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.
SHAP3D held their eighth bi-annual Industrial Advisory Board Meeting on May 25 – May 26, 2022, at the Innovation Partnership Building (IPB) | UConn Tech Park.
“It is wonderful to reunite with the SHAP3D family and interact with new center members for the first time in person since they have joined after the pandemic began,” says Prof. Anson Ma, UConn Site Director of the SHAP3D center.
SHAP3D is a collaboration between the University of Massachusetts Lowell, University of Connecticut and Georgia Institute of Technology to create a National Science Foundation I/UCRC focused on 3D printing. The mission of the SHAP3D Center is to perform pre-competitive research providing the fundamental knowledge for 3D printing heterogeneous products that integrate multiple engineering materials with complex 3D structures and diverse functionality. The Center’s diverse membership comprises material developers, 3D printer manufacturers, 3D printing end users, and federal agencies with a stake in the growth of this emerging manufacturing platform.
The meeting was attended by more than 55 faculty members, students, and representatives from private companies, and government agencies. At this meeting, project teams currently funded by the SHAP3D center shared their progress and latest findings. Other highlights of the meeting included rapid fire presentations from members and two invited talks by Professor Timothy Long from the Arizona State University and Professor Matthew Becker from Duke University. UConn SHAP3D site, Proof of Concept Center (POCC), and Pratt & Whitney Additive Manufacturing Center (PW AMC) were all featured in the IPB lab tour. During the reception sponsored by UConn School of Engineering, students who are involved in SHAP3D projects also had the valuable opportunity to present their posters and network with the advisory board members.
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.
The IMS Polymer Program Awards committee has selected two awardees for the 2021 – 2022 academic year.
Chung-Hao Liu received the Samuel J. Huang Graduate Student Research Award. This award recognizes a graduate student for outstanding research in the field of polymer science and engineering. Chung-Hao completed is fourth year as a polymer PhD candidate under the guidance of Prof. Mu-Ping Nieh. He has been diligent in conducting advanced nanoscience research including materials characterization and designing polymer nanostructures. His efforts have resulted in two published journal articles, one currently in review, and contributions to many more. Chung-Hao has also made many collaborating efforts with other research groups and mentored undergraduate engineering students. Outside the lab, Chung-Hao has been an Society of Polymer Engineers, Storrs Chapter, committee member for 3 years, serving as both Vice President and President. His positive attitude and strong work ethics have made contributions to Prof. Nieh’s lab and the IMS research community.
Probodha Abeykoon has been recognized as this year’s Stephanie H. Shaw Fellowship Scholar. This award is designated for a female student showing academic achievement and contributions outside of research. Probodha has served as the leader of the Adamson Research Lab and has taken it upon herself to be the resident expert in several analytical techniques, such as four-point probe and thermal conductivity. She has two published papers and a third manuscript recently submitted. She has also presented her work at several ACS National Meetings. During the past 4 years Probodha has grown in into an excellent scientist and group leader.
The polymer program congratulates this year’s awardees with their tremendous efforts in both research and leadership in the IMS community.
After two years of restrictions due to the COVID virus, the Polymer Program held its first in-person poster session since 2019. The event kicked off a 2-day open house for graduate student recruitment and also broke the long streak of virtual events.
Poster boards were dusted off and set up in the new Gant Complex Atrium, now called the “Light Court”, with a new collection of posters. Faculty and students expressed much gratification for the escape from the cyber world and return to the tradition of in-person discussions. Despite the masks, the smiles could be seen and the joy of the event could be felt by all.
A few faculty and students passing through the area felt the magnetic pull of the science talk and enthusiastically joined the fun. The event included 15 posters from polymer research laboratories, more than two dozen students, five visiting prospective students, and faculty from four departments. While the times change and technology evolves, it will be difficult to replace the glory of a traditional poster session.
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.
Ajinkya Deshmukh, IMS Polymer Program alumnus and graduate assistant in polymer science, is first author in a research paper recently published in Royal Society of Chemistry.
From the Abstract: Flexible polymers that can withstand temperature and electric field extremes are critical to advanced electrical and electronic systems. High thermal stability of polymers is generally achieved through the introduction of highly conjugated aromatic structures, that lower the bandgap and thus diminish the electric field endurance. Here, we demonstrate a class of flexible all-organic polyolefins by a strategic modular structure design to eliminate the impact of conjugation on bandgap. The one such designed polymer exhibits superior operational temperature and Tg of 244 °C without compromising the bandgap (∼5 eV), exhibiting significantly suppressed electrical conductivity when subjected to a high electric field. It reveals the highest ever recorded energy density of 6.5 J cc−1 at 200 °C, a 2× improvement over the best reported flexible dielectric polymers or polymer composites. The uncovered polymer design strategy introduces a platform for high performance dielectric development for extreme thermal and electric field conditions.
Polymer Program student, John M. Toribio was awarded this year’s Student Scholarship from 100Plus, a US based organization that provides remote patient monitoring for chronic patients. Student applicants needed to submit a presentation answering the question, “How will remote patient monitoring technology advance in the future to provide better health for the patients?” John received a $2,000 prize and his presentation can be found on the 100Plus Website at the following link:
John is a 2nd year Chemistry Ph.D. student in the Sotzing Research Group working on the development of wearable electronic devices for health applications as well as synthesis and applications of cannabinoid polymers.
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.