Anson Ma from Polymer Program at IMS, with joint appointment in the Department of Chemical and Bimolecular Engineering, has been named the United Technologies Corporation (UTC) Professor in Engineering Innovation, effective 23 August 2022. This professorship has been established to recognize the exceptional achievements of young faculty who exemplify excellence in the areas of research productivity and impact, teaching contributions, and service contributions and are at the very top of their area of research.
Ma’s research group focuses on rheology and 3D printing. He currently serves as the UConn Site Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) SHAP3D Center for Additive Manufacturing. He has received a number of awards, including Distinguished Young Rheologist Award from TA Instruments, NSF CAREER award, Arthur B. Metzner Early Career award from the Society of Rheology, 3M Non-Tenured Faculty Award, Early Career Award from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)-UConn Chapter, UConn Polymer Program Director’s Award for Faculty Excellence, and U.S. Air Force Summer Faculty Fellowship.
Professor Emeritus of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Richard Parnas, has been working on solutions to the oily waste we humans produce on a daily basis. He has been on a journey to convert that waste into usable energy. This quest has led to the patent of proprietary technology and the formation of REA Resources Recovery Services, a company he co-founded. Along with his partners in the company and in partnership with UConn, Dr. Parnas set about to convert FOG (Fat, Oil, Grease) into biodiesel for the benefit of municipalities in the state.
In 2019, REA contracted with the City of Danbury to build a FOG to biodiesel processing facility at the city’s wastewater treatment plant. That project has entered the construction phase and Parnas, REA, and UConn are now looking forward to the day the facility converts its first oily waste into usable biodiesel. IMS News reached out to Dr. Parnas about his research, the Danbury project, and the future of wastewater management.
You have been researching and developing methods to convert FOG (Fat, Oil, Grease) into biodiesel fuel since 2006. When did you first become interested in biofuels and what about biodiesel, in particular, led you down your current path?
I’ve been interested in biofuels, and green processing and green materials in general, for many years before coming to UConn. One of the important motivations for joining UConn was to participate in the development of the green economy. An undergraduate helped get me started working on biodiesel in the summer of 2007 by simply requesting my help to set up a biodiesel synthesis reaction in a fume hood.
When you became Director of the Biofuel Consortium here at UConn, you moved the bar from six gallons of biofuel produced over the course of a year to over 50 gallons continual production daily less than three years later. When did you realize the scale at which you might be able to convert FOG into biodiesel? What were the obstacles you faced and how were they overcome?
We used the yellow grease from UConn cafeterias to make biodiesel at that time, and the scale of operations was determined by the yellow grease production rate from the cafeterias. As a Chemical Engineer, my goal is always to maximize the use of available raw materials, and waste as small a fraction of that raw material as possible. Shortly after we started the Biofuel Consortium, we polled the various food service establishments at UConn to determine the yellow grease availability, and found it to be over 100 gallons per week. We then designed, built and installed a 50 gallon batch system, and produced 2 or 3 of the 50 gallon batches each week.
There were a number of obstacles. Production at that scale is not a typical academic activity so we faced skepticism from the facilities folks that ran the fuel depot for the buses. They asked if our fuel would be any good and how we would prove it to them, so we had to set up testing capability. Our testing was developed and run by Prof. James Stuart, an analytical chemist. Prof. Stuart and I received a grant of over $600,000 dollars to set up a biodiesel fuel quality testing facility in the Center for Environmental Science and Engineering (CESE) to test our biodiesel and the biodiesel produced by private companies. We also faced skepticism from the UConn administration since we were operating at a much larger scale than is typical. Safety concerns are important when conducting such operations with students who are just learning how to handle chemicals.
REA Resource Recovery Systems, a company which you co-founded and worked in collaboration with UConn to patent exclusive technology, has entered Phase 4 of its planned development of a 5000 square foot facility in Danbury that will turn FOG into biofuel. How important is wastewater management for municipalities and what will be the benefits for the City of Danbury once the facility is online.
I joined my two partners, Al Barbarotta and Eric Metz, to found REA at the end of 2017. The UConn patents were already in place for a piece of core technology called a counterflow multi-phase reactor that plays a key role in both the chemical conversion and in the product purification. Prof. Nicholas Leadbeatter from Chemistry is a co-inventor with me on that reactor, along with two undergraduate students. Beginning in 2015, I started working with a very low grade feedstock called brown grease, which is much harder to process than the yellow grease we had been working with earlier. Every single wastewater treatment plant in the world has a brown grease management and disposal problem, and every municipality has a wastewater management problem. In much of the world, wastewater management is required by law and heavily regulated to ensure that effluent meets standards for discharge into rivers and oceans.
Here in CT, the brown grease problem was handled by DEEP many years ago by mandating that certain wastewater treatment plants in the state become FOG receiving stations. Brown grease is the component of FOG that causes all the problems. These FOG receiving stations were given a small set of choices as to how to dispose of the brown grease they received, such as by landfilling or incineration. All the choices cost money and vectored pollution into the air, the land, or the water.
Danbury was mandated to become a FOG receiving facility several years ago, and undertook a general plant upgrade project to build a FOG receiving facility and then dispose of the FOG using biodigesters. When that disposal pathway became too difficult due to high cost they sought alternatives. REA was ready at that time to provide the alternative of converting the brown grease into a salable product, biodiesel. This solution provides two benefits to Danbury, an environmentally excellent disposal method and a source of revenue. REA estimates that the revenue will offset the cost of the project in Danbury in about 7 years, and that the payback period will be significantly shorter in larger facilities.
It has been 15 years since you undertook this journey of making biodiesel a viable alternative energy source. How does it feel to see your years of work coming to fruition with the Danbury project?
It feels terrifying because we have not yet started up the Danbury plant. When we successfully start Danbury, the relief and satisfaction will be enormous. Until then, for the next few months, everyone associated with the project is working very hard to finish the installation.
Since retiring in 2020, you appear to be just as active in your pursuit of science. What continues to drive you and is there anything you miss now that you have retired?
I am driven by the desire to see this biodiesel project through to completion and by the desire to play some small role in mitigating the unfolding climate catastrophe. When I started at UConn I was surprised that the academic definition of project completion is a final report. As an engineer, that did not seem to be enough because most reports are ignored and forgotten. Sometimes I miss the teaching aspect of working at UConn, but I think I most miss the camaraderie of my colleagues, with whom I have much less time now than I used to.
Polymer membranes are commonly used in industry for the separation of gases like CO2 from flue gas and methane from natural gas. Over several decades, researchers have been studying various polymers to improve their permeability and usefulness but have hit a roadblock when it comes to testing them all in a quick and efficient manner. In a recent publication in Science Advances, UConn Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Ying Li, University of Connecticut (UConn) Centennial Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Jeff McCutcheon; UConn researchers Lei Tao, Jinlong He; and researcher Jason Yang from California Institute of Technology have found an innovative new way to use machine learning (ML) to test and discover new polymer membranes.
Through investigation, the authors remark on the currently Edisonian approach to membrane design: “In the decades of technological development in the membrane science field, design of new membrane materials has been, and remains, a largely trial-and-error process, guided by experience and intuition. Current approaches generally involve tuning chemical groups to increase affinity and solubility towards the desired gas or incorporating greater free volume to increase overall diffusivity.”
As an alternative method to tedious experiments, computational models can be used to predict membrane performance. However, they are either too expensive, or low accuracy caused by the simplified approximations. To address this shortcoming, the team developed an accurate way to identify new, high-performing polymers using ML methods.
Using multiple fingerprint features and fixed chemical descriptors, the team used deep learning on a small dataset to link membrane chemistry to membrane performance. Traditionally, RF (Random Forest) models are known to work best on small data sets, but the team found that deep neural networks worked well because of the use of ensembling, which combines prediction from multiple models.
Further, the team found that the ML model was capable of discovering thousands of polymers with performance predicted to exceed the Robeson upper bound, which is a standard used to define the permeability and selectivity trade-off for polymer gas-separation membranes. In addition, discovered polymers with ultrahigh permeability would allow for industry to perform gas separations with higher throughput, while maintaining a high level of selectivity.
The researchers summarize, “Ultimately, we provide the membrane design community with many novel high-performance polymer candidates and key chemical features to consider when designing their molecular structures. Lessons from the workflow demonstrated in this study can likely serve as a guide for other materials discovery and design tasks, such as polymer membranes for desalination and water treatment, high-temperature fuel cells, and catalysis. With the continual improvement of ML techniques and an increase in computing power, we expect that ML-assisted design frameworks will only gain popularity and deliver increasingly substantial results in materials discovery for a wide range of applications.”
This project is funded in whole or in part with funds from the the Air Force Office of Scientific Research through the Air Force’s Young Investigator Research Program (FA9550-20-1-0183; program manager: M.-J. Pan); National Science Foundation (CMMI-1934829 and CAREER Award CMMI-2046751); 3M’s Non-Tenured Faculty Award; National Alliance for Water Innovation (NAWI), under Funding Opportunity Announcement Number DE-FOA-0001905 of U.S. Department of Energy.
Polymer Engineer, Dr. Vahid Morovati will join the University of Connecticut this fall with a joint appointment in both the IMS Polymer Program and the department of Civil & Environmental Engineering. Dr. Morovati completed his first Ph.D. in Civil Engineering at the Sharif University of Technology, Tehran, Iran. In 2020, he received a dual Ph.D. in Civil Engineering-Structural Engineering and Mechanical Engineering-Solid Mechanics from Michigan State University.
Vahid is currently a Postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Mechanics of Solids, Structures and Materials and the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin. His primary research interests lie in the multi-scale and micro-mechanical modeling of materials. As a part of his Ph.D. work, he developed a modular platform to study the nonlinear behavior of crosslinked elastomers. He is currently developing a computational framework to study the reliability of multi-layer thin films and the impacts of process-parameters on the mechanical properties of thin-film coatings. Vahid is also conducting research on the mechanics of multilayered van der Waals (vdW) materials to enhance their properties through strain engineering. He has published over 30 peer-reviewed journal papers and conference proceedings.
The Polymer Program faculty are excited to have Dr. Morovati as its newest member. His expertise in multi-scale modeling, the mechanical behavior of polymeric materials, and damage accumulation provides an excellent complement to the Program’s current faculty, and will expand the variety, scope, and value of the Polymer Program’s research.
Each year, the American Chemical Society’s Division of Polymeric Materials: Science and Engineering (PMSE) honors young investigators through its PMSE Young Investigator Symposium which provides an opportunity to highlight the accomplishments of its honorees. Honorees are chosen from early-career emerging leaders who have made significant contributions in their respective fields within polymer materials science and engineering. The invited honorees speak at a two-day “PMSE Young Investigator” symposium, held during the Fall National Meeting of the American Chemical Society.
IMS faculty members Kelly Burke and Xueju “Sophie” Wang have been named PMSE Young Investigator Honorees for 2022 and will speak at the two-day “PMSE Young Investigator” symposium, to be held during the Fall National Meeting of the American Chemical Society.
Kelly Burke joined the UConn faculty in 2014 as Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering with an appointment in the Institute of Materials Science. She has been recognized for her accomplishments, including the National Institute of Health Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award and the prestigious NSF CAREER Award. She was appointed Director of the IMS Polymer Program in September 2021.
Sophie Wang joined the UConn faculty in 2020 as an Assistant Professor in the Materials Science and Engineering Department with an appointment in the Institute of Materials Science. She has consistently distinguished her research with numerous publications and as the recipient of the ASME Orr Early Career Award, and the NSF CAREER Award. She is an associate faculty member of the IMS Polymer Program.
IMS congratulates both Kelly and Sophie on this accomplishment.
Dr. Kelly Burke has been appointed Director of the IMS Polymer Program. She joined the UConn faculty in 2014 as Assistant Professor Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering with an appointment in the Institute of Materials Science. Since joining the faculty, she has received numerous grants and awards and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2021.
“Kelly brings a lot of new ideas, energy, and support for this program,” Dr. Steven Suib, Director of IMS, noted in announcing the appointment. She succeeds Dr. Luyi Sun in the position.
Dr. Ying Li is one of eight UConn faculty members, and three IMS faculty members, to receive a National Science Foundation Career CAREER Award in 2021. Li will develop a machine learning model to better understand the properties of a promising sustainable material.To learn more about the award Visit UConn Today.
Dr. Richard Parnas’s UConn spinoff company, REA Resource Recovery Systems, broke ground in March on a first-in-the-world, FOG-to-Biodiesel production plant at the John Oliver Wastewater Treatment Facility in Danbury, CT. The City of Danbury contracted with Veollia North America to perform a 70 million dollar plant upgrade, and the REA FOG-to-Biodiesel system is included in the overall project.
The REA system makes use of a licensed UConn patent for a novel biodiesel reactor developed by Parnas and colleagues several years ago. REA sponsors work at UConn to continue development efforts on several aspects of the process including novel methods of sulfur reduction using protein/polymer conjugate gel adsorbents.
Dr. Parnas retired in 2020 after 19 years as a Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and faculty member of the Institute of Materials Science (IMS) Polymer Program.
IMS Polymer Program faculty members, Dr. Alexandru Asandei and Dr. Richard Parnas, were inducted into the UConn Chapter of the National Association of Inventors (NAI) in December 2019. The UConn NAI chapter was established in 2017 as the first Connecticut chapter of the national organization which was formed in 2010. The goal of NAI is to recognize and encourage academic inventors, enhance the visibility of academic technology and innovation, encourage the disclosure of intellectual property, educate and mentor innovative students, and translate the inventions of its members to benefit society.
Dr. Richard Parnas — whose research pursuits include biofuels production and separations, renewable polymers and composites, and interface engineering — holds a patent for a novel membrane that can be used to make biodiesel production more profitable by aiding the conversion of glycerol to 1,3 propanediol, a valuable platform chemical.
In 2018, Dr. Parnas and Trumbull, CT-based REA Resource Recovery Systems partnered with UConn and the Greater New Haven Water Pollution Control Authority (GNHWPCA) to place a pilot-scale demonstration system at the East Shore Water Pollution Abatement Facility in New Haven to convert brown grease to biodiesel fuel. The type of biodiesel fuel produced through this partnership, called Brown FOG (fats, oils, grease) can be used for power generation, including to power vehicles.
In May of 2019, U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (CT-03) and former New Haven Mayor Toni Harp visited the joint UCONN/GNHWPCA/REA project at the East Shore facility to celebrate the successful performance of the demonstration system and to kick off the effort to place a full-scale commercial system at several wastewater treatment plants in the state. Dr. Parnas has since partnered with the city of Danbury on a project to create a biodiesel production facility at that city’s water treatment plant.
Dr. Alexandru Asandei’s research interests include controlled radical polymerization, block copolymers, fluoropolymers, catalysis, biodegradable polymers, and organometallic chemistry. He holds several patents related to his research in polymer science and has served as an editorial board member for the Journal of Polymer Science: Part A: Polymer Chemistry since 2009. Dr. Asandei has served as co-organizer of the American Chemical Society (ACS) Workshop on Fluoropolymers in 2016, 2018, 2020.
In 2015, Dr. Asandei completed a month-long visiting professorship at Pôle Chimie Balard in Montpelier, France. Asandei was selected for the Chaire TOTAL program which includes a visiting professor/researcher component, an International School on Sustainable Chemistry and Energy initiative, and a scholarship program. As part of the program, Asandei presented four invited lectures. While in France, Professor Asandei also made invited presentations at the University of Toulouse and the University of Grenoble. Dr. Asandei has been called upon to present his research at numerous conferences, universities, and industry organizations.
UConn, the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UMass Lowell), and Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) announced a collaboration to establish SHAP3D, a National Science Foundation (NSF) Industry-University Cooperative Research Center (IUCRC), to address emerging challenges of additive manufacturing, also commonly referred to as 3D printing.
IUCRCs bridge the gap between early academic research and commercial readiness, supporting use-inspired research leading to new knowledge, technological capabilities and downstream commercial applications of these technologies.
“This Center will address the grand challenges that prevent the entire 3D printing field from moving forward,” says Joey Mead, Distinguished University Professor and David and Frances Pernick Nanotechnology Professor in the Department of Plastics Engineering at UMass Lowell. Mead serves as the center director of the Center for Science of Heterogeneous Additive Printing of 3D Materials (SHAP3D). Read the full UConn Today Story.