A Pioneer in Polymer Physics

A Pioneer in Polymer Physics

UD Engineering’s LaShanda Korley elected as a 2022 American Physical Society Fellow

University of Delaware College of Engineering Distinguished Professor LaShanda Korley has been elected as a 2022 Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS) “for innovative bio-inspired strategies to control architecture, assembly, and mechanics of soft material systems.”

Korley, who holds appointments in the departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and her research group take inspiration from nature to design new polymers using innovative molecular-level design strategies and manufacturing approaches. Korley is also the director of UD’s Center for Plastics Innovation (CPI) and the co-director of the Center for Hybrid, Active, and Responsive Materials (CHARM).

By studying the architectures and design rules used by the natural world, Korley’s research helps materials scientists bridge the gap between fabricating simple, sustainable materials that also have a wide array of complex functions and downstream applications.

“Our group has a strategic vision on the interconnection between molecular design, engineering and materials science to design functional polymers,” Korley said about what makes her group unique. “We tackle the full macromolecular design spectrum from chemistry to processing to impact polymer architecture and function.”

Among her group’s long-standing research projects is their innovative work on spider silk, a biological material that Korley says continues to be a rich source of inspiration due to its unique and tunable mechanical behavior. Her group is also exploring the possibilities of using lignin, an organic polymer that is a component of tree bark, as a building block for plastics in lieu of petroleum-based products, as well as connecting polymeric features to new deconstruction and upgrading strategies for plastics waste.

“Professor Korley has made substantial contributions to understanding the polymer physics of network-forming systems through an exquisite mix of detailed polymer synthesis, materials characterization, and polymer processing,” said Thomas Epps, III, the Allan and Myra Ferguson Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, who nominated Korley for this award. “Her activities bring actionable insights that promote new applications of polymeric materials.”

Each year, APS, a scholarly society and publisher for the physics community, recognizes less than 1% of its members through the APS Fellowship Program. Korley’s outstanding contributions in bio-inspired materials science research was recognized by the Division of Polymer Physics, and she will receive her certificate at the APS annual meeting in March 2023.

“As a chemical engineer who works on polymer science and engineering, fundamental physical principles are what’s driving the design, so physics and engineering go hand in hand,” Korley said of being recognized by the APS. “If I’m designing a material at the molecular level, I have to understand and apply these underlying polymeric physics concepts.”

Along with her election as an APS Fellow, Korley is also a 2022 ACS Division of Polymer Materials Science and Engineering (PMSE) Fellow, a recipient of the 2021 AIChE Minority Affairs Committee (MAC) Gerry Lessells Award, was named a 2020 American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) Fellow, and received the 2019 National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) Lloyd N. Ferguson Young Scientist Award.

“I am extremely pleased to see Professor Korley receive this well-deserved recognition, joining other Fellows within the department,” said Joshua Zide, professor and chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “Her work serves as an inspiration to her colleagues, and we are always happy to see others also recognize her impact in the world. Locally, we appreciate that she is also an outstanding citizen of the department, and the students appreciate her teaching and mentorship.”

Referring to what the future holds for her group, Korley said, “There’s still more molecular engineering to do, and lots of questions driven by trying to understand concepts from nature that we see around us and that inspires us. Overall, I feel honored by this recognition from APS — not just for myself, but for my students, because they are the ones that believe in our lab’s large-scale vision and drive the innovation that makes this work possible.”

Article by Erica K. Brockmeier | Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson | October 19, 2022

Preparing for a Tech Revolution

Preparing for a Tech Revolution

UD to help advance quantum technologies, workforce development

The science of the small — quantum science and the skillful manipulation of particles as tiny as a single atom or a single photon of light — is driving a big technology revolution. Nazifa Tasnim Arony, a doctoral student at the University of Delaware, wants to be part of it.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the complex and mysterious field of quantum science,” said Arony, who is from Rajshahi, Bangladesh.

Arony is in the second year of her doctoral program in UD’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and she is preparing for a career in industry developing new kinds of materials for quantum technologies. They might wind up in any number of next-generation electronics, from powerful quantum computers, which companies like IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Google are racing to innovate, to exquisitely fine sensors for detecting molecules of cancer or other diseases in human cells.

The University of Delaware is on the leading edge of this tech transformation, having recently launched one of the first interdisciplinary graduate degree programs in quantum science and engineering in the United States — offering both master of science and doctoral degrees. Now, UD will assist the University of New Mexico in establishing a similar program, thanks to a significant funding award from the National Science Foundation.

The $4 million grant, from NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, will bring together researchers from both universities to lay the foundation for quantum photonic technologies that are essential to building quantum computers and other devices.

Ganesh Balakrishnan, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of New Mexico and director of New Mexico EPSCoR, serves as principal investigator on the grant. Matthew Doty, professor of materials science and engineering and director of UD’s Quantum Science and Engineering program, will lead UD’s side of the collaboration.

Matt Doty is a professor of materials science and engineering and director of UD’s Quantum Science and Engineering program.

“Although quantum technologies are in their infancy, it is already clear we are at the start of a technological revolution that could be as big as the invention of the transistor and the advent of digital electronics,” Doty said. “What has also become clear is that the national workforce needed to drive this revolution requires different skills and training than provided by traditional disciplinary degree programs.”

The curriculum and training program for UD’s new interdisciplinary graduate degree program in quantum science and engineering was designed in close collaboration with companies like IBM, Microsoft, HRL and Northrop Grumman to develop the quantum workforce they need, Doty said.

“We look forward to partnering with the University of New Mexico on research to develop the materials fundamental to quantum photonics technologies and on our academic programs to prepare this highly skilled workforce,” Doty said. “We’re laying the foundation for the quantum revolution in terms of both technology and people.”

Lighting the way

The quantum computing market is projected to grow from $486 million in 2021 to $3.2 billion in 2028, according to Fortune Business Insights. That’s a combined annual growth rate of nearly 31% over the next six years. But what is so appealing and different about quantum technologies? They promise revolutionary advances in computation, communication, cybersecurity and sensing. But how?

Today’s digital electronics are based on bits, the smallest units of data a computer can process and store. A classical bit can have only one of two states: zero or one.

Quantum systems, however, are based on fundamental information units called quantum bits, or qubits (pronounced “cue-bits”). A qubit has the same states as a bit (zero or 1), but with an unusual bonus. A qubit can be put into a “superposition,” where it is simultaneously in both states (zero and 1). When qubits interact, a kind of multiplier effect can be achieved through “entanglement,” which means the state of one qubit is contingent on the state of another. Quantum computers designed to leverage superpositions and entanglement can outperform traditional (classical) computers because they effectively compute, in one calculation, results for many possible inputs — results that a classical computer would have to generate one at a time.

Aqiq Ishraq (left) and Nazifa Tasnim Arony align the laser for the scanning fluorescent confocal microscope in the University of Delaware’s Shared Optics Labs. The microscope is used to measure the emission of single photons from materials developed in the lab.

As this new EPSCoR grant gets underway, quantum computers are already being built. But these are the early days, and the technology has many unknowns and unique demands. There is a 65-bit quantum computer at IBM now, and the company has announced plans to put a 100-qubit computer into operation by 2023. However, Doty said, this computer can only work at extremely cold temperatures (-273° Celsius) and there are many challenges to scaling up the number of qubits on a chip.

Light is a key element in increasing the scale of quantum technologies for commercial production because single particles of light (photons) can transmit quantum information between qubits on a chip or between different quantum devices, effectively creating the “quantum internet.”

Through the NSF grant, the research team will develop materials and methods to create manufacturing platforms for the production of quantum photonic emitters. These LED-like devices can generate single photons or receive a photon and store the quantum information for future use. The emitters need to have predictable and reliable properties, their location on a microchip needs to be precisely controlled to enable their integration with potentially thousands of other qubits on a chip, and the materials and devices need to be designed in a way that can be scaled up for industry use. For the next four years, the team will be working on these challenges.

For students interested in taking a quantum leap into the future, there are endless questions to explore and paths to forge: How exactly do you make a quantum device? How do you tune its performance? And how do you create the new infrastructure needed to build and maintain quantum systems?

UD’s curriculum in quantum science and engineering is designed to rapidly introduce students to the fundamental concepts of quantum mechanics and quantum information processing, establish a shared vocabulary and knowledge base that accelerates collaboration across disciplines, and train students with the professional skills they need when they join the workforce. With a curriculum developed to maximize hands-on, project-based learning, students will be trained to use state-of-the-art equipment ranging from semiconductor nanofabrication tools to high-performance computers. Students will work in such UD research and teaching facilities as the Nanofabrication Facility, the Keck Center for Advanced Microscopy and Microanalysis, the Advanced Materials Characterization Laboratory, the Materials Growth Facility and the Nanofabrication Teaching Laboratory.

For her part in the research, Arony will be busy with experiments in the Materials Growth Facility, laying down streams of atoms from various compounds, layer by layer, using molecular beam epitaxy.

“It’s slower than grass growing,” Doty said, “but it allows for extraordinarily pure materials with control over exactly what type of atom is present in each layer, which is essential for creating the desired optical properties in our quantum emitters.”

Article by Tracey Bryant | Photos by Evan Krape and Kathy F. Atkinson | August 24, 2022

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

Fine-Tuning Touch Technology

Fine-Tuning Touch Technology

UD’s Charles Dhong gets $1.9 million to develop new tactile aids

Bumps and lines make up touch-based technology such as Braille. But the human sense of touch is keen enough to detect differences that are much smaller. Research by Charles Dhong and his group at the University of Delaware has found that humans can feel differences in the chemical composition of a surface, down to the substitution of a single atom.

That ability is one focus of Dhong’s work as an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UD. He explores new possibilities for tactile technologies and the mechanical forces that affect the perception of touch.

Dhong presented research on this at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in San Diego on Wednesday, March 23. And he and collaborator Jared Medina, associate professor in UD’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, have new support for development of higher-quality tactile aids for people with visual impairments. The $1.9 million grant, which started in February and continues for five years, is from the National Eye Institute in collaboration with the National Federation of the Blind.

Current technology recreates tactile sense using tiny motors and electricity. But the bumps and buzzes they generate are not that good at mimicking the real thing.

A new approach to controlling perception of texture could have many applications, Dhong said. It could make it possible to design new types of surfaces or provide improved integration of the sense of touch into virtual reality environments. It could also improve existing devices, such as Braille displays, or provide feedback to surgeons conducting surgery remotely.

“When you touch an object, you’re feeling its surface, and you can change how it feels by changing the friction between that surface and your finger. That’s where the chemistry comes in,” Dhong said. “We think materials chemistry could open the door to recreating more nuanced sensations, whether you’re designing a product to feel a certain way or creating feedback devices for virtual reality.”

Research by Charles Dhong and his group at the University of Delaware has shown that humans can feel tiny differences in a surface, down to the substitution of a single atom.

Research by Charles Dhong and his group at the University of Delaware has shown that humans can feel tiny differences in a surface, down to the substitution of a single atom.

Progress in touch technology has lagged, in part because it involves multiple types of sensations, such as temperature and pain. In addition, some efforts to recreate touch have included systems designed to simulate a sense of moving one’s body — a complex sensation.

Dhong’s research focuses on a specific type of touch: using the fingers to detect fine textures. Some methods for evoking this kind of fine touch are already available. Your smartphone attracts your attention without sound, using a tiny vibrating device within. A refreshable Braille display for people with low vision or blindness uses an actuator to move pins up to create bumps.

This type of touch depends on a physical force — friction — which is the resistance that skin encounters as it brushes against an object. While attributes such as the contours of a surface influence friction, so does chemistry. The structure of the molecules within a substance and the properties of its surface also influence the sensation.

Dhong and his colleagues suspected that by altering only chemistry-related features, they could change how a surface feels.

In previous work, Dhong’s team asked people to touch single-molecule-thick layers of silane, a silicon-containing compound. None of the silane surfaces possessed detectable differences in smoothness.

But those who touched the surfaces could differentiate them based on chemical differences, including the substitution of one atom within each silane molecule for another, because of subtle changes in friction.

“Recent research has shown that people can detect the physical differences between surfaces at a resolution as low as 13 nanometers,” Dhong said. “Now we are saying that the sense of touch can also identify chemical changes as small as swapping a nitrogen atom for a carbon atom.”

In San Diego, Dhong presented recent work focusing on polymers, the go-to molecules for synthetic materials. Polymers are distinguished not only by their chemical formulas, but also by a characteristic known as crystallinity, which describes how neatly the chain-like molecules are organized. The polymers in these experiments had identical formulas and molecular weights. Only the degree of crystallinity differed.

In their experiments, the researchers focused on the perceived texture of thin layers of polymers. As with the silanes, they asked the subjects to slide their fingers across the polymer. This time, too, they found that people could differentiate between the polymers based only on variations in the friction resulting from subtle changes to the crystallinity of the molecules.

About the researcher

Charles Dhong, assistant professor of materials science and biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering, joined the University of Delaware faculty in 2019.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and did postdoctoral research in nanoengineering at the University of California, San Diego.

His research focuses on understanding the mechanical forces that shape the human sense of touch.

 Photo | illustration by Christian Derr, photo by Maria Errico, image of hand courtesy of Charles Dhong

Tackling the Plastics Problem

Tackling the Plastics Problem

Collaborative project aims to find sustainable ways to create, destroy plastics

Despite the society-changing improvements that plastic materials have brought to humanity, there’s no question that they also present us with new challenges regarding what to do with the large amounts of plastic waste we generate, from the oil-based chemicals used to create products to the microplastics found everywhere after plastics breakdown in the environment.

Finding a solution to plastics pollution that will work in the lab and in the real world will take a diverse team of innovative individuals with expertise that transcends the incredible talent found at the University of Delaware. That’s why researchers from UD’s College of Engineering and Biden School of Public Policy and Administration are joining forces with experts at the University of Kansas and Pittsburg State University.

“The practices by which society works now are really not sustainable,” said Raul Lobo, Claire D. LeClaire Professor of Chemical Engineering and associate department chair in UD’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, who is leading the research effort for UD. “We need materials that minimize our dependency on fossil fuels and that allow consumers to recycle plastic products efficiently and with ease.To this end, the UD-KU team will develop new molecules that can be used to make a new generation of environmentally friendly plastics.”

Raul Lobo, Claire D. LeClaire Professor of Chemical Engineering and associate department chair in UD’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is leading the research effort for UD in collaboration with experts at the University of Kansas and Pittsburg State University to find sustainable ways to create new plastics and more efficiently reuse them.

The National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research has awarded the group $4 million in funding to do just that. About $1.4 million of that funding will go to UD to support this vast research effort to develop processes to transform “biomass,” such as agricultural byproducts, into commercially viable plastics materials and to chemically deconstruct such plastics effectively and efficiently so that they can be recycled and reused.

UD faculty members on the team include Professor Hui Fang with the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Professor Kalim Shah with the Biden School and Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Professors Marianthi Ierapetritou, Lobo, Marat Orazov and Dionisios Vlachos.

Lobo, who also holds a joint professorship in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, said the project will focus on developing polymers that behave like polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, a very common type of plastic found in consumer products such as water bottles, fleece and food-wrapping film. A polymer is a very long molecule, such as proteins, starch or DNA, that is built of repeated building units, like the adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T) in DNA molecules. Different polymers form by knitting together different building units. Once they are sufficiently long, they can be easily melted, shaped or molded, and solidify upon cooling

“We have ideas of polymers we think will make materials that are better than PET in a number of ways,” Lobo hinted. “Now, we have to prove it.”

From Biomass to Building Blocks

The goal is not only to find new materials with good and useful properties, but to do so using molecules with building blocks that come from biomass (and not fossil fuels like oil) and that are designed to be recyclable.

“We’re trying to make this society more sustainable by developing technology that has the potential to be practical,” Lobo said. “The material we’re trying to make … looks like the plastics we use today, but comes from biomass.”

This graphic illustrates the flow of a “circular economy,” as opposed to the “linear economy” of the U.S. In a circular economy, products are produced, consumed and reused so that there is little or no waste leftover during any of those processes.

For example, plants also produce sugars with fewer carbons than the sugar that we eat, and those sugars and their derivatives could be used as building blocks for plastics. The material has to be stable just enough, and strong enough, to hold up in another life as, say, a plastic bag. By focusing on biomass that’s not edible and not toxic — think of stalks from corn or leftover parts from harvested sugar cane — researchers will try to prepare new building blocks for plastics such that they don’t compete with food sources, do not depend on fossil fuels and can be easily assembled and reassembled.

Then these engineers must figure out how to translate the science into actual societal benefit. That means also exploring the policy and economic elements associated with shifting the foundational building blocks of a product used in almost everything in our daily lives.

The practical implications of this work will certainly relate to cost. Six decades of experience making PET and using it in multiple products means six decades of being able to find cost efficiencies along the way. It will still take some time for any new building blocks that could replace PET, even if they are superior in performance and for the environment, to find all possible efficiencies and cost savings.

Over the next four years, up to five UD graduate students will play a role in this interdisciplinary research, from the machine learning that will be used to explore existing research literature and gaps in knowledge, to the chemistry of the components, to the economics of their application and recycling.

“There’s a vast amount of information there,” said Hui Fang, an associate professor with the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “We’re trying to develop a machine learning-based technique that can first extract information automatically from the literature and then allow the researchers to see what’s missing.”

From Wastefulness to Sustainability

With so much waste in the world — up to one-third of the food resources produced are actually wasted — it would be incredibly beneficial to find ways to reuse those tossed corn husks or the leftover fibers from sugar cane, particularly as we try to avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius of atmospheric warming due to greenhouse gas emissions. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, experts emphasized that exceeding that level of warming will not only be catastrophic, but will be impossible if world nations cannot curb their reliance on fossil fuels.

The idea of a “circular economy,” in which products are produced, consumed and reused — as opposed to the “linear” way the world currently produces, consumes and trashes most products — could literally be that change the world needs. From the molecular beginnings of plastic products, energy is used and waste created. But is it possible to reduce this amount of energy and could the waste be reused in another production process?

Dionisios Vlachos, Unidel Dan Rich Chair in Energy Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, director of the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation and director of the Delaware Energy Institute, is exploring how to make new building blocks for plastics from current waste streams.

“We’re thinking about how we can take the waste stream and make new building blocks,” said Dionisios Vlachos, Unidel Dan Rich Chair in Energy Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, director of the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation and director of the Delaware Energy Institute. “This is a global issue.”

Today, most plastics (and many of the other products we consume daily) are created from petrochemicals. Most plastics are not easily recycled because once they’re broken down into their original pieces, they are difficult to put back together again and so they ultimately end up as waste. UD’s investigators are in pursuit of novel chemicals that can be easily manufactured from biomass and that not only make outstanding plastics, but also could, with little effort, be transformed into raw materials for new plastic products.

“If we don’t take action today, things will be really bad in the future,” Vlachos said. “There are many waste streams with multiple societal health problems. They have to be addressed at a global scale. If we’re making renewable plastics, it would be great, but it’s just part of the story.”

A Holistic View

While some on the team will focus on the chemical engineering of the molecules themselves, Ierapetritou and her team will be analyzing those new materials for their potential environmental impacts, economic costs and whether the new product would be practically scalable from a small lab to a commercialized solution.

In this project, Bob and Jane Gore Centennial Chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Marianthi Ierapetritou and her team will be analyze proposed new materials for biorenewable plastics for potential environmental impacts, economic costs and feasibility.

“Of course, this goes back to changing the culture of people or introducing different policies, which is one of the things we’re hoping to investigate,” said Ierapetritou, who is the Bob and Jane Gore Centennial Chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at UD. “But you need policies, you need incentives to make the change that needs to be made.”

What they’re aiming to create may be expensive — possibly too expensive to compete without incentives. But even if some of the new material was used in plastics production, it could still help reduce the pollution associated with creating a product made with 5% or 10% biomass-sourced plastic, said Lobo.

“Our scientific and engineering folks say they can do this in the lab, and they can scale it up. But where is the acceptance or adoption of it?” said Kalim Shah, an assistant professor at the Biden School of Public Policy who will be exploring the economic and environmental implications of a substitute for plastics and its potential in real-world markets.

“I think there’s a real awareness now of linking the disciplines that we’re very well known for at UD — chemistry and chemical engineering — to the policy and macroeconomic business aspects of the problem,” he said. “I’m really happy to have colleagues that are willing to include my perspective and take a multidisciplinary approach to us to move forward together.”

Kalim Shah, an assistant professor at the Biden School of Public Policy, will look at the economic and environmental implications of a proposed biorenewable substitutes for plastics.

If they find the solutions they believe exist, it would still take years before a plant capable of making thousands of tons of polymers goes online. The biomass-sourced building blocks could also be a boon for farmers and companies that work with the agricultural products that could become future plastics.

There’s also the potential they could create something even better: a biosourced plastic that can last longer or require less material.

Their work will also closely examine how to deconstruct these new polymers so that it can be a truly recyclable product. Lobo said he had no doubt they could succeed on that front. But whatever they uncover, they will publicize their findings and make them available to other researchers.

“If we succeed, we might be able to reduce, to some degree, the quantity of plastics or the amount of oil we consume,” Lobo said. “There are chemical reasons why some polymers have these good properties but others don’t. Based on that information, we’re going to eventually be able to provide better products for society. That’s what engineers do.”

 Photos by Evan Krape, Lane McLaughlin and iStock | Image courtesy of Dionisios Vlachos | 

Interdisciplinary Problem Solving

Interdisciplinary Problem Solving

Computing, engineering and polymer sciences converge in new NSF doctoral traineeship

Big-name chemical companies like DuPont and W.L. Gore have complex materials problems to solve. The trouble is they’re in need of well-rounded researchers to find the solutions they’ve been looking for, ideally highly skilled scientists with more than one area of expertise—like someone fluent in both materials engineering and computer science.

Recognizing that real-world need, award-winning UD Professor Arthi Jayaraman has created a collaborative, cross-disciplinary traineeship that will provide selected doctoral students from the University of Delaware and Delaware State University with the technical and professional training they need to thrive in their careers after graduation.

Anshuman Razdan

“That’s part of our mission, it’s at the core of what we do: Prepare our students, whether it’s for a life after as faculty or in national laboratories or industry,” said Anshuman (“A.R.”) Razdan, associate vice president of research development in UD’s Research Office. Jayaraman credited Razdan, along with Graduate College Dean Louis Rossi, for playing key roles in bringing her idea for this traineeship program to life.

“This is not a Ph.D. program by itself, but is designed to make the graduate student experience better,” Razdan said. “It’s an interdisciplinary collision, in a positive sense, and builds on extensive UD investment and success in the data sciences.”

The new National Science Foundation-funded Research Traineeship “Computing and Data Science Training for Materials Innovation, Discovery, AnalyticS” (NRT-MIDAS) will teach doctoral students in computer and information sciences, electrical and computing engineering, chemical engineering, materials science and engineering, biomedical engineering and chemistry programs how to use high-performance computing and data science to lead to new discoveries and innovations in the field of polymers.

NSF has awarded Jayaraman a nearly $3 million grant to support this traineeship over the next five years. Jayaraman, Centennial Term Professor in UD’s College of Engineering’s department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering with a joint appointment in Materials Science and Engineering, will serve as director of this traineeship program. This traineeship will work with 50 to 100 UD and DSU doctoral students, some of whom will receive financial support for two years through this NSF grant. International students will also be able to apply to the traineeship program and some selected students may receive one semester of financial support from the College of Engineering.

The program is slated to admit its first cohort of new UD and Delaware State University graduate students from one of the six specified programs in winter 2022. Applications are due by Tuesday, Nov. 30, and selections will be made by Wednesday, Dec. 15.

Besides the interdisciplinary technical skills, trainees will also learn the essential professional skills that every employer wants to see in their employees: Researchers who know how to interact with team members from diverse backgrounds and know the importance of adaptable science communication both in the laboratory and to the broader community.

“All of the training elements were strategically selected: The technical training elements, applying computing and data science to polymer problems in the real world, combined with professional training elements where trainees work in teams with people who aren’t from the same discipline, learning to communicate, and going above and beyond to explain their work to the other person,” Jayaraman said. “Essentially this MIDAS traineeship is that extra, customized, all-rounded training layer we’re putting on top of what these doctoral students receive in their own graduate programs.”

In this photo taken before the coronavirus pandemic necessitated the wearing of masks and distancing in classrooms, Prof. Arthi Jayaraman speaks with students in her chemical engineering class.

The diverse NRT core faculty team facilitating this collaborative training environment were also strategically selected, and were chosen because of their accomplishments and expertise in one or two of the relevant disciplines. For example, Prof. Laure Kayser with the Department of Materials Science and Engineering has expertise in polymer materials for organic electronics, Prof. Austin Brockmeier with the Data Science Institute and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering has expertise in data science applied to a variety of domain sciences, while Prof. Sunita Chandrasekaran with the Department of Computer and Information Sciences brings her expertise in high-performance computing.

On the forefront of solutions

Since polymers are used in everything from food packaging and paints to electronics and medical settings, companies are constantly searching for the latest and greatest materials for, say, an airplane body or COVID-19 vaccine delivery. That means both industry and academia are often pursuing ways to optimize polymers, turning to chemistry, materials science and engineering for solutions.

By offering professional cross-training in those disciplines as well as computer science and data science, Jayaraman hopes trainees will learn how to let the machines handle the optimization and avoid the tedious trial and error that would usually come with running all possible experiments in the lab. By combining disciplines, they can use computing, modeling and artificial intelligence to save the chemicals, time and effort that extensive laboratory experiments typically need.

“If you just did experiments in a lab, you’d test one chemical and ask, ‘How does it perform? How does it behave?’ and then move to the next chemical and repeat the process. This is trial and error,” Jayaraman said. “Companies often want to find faster and cheaper ways to explore different chemicals and get to the better-performing product.”

Joshua Enszer

That’s why Jayaraman made sure the program is partnering with companies searching for such solutions. In addition to DuPont and W.L. Gore, the traineeship has also established industry partnerships with Argonne National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Merck & Co. and Procter & Gamble, with more companies expected to join in the coming months and years.

An “NRT-Hackathon” course that is being designed for the traineeship program, after trainees complete core classes and right before they explore internships, will collect real-world problems from participating companies and turn them over to small teams of students to explore and solve with computing and data science tools over the course of a semester.

“Each problem will be a semester-long problem, and students from different disciplines in each team will have to teach each other what it means,” Jayaraman said, noting that a computer sciences student will need to learn the specific properties of a chemical, while the chemical engineer sharing that information will have to learn about the computing methods their computer science colleague is using to develop data-based solutions.

Not only will the training benefit students, but it will also serve existing and future industries by preparing a well-rounded workforce and also finding ways to solve real problems by replacing trial-and-error based experiments with computing-based approaches.

“It more than bridges the gap, it has a serious economic impact,” Razdan said, noting that the program could also help participating students decide whether a life in industry or academia is better for them.

In addition to these custom interdisciplinary courses that emphasize the importance of clear communication across disciplines, trainees will also complete their regular graduate work, and benefit from a secondary NRT-MIDAS-specific adviser.

“The way a chemical engineer talks and the way a computer scientist talks is not the same,” Jayaraman said. “We want to sharpen those professional skills, especially cross-disciplinary communications, by working in team environments with different backgrounds, both culturally and technically.”

An academic approach

Not all of the talented graduate students that will be selected for this traineeship will pursue industry careers; some may want to work in academia, where they could foster this comprehensive approach in their own future classrooms. Those pedagogically minded students will hone the teaching and communications skills they’ll need, but would otherwise not be included in their normal graduate programs. With this motivation, Jayaraman recruited a pedagogical expert into the NRT-MIDAS core faculty team.

Cathy Wu

“What we’re trying to do here is fill in a big need to have people who are better teachers from the start,” said Joshua Enszer, a chemical and biomolecular engineering associate professor and member of the NRT core faculty team. The NRT-MIDAS teaching fellowship builds off a program underway in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, where a handful of fellows work with faculty to actually implement a course during their graduate studies, he said.

“Because we’re bringing together these very important and very related areas, we’re working on helping improve communication on both sides,” Enszer said. “Bringing that together and then teaching everyone together is a really exciting opportunity. I think it’s going to help prepare this generation of graduate students for a variety of potential different careers.”

A diverse NRT-MIDAS core faculty team of nine faculty members, including Jayaraman, will provide technical and research training and mentoring. An independent advisory council, made up of six international experts from academia, national laboratories and industry, will offer their perspectives and recommendations in order to strengthen this interdisciplinary traineeship.

“UD really is an excellent environment for doing team science,” said Prof. Cathy Wu, an NRT-MIDAS core faculty member and Unidel Edward G. Jefferson Chair in Engineering and Computer Science, director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, director of the Data Science Institute and director of the Protein Information Resource. “This is just a great example of how Arthi (Jayaraman) has brought such an excellent, diverse team together for this particular training grant. But if we look around UD, this kind of very collaborative effort is happening with many different initiatives. I think team science, this kind of very inclusive environment, really is a signature of what we do at UD.”

Jayaraman and others at UD hope this training continues beyond the recently awarded grant.

“I tell faculty it’s like building a building,” Razdan said. “We want the faculty focused on building the building, constructing the idea. All of us, we’re here to support Arthi with scaffolding so she has everything she needs to imagine and execute the ideas that can only come from her. We’re very, very happy to be that scaffolding for her.”

 Photos by Evan Krape |