Four Engineering Professors Honored

Four Engineering Professors Honored

Professors Chen, Day, Pochan and Wang recognized for excellence in medical and biological engineering

Four faculty members from the University of Delaware’s College of Engineering have been recognized by the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) as members of the organization’s 2022 College of Fellows.

Gore Professor of Chemical Engineering Wilfred Chen, Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Emily Day, Department of Materials Science and Engineering Chair and Professor Darrin Pochan and Mechanical Engineering Professor Liyun Wang join 149 other fellows recognized this year by the AIMBE for “distinguished and continuing achievements in medical and biological engineering.”

“The election of four College of Engineering faculty members as fellows of the AIMBE speaks to the outstanding talent that can be found right here at the University of Delaware,” said Dean Levi Thompson. “Their work to tackle the grandest challenges we face globally has the full support of their colleagues and this College, and I’m proud to see the wave of new innovations happening in laboratories right here in Delaware.”

Election as an AIMBE Fellow is among the highest recognitions medical and biological engineers can receive, and this cohort of fellows highlights the importance of diversity in disciplines required to advance the future of these research areas. According to an AIMBE press release, only the top 2% of medical and biological engineers are elected to the College of Fellows. Previous Fellows include Nobel prize winners, over 200 members of the National Academy of Engineering and recipients of many other accolades and accomplishments.

The honor recognizes those who have made significant contributions to “engineering and medicine research, practice or education” and to “the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of medical and biological engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to bioengineering education,” according to the AIMBE.

The 2022 Fellows will be formally recognized at a virtual ceremony on Friday, March 25.

Meet the Fellows

Wilfred Chen, an expert in protein engineering and synthetic biology and professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, joined UD faculty in 2011 after spending 16 years as a professor at the University of California, where he also served as presidential chair of chemical engineering. He has served in editorial roles for multiple journals, and continues to serve as an editor, associate editor or on the editorial board of several publications and has written 250 peer-reviewed studies that have been cited over 20,000 times.

Chen described his work as looking at proteins like individual LEGO blocks and finding ways to put them together. “If I can do it correctly, they can perform the precise functions I want them to do,” he said.

The complex biomolecular engineering Chen undertakes in his lab could have broad implications on a more renewable-based “green economy,” such as finding biological systems to replace petroleum-derived chemicals, as needed to swiftly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid future climate disasters. His work could also improve cancer treatment, but more work needs to be done before a new biological-based option can replace painful chemotherapy treatments.

“This award is an honor, and validates that we have the expertise necessary to pursue a much larger scale of biomedical research in the future,” he said, noting UD’s new Institute for Engineering Driven Health announced in late 2021.

Emily Day, with the Department of Biomedical Engineering, joined UD in 2013 after completing her doctorate in bioengineering at Rice University and a postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry at Northwestern University. Her lab at UD develops innovative nanomaterials that enable high precision therapy of cancer, blood disorders and other diseases while also studying nanoparticle interactions with biological systems from the subcellular-level to a whole-organism perspective. Day also has been recognized with an NSF CAREER Award along with dozens of other awards and grant honors.

The general idea of her work, Day said, is to “make carriers that can get therapeutic cargo where it needs to go in the body in a more precise and more effective way.”

Day said she is honored to be an AIMBE Fellow and excited by the advocacy opportunities the organization provides, as it will enable her to be a voice for science-supported policies promoting biomedical research that can ultimately improve patient care.

“Being a Fellow of AIMBE is not just an honor, but also a responsibility,” Day said. “The election of four UD faculty members this year demonstrates that the type of research being done in our College is top-quality science worthy of national recognition and that our faculty members are true advocates for the advancement of biomedical research.”

Darrin Pochan, who leads the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, joined the UD faculty in 1999 as one of the first members of the then-new Department of Materials Science and Engineering. He has published over 150 peer-reviewed articles with more than 22,000 citations and was named chair in 2014. Among other accolades, he is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, American Chemical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry in the United Kingdom.

His research team uses tools from biology, such as biomolecules like peptides, to harness their complexities for the creation of future biomedical materials and sustainable materials. His highly collaborative pursuits, which he said rely on close partnerships with computational, chemistry and biology experts, ultimately aim to address the world’s grandest challenges, from having organs available for transplants to biodegradable polymer materials.

“It’s an honor to be recognized by institutions such as the AIMBE that are quite interdisciplinary,” Pochan said. “At UD, we attract world experts in these fields, and fellowships in these societies recognize this leadership. This really highlights the exciting, interdisciplinary nature of the world-class research we do at the University of Delaware.”

Liyun Wang, a biomechanics expert in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, joined the faculty at UD in 2005 following postdoctoral research in orthopedics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She serves as director for UD’s Center for Biomechanical Engineering Research and co-director of the Multiscale Assessment Research Core in UD’s new Delaware Center for Musculoskeletal Research. She also is a member of several notable professional organizations, including the American Society of Bone and Mineral Research, the Biomedical Engineering Society and the Orthopedic Researchers Society.

Wang’s research has focused on how mechanical forces affect body functions, particularly for patients who may be suffering from other health conditions such as osteoporosis, osteoarthritis or cancer — or the new realm of “mechanobiology,” she explained. Wang said it was the collaborations not only in her lab, but across the College and University that have helped propel her cross-disciplinary work in musculoskeletal research to earn the recognition of groups like the AIMBE.

“Our ultimate goal is to amplify and increase the efficiency and safety of exercise on both healthy people and patient populations,” Wang said. “This honor is a recognition of all the hard work done by my former and current students and postdocs, as well as my collaborators.”

These four fellows join 13 other University of Delaware faculty members (past and current) that have been named AIMBE Fellows. Past honorees include E. Terry Papoutsakis (Class of Fellows 1993), Abraham M. Lenhoff (2003), David C. Martin (2005), Kelvin Lee (2010), Kristi Kiick (2012), Dawn M. Elliott (2013), Randall L. Duncan (2017), Millicent Sullivan (2017), Jill Higginson (2019), LaShanda Korley (2020) and Thomas Epps (2021).

| Photo illustration by Joy Smoker

TuFF Technology Is Taking Off

TuFF Technology Is Taking Off

Uses for UD-developed material to include flying taxis

Believe it or not, fighter jets, flying cars, natural gas pipelines and plastic bottles may be more alike than you think.

So, what’s the common thread?

They might one day be made with TuFF — a high-performance short-fiber composite material invented at the University of Delaware that is superstrong, ultra-lightweight and virtually indestructible. It might even be the Superman of materials.

Developed by researchers at UD’s Center for Composite Materials as part of a Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) Defense Sciences Office program, TuFF (Tailored Universal Feedstock for Forming) has properties equal to the very best composites used in space and aerospace applications today. And, according to CCM Director Jack Gillespie, the uses for TuFF are starting to take off — literally.

In 2020 alone, the one-of-a-kind material led to nearly $20 million in federal funding to advance new applications for TuFF across four projects from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Department of Energy (DOE).

CCM researchers are working on ways to apply this core technology, which has the potential to revolutionize high-speed composites manufacturing, to enable the flying taxis of the future (more about this in a minute), repair our nation’s infrastructure and improve manufacturing capabilities to produce the ultra-lightweight material with aerospace properties at costs and production rates like those found in the automotive industry. Additional ongoing work is supported by more than $15 million in funding from DARPA to date.

Repairing natural gas pipelines

Much of the U.S. infrastructure that links natural gas production to consumers has been in place for half a century. Some of it is in serious need of repair, including steel pipelines that deliver natural gas to factories and homes. Current repair methods involve digging up and replacing the aging pipes, a costly and time-consuming process.

CCM researchers are devising a way to use TuFF as an internal wrap for rapidly repairing existing gas pipelines in place, armed with $5.9 million in ARPA-E funding. The proposed method involves building a composite pipe-within-a-pipe without shutting the gas service off. It will avoid costly shutdowns in service necessary with other repair techniques and mitigate the huge societal cost of bringing a downed system back online.

The method involves using robots to lay down the composite TuFF material inside the pipeline, using the existing steel tube as a mold, and then employing UV light to cure the material in place as the robot moves along. This unique approach will extend the distance over which repairs can be done at any one time, since there is no need to shut the pipeline down while the robots work.

“The outside metal pipe can rust in place, leaving behind a structurally and functionally sound composite pipe in its place,” explained Gillespie.

So, how will this work?

Well, full disclosure: the robots don’t exist yet. The CCM team is actually building the robots and designing and testing the sensors, imaging technology and integrated systems necessary for the job.

When in use, an initial robot will enter the pipeline, scan and digitize the pipe’s specific geometry one section at a time, and send that information to a second robot standing ready to follow along behind and lay down the TuFF resin-impregnated short-fiber material against the existing tube. Because it is stretchable, TuFF will conform to complex pipe geometry and can be compressed to remove potential material defects, resulting in high-quality material and material properties. The new TuFF pipe will be cured under UV lights tethered to the rear of the robot, eliminating the need to use high temperatures to harden the material and ensuring overall process safety.

“These pipelines have long sections of cylindrical pipe, but then you might have junctions, curves or places where the diameter of the pipe is reduced. This is where TuFF really shines because it can stretch and accommodate irregular shapes, which currently isn’t possible with other methods,” said Gillespie.

Flying taxis — yes, please!

Ever since America’s favorite jetpacking family hit the airwaves in 1962, flying cars have been considered the stuff of sci-fi fantasy. But — thanks to the development of TuFF — the Jetsons’ preferred mode of transport may soon become reality.

In order to vertically take off and land in urban areas, though, flying taxis will require ultra-lightweight materials typically used for aerospace applications. One barrier to this emerging urban air mobility market — its kryptonite, so to speak — is that currently there is no continuous fiber manufacturing process in place to handle creating aerospace-grade hardware at speeds and costs of other automotive parts. The only things similar are processes for injection-molded automotive parts like dashboards, knobs and intake manifolds. But these injection-molded parts are heavy and have poor material properties, which isn’t acceptable for flying taxis that are electric powered and have ultralight composite bodies.

“What they need are materials that have aerospace performance but can be formed at automotive rates. There’s no process in the world that allows you to achieve this production rate. NASA identified this as a problem — and CCM knew they had the perfect solution — TuFF,” Gillespie said.

TuFF materials offer equivalent properties to their currently available composite counterparts. TuFF materials also retain control over the direction and properties of the fibers for design and optimization but can be stamped like metal within minutes into complex geometry parts. And because it can be made using any fiber and any resin, TuFF opens the door to exploring a wide range of materials and material combinations.

CCM researchers are currently focused on developing modeling and simulation tools to design the material, the manufacturing process and the parts using TuFF materials, through $5.9 million in project funding from NASA’s University leadership Initiative. The project, led at UD by Gillespie, leverages CCM’s 9,000 square foot TuFF integrated pilot manufacturing facility and includes collaboration with industry partners Joby Aviation and Spirit AeroSystems, Advanced Thermoplastics Composites Manufacturing, as well as with colleagues at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

So, where do you go for ideas to scale something that hasn’t been done before? Gillespie said CCM is reaching out to nontraditional manufacturing industries, like the nonwoven paper industry for solutions they can adapt.

While vastly different industries, paper and TuFF are both materials composed of many short fibers that are pressed together with added binders. The difference is that TuFF composites are made by taking short structural fibers and aligning them to perfection.

Gillespie and others in CCM are considering ways to adapt the paper production framework for composites by adding a plug-in module for the fiber-alignment process. The result would be the ability to create materials at a fraction of the current cost, at production rates high enough that it could be scaled for different markets. And while the method would require water resources, the water itself could be recycled, making the process green.

In a separate project with $5.4 million in ONR funding, CCM researchers are teaming up with Arkema to integrate TuFF technology with high-performance thermoplastics to create small metal aircraft parts in a way that is safe, more affordable, repeatable and scalable. The project expands on CCM’s ongoing DARPA work to advance lightweight material technologies  for military platforms, such as fighter aircraft.

Speaking of recycling

CCM researchers also are exploring ways to reuse recycled composite material fibers. In one project, researchers are taking outdated airplane parts that have been chopped into short fibers and recombining them to make the same material (or a better one) again.

With TuFF, Gillespie said, it’s possible to take a product that is at the end of its material lifespan, break the material back down into its components, realign the carbon fibers and create the same material, with the same properties and the same — or better — value, and have better processing and the ability to make complex geometry parts at huge cost-savings. From an energy perspective, the embodied energy cost of the material is dramatically reduced over its lifetime.

“It could mean premium materials at a fraction of the cost,” he said. “That would greatly reduce manufacturing process costs because of the ability to stamp-form the material like metal, instead of by hand, for aircraft and spacecraft applications. So, instead of taking a month to make a part, we could do it in minutes.”

In another project, CCM researchers will apply this same technique to tackle challenges in plastic waste with $2.49 million recently awarded as part of the DOE BOTTLE Consortium (Bio-Optimized Technologies to keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment). Here, the research team plans to upcycle short recycled structural fibers with polymers from recycled plastic bottles or other bio-based polymers to create TuFF composites, increasing the value of both materials.

This is a game changer, since recycling usually involves downcycling a material for use in lower-value applications, say park benches.

Gillespie called TuFF a “great success story” for UD and for federally funded research, as all of these new projects have spun out of one core technology (TuFF) developed through high-risk, high-reward research funded in 2016 by DARPA. It also is a great example of interdisciplinary collaboration at work, since the project includes contributions from researchers with expertise in mechanical engineering, materials science and engineering, civil engineering, electrical and computer engineering and CCM professional staff.

And CCM researchers are just getting started.

“If you put it all together, we can create materials for all of these applications that are ten times more affordable than current materials — all without sacrificing performance,” he said. “So, when I talk about changing the paradigm of composites in the world and taking over the world market, I’m serious.”

See footage of the prototypes being designed by Joby Aviation using UD-developed TuFF materials in the UDaily article.

| Photo and video courtesy of Joby Aviation |