ChemE Briefs

Welcome to ChemE Briefs, a place to find quick notes and posts from the faculty, students, staff and alumni of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Virginia.


    Professor Carta Honored with AIChE Plenary Sessions

    November 30, 2020
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    The American Institute of Chemical Engineers honored Giorgio Carta, the Lawrence R. Quarles Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Virginia with two plenary sessions on Nov. 17 at its 2020 meeting. The sessions in Adsorption and Ion Exchange Area 2e recognize Carta’s important research contributions in the field and his dedicated service to AIChE.

    Carta has been a member of the Area 2e Committee since 1986, and served as area vice chair and then area chair between 2004 and 2007. Area 2e is responsible for organizing 10 to 20 technical sessions on adsorption and ion exchange topics each year at the AIChE Annual meeting and for promoting adsorption science and technology, Carta said.

    As an Area 2e committee member, Carta has served as session chair or co-chair in more than 20 technical sessions. Area 2e is closely connected with the International Adsorption Society, where Carta also served as a board member between 2007 and 2013.


    UVA Chemical Engineering and School of Medicine Researchers Try Different Tack on Cancer Suicide Gene Therapy

    October 15, 2020
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    University of Virginia associate professor of chemical engineering Matthew Lazzara and Benjamin Purow, a professor and neurologist at the UVA School of Medicine, recently received an exploratory research grant from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health for collaborative research.

    The $415,245 award is a multiple principal investigator grant, a category of funding for projects requiring a team science approach. UVA Engineering’s proximity to a world-class medical school and health system facilitates collaborative efforts with clinicians and researchers at UVA and partner institutions.

    The project is titled “Engineering ERK-specificity for cancer suicide gene therapy.” Preliminary data for the proposal was based upon the doctoral thesis work of recent Lazzara lab graduate Evan Day.

    “Suicide gene therapy is an approach to trick cancer cells into killing themselves. The suicide gene product converts an otherwise innocuous prodrug into a toxic substance,” Lazzara said.

    The technique has been tried before and even undergone clinical trials, but the UVA team is onto something new.

    “We designed a way to promote the expression of these suicide genes in cancer cells exhibiting high activity of the ERK pathway, which is a frequent driver of resistance to therapy across many types of cancers,” Lazzara said.

    ERK, short for “extracellular signal-regulated kinase,” is a highly studied signaling protein involved in communicating information from receptors on the cell’s surface to the cell nucleus, where it regulates the transcription of numerous genes. It’s a biochemical pathway that cells use to regulate their proliferation and survival — and cancer cells frequently find ways to activate this pathway as a way to survive treatment.

    “Our approach could be a way to develop more selective and effective suicide gene therapies that will have preferential effects on cancer cells rather than normal tissue. The design also turns a common escape mechanism from therapy — the cell’s ability to turn up ERK signaling — into a lethal vulnerability. In other words, it takes a biochemical escape route that cancer cells like to use and turns that against the cancer cell,” Lazzara said.

    Lazzara, who holds a courtesy appointment in biomedical engineering and is a member of the UVA Cancer Center, is a noted researcher in the areas of cell-signaling and cellular decision-making. Purow is a clinician-scientist whose clinical practice focuses on neuro-oncology and whose research is focused on improved therapeutic approaches for brain cancer.


    New Grant Funds Studies on Innovative Additive Manufacturing Process

    September 21, 2020

    University of Virginia associate professor of chemical engineering Geoff Geise has received a National Science Foundation collaborative research grant that could lead to new materials manufacturing processes with the potential to address clean water shortages.

    Geise’s team is using the $325,654 grant to fund multiple investigative strategies and disciplinary approaches including advanced manufacturing, materials science, chemical engineering and electrochemistry to better understand an additive manufacturing technique called electrospray. Electrospray applies high voltage to a liquid to form an aerosol spray that can be precisely controlled.

    The process is similar to 3-D printing — the most familiar example of additive manufacturing — except that the building materials are individual molecules deposited on a surface to form a thin film or membrane with characteristics designed for specific purposes. This adaptability offers significant advantages over conventional processes for manufacturing film coatings, the researchers say. Conventional methods cannot reliably produce very thin ion exchange membranes with tunable properties that can be achieved with electrospray.

    “One benefit of this approach would be that manufacturers could quickly adapt the process to make tailored water treatment membranes in response to emerging contaminants or pollutants in water,” the team wrote in the National Science Foundation grant abstract. “Results from this research benefit the U.S. economy and society by enabling the manufacture of very efficient membranes that provide better access to clean water.”

    Geise's lab is collaborating on the research with a team led by Al Geib Professor of Environmental Engineering Research and Education Jeff McCutcheon at the University of Connecticut School of Engineering.

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    Ph.D. student Saringi Agata is one of the researchers working on the electrospray project.


    Grant Teams UVA ChE Lab with ODU Researchers to Investigate Quantum Dots

    August 19, 2020
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    Associate professor of chemical engineering Joshua Choi recently received a National Science Foundation research grant titled “Collaborative Research: Nanoscale Charge Transfer in Quantum Dots Connected with Molecular Switches.” The project is a collaboration with Guijun Wang’s research group at Old Dominion University. Wang is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

    The research team will study differences in how electrons move between quantum dots (semiconductor nanoparticles with tunable optical and electrical properties) when the shape of molecules bridging the quantum dots changes. This research has a potential to advance the fundamental understanding of optical and electrical processes in nanoscale materials with broad implications for improving computing and memory devices that serve a range of needs.

    The Choi group’s collaboration with Wang and her researchers was seeded by a 4-VA grant that made it possible for the team to generate key preliminary results. 4-VA is a partnership among eight Virginia universities formed around four research and educational initiatives.

    The research activities covered by the $310,420 National Science Foundation grant also integrate educational efforts to improve recruitment, training and retention of students in science and engineering fields, especially among underrepresented groups at the University of Virginia and Old Dominion University.


    Team Manifold Conducts Virtual Research

    August 11, 2020

    This year’s team is the 14th Virginia iGEM team to compete in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, the Giant Jamboree, following a legacy of successful teams and their inventive synthetic biology solutions. Under the guidance of our advisors, Professor Papin and Professor Kozminski (Biomedical Engineering and Biology Departments, respectively), Virginia iGEM has consistently received recognition at the competition, as well as seeding biotech startups Agrospheres INC and Transfoam LLC. Along with a strong reputation to live up to, the 2020 Team has been incredibly resilient in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.   


    Undergraduate Summer Research: Second-Year Undergrad Hopes to Catalyze Lab Experimentation by Modeling Chemical Reactions

    August 08, 2020
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    One in an occasional series featuring undergraduate students who are participating in summer research projects.

    Sarah Bhargava, second-year chemical engineering and economics major at the University of Virginia is spending her summer at home in New Jersey, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t keeping busy.

    “I am studying titanium oxide-supported catalysts,” Bhargava said.

    She is an undergraduate researcher in assistant professor of chemical engineering Chris Paolucci’s catalysis group, which focuses on computer simulations of chemical reactions using quantum and new hybrid modeling methods across a range of applications.

    A catalyst is a material used to speed up a chemical reaction to produce a desired outcome.

    “The goal of my research is to create a model using computational analysis that can take certain data inputs from the catalyst material and predict the corresponding ‘reaction energies,’ which refers to the difference between the energy required to form the products and the energy required to form the reactants in a chemical reaction,” Bhargava said. “The ultimate impact I hope to achieve is to reduce the experimental costs of performing chemical reactions in a physical lab through the development of a computational model.”

    Like so many students, Bhargava can’t wait to return to Grounds this fall. She misses being able to meet people in person and have one-on-one interactions.


    Undergraduate Summer Research: Student Works to Update Lab Procedures for Study on Drug Delivery System for Ischemic Stroke

    August 04, 2020
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    One in an occasional series featuring undergraduate students who are participating in summer research projects.

    Gilberto Hernandez is a rising second-year biomedical engineering major and dance minor working with assistant professor of chemical engineering Kyle Lampe and chemical engineering Ph.D. student Zhiqi Zhang, his graduate student mentor. The Lampe research group develops biomaterials for tissue engineering, with a particular interest in the central nervous system.

    “We’re working on a drug delivery system using nanoparticles as a treatment method for ischemic strokes,” Hernandez said.

    Unable to go to the lab due to COVID-19 restrictions, Hernandez has spent the summer scouring websites such as the UVA library and ScienceDirect for academic papers related to the research.

    “With the newfound information, I have been updating our synthesis procedures for our nanoparticles; my graduate mentor will be the one conducting the experiments with the new procedures for the time being.”

    As a Mexican-American, Hernandez grew up with bachata, salsa and merengue dancing at all kinds of celebrations. At 17, he stumbled on a Latin dance performance class at his local community college and convinced a friend to take it with him.

    “I loved being able to embrace my culture and showcase it to an audience,” he said.

    Inspired by watching others perform and encouraged by his dance instructor to take ballet, he signed up for a course — and loved it, too.

    “Since then, I decided I would minor in dance and embrace the creative side of my brain. It’s what keeps sane while studying in STEM,” he said.


    Virginia Consortium Backs Catalysis Research Leading to Less Pollution, More Efficiency

    July 23, 2020
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    Chemical engineering Ph.D. student Ryan Zelinsky has received funding from the Virginia Space Grant Consortium to supplement his dissertation research.

    Zelinsky works in the environmental catalysis lab of professor and chair of the department, William S. Epling. The group’s research focuses on improving the performance and longevity of catalysts used in industrial processes, often to reduce pollution.

    Zelinsky investigates zeolites, a class of minerals with physical characteristics that make them effective catalysts for many industrial purposes. Zeolites occur naturally, but can be synthesized in the lab for specific traits. A catalyst is any substance that speeds up a chemical reaction, without being consumed in the reaction. Catalysts are used to save energy, reduce waste and control pollution in applications ranging from manufacturing everyday products to converting your car’s emissions to less-toxic gases.


    Undergraduate Summer Research: Biomedical Engineering Student Is Creating Literature Database

    July 21, 2020
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    One in an occasional series featuring undergraduate students who are participating in summer research projects.

    Christian Jenkins, a fourth year biomedical engineering major, is spending the summer doing research with Don Griffin, assistant professor in biomedical and chemical engineering .

    “I’m analyzing publications on porous biomaterial from the last decade and using that information to write a literature review and create a database that allows researchers to easily filter through subtopics within the biomaterial field,” he said.

    The nature of the project allows him to work remotely from his apartment in Charlottesville, but he said he misses walking through the hospital late at night and cannot wait to be safely on Grounds again in the fall.


    UVA Researcher Contributes Expertise to Company’s Industrial Hemp Studies

    July 21, 2020
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    UVA associate professor of chemical and biomedical engineering Bryan Berger is providing his expertise in hemp research to an industrial gases company.

    Berger is collaborating with Air Products to study the benefits of cryogenic freezing on cannabinoids found in industrial hemp from the time of harvest through extraction and final processing, according to a company news release.

    “Through this work with Air Products, the team anticipates studying cryogenic processing profiles that will address knowledge gaps and provide best practices to maximize value immediately transferrable to hemp growers and processors seeking to optimize their product yield,” Berger said in the release.

    As part of the research, Berger will work closely with the cryogenic freezing technology lab at Air Products’ headquarters in Pennsylvania to study the effects of using liquid cryogens such as liquid nitrogen on the quantification, chemical composition and profiles of cannabinoids found in hemp used in industrial and medical applications.

    Berger and other industrial hemp researchers at UVA work with state, academic, private and non-profit partners to develop new approaches for processing hemp into products. He has experience in design, extraction, formulation and biomanufacturing of biologics and natural products. Berger and UVA Lewis & Clark Professor of Biology Michael P. Timko co-founded Fiacre Enterprises, which provides high-quality seeds and expertise to industrial hemp growers. He is also the co-founder of Lytos Technologies, a start-up developing biopesticides for organic agricultural.

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