConn and when these students go out in the workforce.”

“Industry often focuses on measurable outcomes, seeking means for producing their products better, faster, and at reduced cost. Awareness of these tangible impacts helps students understand the importance of their research”, says Bollas.

“In many cases, you know from the get-go that you are going to help a company solve a $10 million-a-year problem. It’s very exciting for the students to work on something that they understand has immediate value and impact on such a huge scale,” Bollas says.

Many of the students at the UTC-IASE go into careers with United Technology Corporation or other companies in the area of manufacturing, energy, aerospace, building, and robotics. The experience contributes to the preparation of graduate and undergraduate students for these careers as they learn to communicate with industry partners effectively and consistently.

“It’s a natural next step,” Bollas says. “It’s very helpful to know where they might be going, what they’re going to face in industry or academia.”

In addition to graduate research, UTC-IASE exposes UConn students to business professionals through a training program that was originally designed for employees of the corporation. Bollas says this training is critical, since the entire concept of systems engineering works to un-train students from thinking about problems in terms of their own specificity.

“In both research and training, we emphasize the concept of system-level thinking. One needs to understand what the entire system looks like – from architecture to requirements, design, commissioning, performance, and maintenance. This approach relies on thinking of the entire life-cycle of a system from design to decommissioning.”

To accomplish this, UTC-IASE offers training of professionals through a formal Graduate Certificate and a Master of Engineering program in Advanced Systems Engineering. These programs are offered to geographically dispersed professionals as well as students at UConn who are interested in developing a unique and valuable set of skills in the areas of model-based systems engineering of cyber-physical systems.

“We’re helping lifelong learning for the existing engineering workforce,” Bollas says. “We’re helping them understand what is the state-of-the-art, and some of the approaches and solutions to the problems they are dealing with in their everyday work. We call this integration of undergraduates, graduate students, and professional engineers a ‘talent eco-system’ that can produce and sustain a modern engineering workforce in the state and for the nation.”

Big Problems, Real Solutions

Bollas is currently collaborating with Collins Aerospace to improve fault detection and isolation methods. The advanced detection algorithms Bollas and his research team are developing are optimized for actively identifying faults during aircraft operation and helping to reduce false alarms. This project has already led to two patent applications filed jointly by UConn and Collins Aerospace.

“We’re transferring what we develop here at the university to actual industry environments, where we have access to all the data, constraints, requirements, and system-specific details. We do this through internships and sabbatical leaves, and this has really been a wonderful model for technology transfer,” Bollas says. “I’m not sure we’d be aware of the significance and limitations of our research if we weren’t working with a technology leader like UTC.”

Bollas again points to the importance of location, both in Connecticut and at Tech Park, to help the institute grow.

“There are so many opportunities generated for the institute just because we are located here,” Bollas says. “We’re working with several other Tech Park centers and their industry partners since they are more and more focused on ‘smart’ processes for manufacturing.”

Bollas is referring to a paradigm shift dubbed Industry 4.0 or “smart manufacturing,” which places emphasis on cyber-physical systems. Cyber-physical systems include physical machines controlled by computer-based algorithms that are deeply ingrained in the so-called Internet of Things. To remain competitive, companies like Collins Aerospace and Pratt & Whitney have been investing in the development of smart manufacturing technologies in their respective industries.

By having access to test beds at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology and the Pratt & Whitney Additive Manufacturing Center in the IPB, the UTC-IASE researchers working on smart manufacturing projects with the Department of Energy provide a better picture of how well their research, algorithms, and solutions will work when used in an industrial setting.

“Smart manufacturing solutions are sometimes easy on a computer, but when you actually have to deploy these advanced technologies, it’s very helpful to have test beds we can use right here at the Tech Park,” Bollas says.

Bollas says he is proud of laying a strong foundation for future growth through partnerships with industry and federal agencies on such a large scale. Moving forward, he has no doubt that the research collaborations taking place at UTC-IASE will continue to generate innovative, real-world solutions that help Connecticut and its industry partners grow.

 – Anna Zarra Aldrich ’20 (CLAS), Office of the Vice President for Research


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

April 19, 2019

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

April 5, 2019


        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

February 15, 2019

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

January 25, 2019

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

December 10, 2018

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.