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.

    UVA Team to Compete in Final Round of DOE’s Clean-Energy Technology Competition

    August 11, 2022


    A research team led by University of Virginia chemical engineering associate professors Geoffrey Geise and Gary Koenig and assistant professor Gaurav “Gino” Giri is one of five teams moving on to the third and final phase of the American-Made Geothermal Lithium Extraction Prize.

    Geise, Koenig and Giri, along with their industry partner PowerTech Water – who together make up Team TELEPORT – will compete for one of three awards from the $2 million final prize pool.

    The Geothermal Lithium Extraction Prize, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, is designed to speed development of technologies for direct extraction of lithium from geothermal brines, which are a byproduct of geothermal energy production in California’s Salton Sea region. Lithium is a critical material in batteries for electric vehicles and grid-scale electricity storage.

    While the United States currently depends almost entirely on other countries for its lithium supply, it’s believed the Salton Sea area has the potential to produce more than 600,000 tons of lithium per year, according to a DOE news release. Such production could support domestic needs and turn the United States into a leading lithium exporter, the release said.

    “Using brines already produced by geothermal energy presents a solution because it is an environmentally friendly process that yields lithium,” the release said.

    As finalists, Team TELEPORT – named for the team’s project title, Targeted Extraction of Lithium with Electroactive Particles for Recovery Technology – will receive $280,000 to use over the next 12 months to fabricate and test a prototype for presentation to a panel of expert reviewers. The three winners will be announced in fall 2023.

    NMCF Director Jim Howe Retires

    July 25, 2022

    Titan TEM -Niquana Smith and Jim Howe -bright(2).jpg

    NMCF Director Jim Howe has trained hundreds of students to utilize transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and high-resolution scanning-TEM at the University of Virginia. He is shown here with Ph.D. student Niquana Smith.

    With his retirement from UVa, Professor Jim Howe has stepped down as Director of the UVa's Nanoscale Materials Characterization Facility (NMCF), a position he has held for more than 18 years. During his tenure, the NMCF has grown significantly in both instrumentation and personnel. The facility is now host to two state-of-the-art scanning transmission electron microscopes (STEMs) for atomic-resolution imaging and X-ray and energy-loss analysis at the atomic level, two scanning electron microscopes (SEMs) for high-resolution imaging and compositional characterization, a combined focused ion beam (FIB)-SEM for preparation of TEM samples and cross-sectional analysis, three X-ray diffractometers (XRDs) for identification and characterization of crystal structures, a mapping X-ray photoelectron spectrometer (XPS) for determination of material surface composition and chemistry, a combined confocal Raman spectrometer/atomic force microscope (AFM) to provide chemical analysis in combination of surface structure, an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (XRF) for sensitive measurement of bulk composition, a Fourier-transform infrared spectrometer (FT-IR) for chemical bond analysis, and a complete suite of optical instruments and metallographic preparation facilities for determining the microstructure of materials. At the same time, NMCF staff has risen from a single member to a team of five professionals with varied characterization and analytical expertise.  Jim organized facility operation during the renovation of Jesser Hall and oversaw the development of remote training modules for instrumentation during the COVID shutdown. His strong advocacy, positive outlook, and scientific leadership within the NMCF will be missed. A replacement Director has not yet been named.






    Anna Sviripa’s Research to Improve Industrial Process Wins Top Poster Prize at Catalysis Conference

    July 12, 2022

    Anna Sviripa recently won first place in the graduate student poster competition at the 2022 Gordon Research Conference on Catalysis.

    Sviripa, a Ph.D. student in assistant professor Chris Paolucci’s computational catalysis research group, presented her research, Bayesian Forcefield Driven Monte Carlo and Molecular Dynamics Simulations of O- and Cl-promoted Ag Surface Reconstruction.

    Ethylene epoxidation is a chemical reaction used in industry to produce ethylene oxide, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of detergents, solvents, plastics, etc. Different types of oxygen “promoters” are added to the silver catalyst to increase reaction selectivity, which is the formation of the desired product ethylene oxide and simultaneous decrease in the formation of carbon dioxide. Although this reaction has been studied for decades, several aspects of the reaction, including reaction mechanism and the state of the catalyst surface during the reaction, remain disputed in the literature, Sviripa said.

    Sviripa is using computer simulations to study the effects of changes that occur to the silver catalyst surface under reaction conditions relevant to industry. Her findings will be used to understand the ethylene epoxidation reaction mechanism with different types of oxygen and promoter effects on ethylene oxide selectivity.

    Due to the large scale of these processes, even a small increase in reaction selectivity will make a significant difference in industry, Sviripa said. More efficient ethylene oxide production has the potential to reduce the formation of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

    Mara Kuenen’s Research on Degradable Polymers Wins Top Poster Prize at Conference

    June 18, 2022


    Mara Kuenen (second from left), a Ph.D. student in assistant professor Rachel Letteri’s polymer biomaterials lab, with other prize winners at the Tosoh Polymer Conference.


    Chemical engineering Ph.D. student Mara Kuenen won the first-place poster prize at the recent Tosoh Polymer Conference 2022 for her research, “Degradable poly(β-amino ester)s: Unpacking the interplay between solution pH, solubility and hydrolysis to control material lifetime.”

    The poster described Kuenen’s research designing and synthesizing negatively charged degradable polymers that can be used to deliver “cargo” – for example, antimicrobial peptides – for therapeutic purposes.

    Kuenen, who works in assistant professor Rachel Letteri’s lab, focuses on designing materials with controlled lifetimes to address challenges such as plastic waste pollution and drug delivery. Her work includes investigating new uses for poly(β-amino ester)s – polymers that carry inherent traits such as pH-responsiveness and degradability – to expand the functional areas in which the materials can be applied.

    Ph.D. Student Beibei Gao Wins Poster Award at InterPore2022

    June 15, 2022

    Beibei Gao, a chemical engineering Ph.D. student in professor Roseanne Ford’s lab, was awarded the MDPI Energies Student Poster Award at InterPore2022, the annual conference of the International Society for Porous Media.

    Two MDPI Energies awards are given each year at the InterPore conference in recognition of outstanding student poster presentations. This year there were 63 nominations for the award, which includes a prize of 500 euros.

    The goal of Gao’s research, “Retention of Chemotactic Bacteria in Dual-permeability Microfluidics with Residual NAPL,” centers on understanding how a population of bacteria moves through certain porous materials, such as soil, in response to chemical stimuli signaling a food source.

    This food-dependent movement, called chemotaxis, can be harnessed for uses such as removing pollutants from the environment. Gao’s research aims to improve the efficiency of bioremediation techniques by better understanding chemotactic behavior.

    NMCF Featured in SEAS Open House

    May 05, 2022

    UVa's Nanoscale Materials Characterization Facility (NMCF) featured during SEAS annual public open house.

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    Saturday, April 23rd, 2022, our laboratory spaces were opened to the public.

    Demonstrations by NMCF scientists and students were given during UVa's School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) Open House, which included engineering school building tours and program visits.

    This year's tours featured NMCF's new FEI Themis High-Resolution Scanning Transmission Electron Microscope (HR-STEM), the Helios Focused Ion Beam and Scanning Electron Microscope (FIB-SEM), the X-ray Diffraction Laboratory with both powder and single-crystal diffractometers (XRD) on display, as well the Versaprobe III Imaging X-ray Photoelectron Spectroscopic (XPS) Microscope.

    Expert student users and scientists spent time describing each sophisticated instrument and materials characterization methodology, providing real-world examples to participants, as well as demonstrating the type of data acquired and answering questions.


    UVA MSE Open House 15.jpg     UVA MSE Open House 5.jpg


    Professor Carta Earns Distinction of Being Named a Fellow of the International Adsorption Society

    April 27, 2022

    Giorgio Carta, the Lawrence R. Quarles Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Virginia, has been elected fellow of the International Adsorption Society in recognition of his distinguished research and education in separations technologies.

    The international society brings together industry, academic and government researchers from throughout the world working in the field of adsorption – a process of using solids to remove substances from gaseous or liquid solutions. Adsorption is used in myriad settings, from manufacturing to public utilities to national defense, to make products and industrial processes cleaner, safer and more effective.

    Carta is a widely cited leader in preparative and process chromatography education and research. Chromatography encompasses techniques for separating mixtures of chemical or biological substances into individual components. Carta, the author or co-author of several books, is a recognized expert in purification processes of biomolecules at manufacturing scale for the production of biopharmaceuticals.

    Over his nearly 40 years at UVA, he has mentored many undergraduates and dozens of Ph.D. students, a number of whom have gone on to distinguished careers in biopharmaceuticals. Carta has helped establish UVA chemical engineering as a reliable source of talent for the industry.

    UVA Teams Impress at Spring ChemE Sports Competition

    April 22, 2022


    Chemical engineering majors Elli Brna (from left) Jack Kilduff, Ethan Kutner and Brandon Hudson competed in the ChemE Sports spring competition with teammates (not pictured) Avery Baker and Nitin Elavarasu.

    The University of Virginia Department of Chemical Engineering fielded two teams in the recent ChemE Sports spring competition, and both finished with impressive performances.

    The team of fourth-year Brandon Hudson, third-year Ethan Kutner and second-year Avery Baker placed third among a total of 17 teams, while fourth-year Jack Kilduff, first-year Elli Brna and second-year Nitin Elavarasu finished in sixth place.

    Professors Eric Anderson and George Prpich coached the teams.

    ChemE-Sports is a simulation-based competition hosted by PetroSkills twice a year – each coinciding with American Institute of Chemical Engineers events, the organization’s annual meeting in the fall and regional student conferences held in the spring. This spring’s virtual competition occurred during the mid-Atlantic region’s student conference and drew participants from around the world.

    During the competitions, teams work together on a plant operation task, such as separating chemical compounds using a distillation column, all the while reacting to programmed failures in the system, such as pump failures or steam valves shutting off. Teams earn points for producing the most product that meets purity specifications while minimizing the number of alarms and time in alarms.

    “ChemE Sports competitions are great events for chemical engineering majors across all four years to get together and practice weekly for a competition that enhances knowledge in industrial operations and safety in the chemicals industry,” Kilduff said. “The competition was quite a lot of fun this year, and the team is looking forward to next fall!”

    Letteri Biomaterials Lab’s Mara Kuenen Notches Poster Award and Travel Scholarship

    April 11, 2022


    Mara Kuenen, a Ph.D. student in assistant professor Rachel Letteri’s polymer biomaterials lab, designs materials with controlled lifetimes to address a range of challenges in medicine and engineering.


    Chemical engineering Ph.D. student Mara Kuenen’s research has been getting noticed lately. Kuenen, a member of assistant professor Rachel Letteri’s lab, won a best poster award at the American Chemical Society’s ACS Spring 2022 meeting in San Diego. Competing in the society’s Polymeric Materials: Science and Engineering division, Kuenen presented her work on degradable poly(amino ester)s.

    Kuenen’s research focuses on designing materials with controlled lifetimes to address challenges such as plastic waste pollution and drug delivery. Her work includes investigating new uses for poly(amino ester)s – polymers that carry inherent traits such as pH-responsiveness and degradability – to expand the functional areas in which the materials can be applied.

    Kuenen also earned a travel scholarship to attend a short course on sustainable polymers held by the Division of Polymer Physics of the American Physical Society.

    The course, Sustainable Polymers: Physics of New Materials, Design for Sustainability and End-of-Life, addressed the effects of polymer production on the environment and presented concepts to promote sustainable practices.


    Ph.D. Student in Epling Catalysis Lab, Silvia Marino, Earns Two Travel Awards for Spring Meetings

    April 06, 2022


    Silvia Marino, a Ph.D. student in Professor Bill Epling’s catalysis lab, is working to improve gasoline-engine aftertreatment systems.


    Silvia Marino, a Ph.D. student in Professor Bill Epling’s environmental catalysis lab, has received two competitive travel awards this spring to attend professional conferences.

    Marino was awarded a CATL-ChemCatBio Graduate Student Travel Award to attend the Spring 2022 ACS National Meeting in March, where she spoke on her research, “Rh catalyst structural changes during CO oxidation.” The award is given by the Catalysis Science and Technology (CATL) Division of the American Chemical Society.

    Marino also will present a poster, “Evaluating the effect of Pt-Rh interactions on activity and stability of Pt-Rh/Al2O3 three way catalysts,” at NAM27, the 27th North American Catalysis Society Meeting, in May. Her travel will be supported by a Kokes Award.Both projects investigate catalysts to improve the aftertreatment system of gasoline-engine cars to reduce pollution.