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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Professor and graduate students use 3D printer to supply emergency and healthcare workers

Several weeks ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading, Ying Diao, professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and her research group, including several graduate students, began thinking about how they could help fight the outbreak.

Diao’s research group adopted the Montana Mask design, a 3D printable and reusable filtration mask with design files that are free for public use. The group has optimized its laboratory 3D printers to make 10 Montana Masks per day, with its goal to fabricate, assemble, and donate hundreds of masks to healthcare workers facing dire supply shortages.

Graduate student Bijal Patel displays the group’s first “Montana Mask” (and safety PPE for mask assembly) in the group’s lab at Davenport Hall. (Image courtesy of Diao Research Group.)

Through an inspiring NPR story, Diao learned about the creation of 3D-printed ventilator parts in Italy. She immediately realized that her lab could potentially make facemasks and parts for medical supplies through their collective expertise in 3D printing (creating three-dimensional objects from computer-aided design models) and fabrication.

“I quickly found YouTube videos from 3D printing enthusiasts that have put up facemask designs using low cost, accessible materials,” Diao said. “So I picked the brain of my students on this idea and challenged my group to take this into action.”

They’ve already made an impact. The group just sent out its first shipment of 70 masks; 20 went to the Monticello Police Department and the Piatt County Sheriff’s Department, and 50 went to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Texas. The group established Champaign County Covid Relief, where people can find updates, protocols, and links for resources to make their own printed or sewn masks.  

Photo of the 3D printer (Lulzbot Taz 6) used for printing masks from PLA filament. (Image courtesy of the Diao Research Group.)

They are still seeking recipients for masks that they’ve made, and they encourage healthcare workers and emergency first responders to contact them at or Jadii Rodgers at

Along with Diao, the task force includes graduate students Bijal Patel, Prapti Kafle, Daniel Davies, and Zhuang Xu. All students are volunteering their time to create the masks, and Patel, the project lead, is running the two lab 3D printers for printing the Montana Masks and filter cartridges.

Photo of the assembled masks, filters, and ‘ear savers’ ready to be packed and sent out to hospitals and first responders. (Photo courtesy of Diao Research Group.)

The Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering donated $1,000 to help print the masks, and the group gratefully acknowledges support from Lori Sage-Karlson, a receiving manager in the School of Chemical Sciences, Jadii Rodgers, a departmental assistant in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and others for their assistance in shipping masks, communicating with end users, and maintaining lab space during the pandemic.

Patel has been working heavily on 3D printing for his normal graduate research, so assembling the masks is fairly straightforward for him. Every 12 hours, he gathers what’s been printed, checks them, and hands them off to the assembly team. Then he starts a new set.

After printing the masks, the group sands them down for smoothness, scrubs them with soap and water, and sanitizes them in a bleach solution. Then, the assembly team attaches rubber weather stripping to form a seal, and adds elastic, filters, and other accessories before packaging them for shipment.

Kafle’s role in the mask production includes disinfecting, assembling components, and packaging. After sanding the masks and disinfecting them in bleach, she inserts the filter holder and strap and disinfects the parts again. The mask includes a furnace filter and a simple cloth filter.

The process of disinfecting and assembling the masks feels like performing an experiment, Kafle said. When she was given the opportunity to contribute to the effort, Kafle said she wanted to join in.

“When my advisor brought up the idea of using the equipment in our lab plus our skills and time to make the masks, I immediately wanted to be a part of it,” she said. “I had read numerous news about the shortage of masks among healthcare workers and that thousands of them across the globe are getting COVID-19.”

Along with Kafle, Davies also works on prototyping the designs and coming up with ways to make them better and more comfortable. The group recently received some elastic for tying on the masks; Davies said that it was easy to investigate which designs would fit their parameters because the 3D printing community is quite open and sharing.

“Since our lab is currently shut down for regular work, we had extra time to spend on new projects like this,” he said. “I have my own 3D printer at home, so I thought it would be a good idea to at least make masks for ourselves and family members, and it made prototyping pretty easy.”

The lab uses two 3D printers for producing optical and electronic materials.

“Initially what we were seeing was that it would be difficult to actually make PPE to the standards necessary to keep health care workers safe,” Davies said. “But the Montana mask seemed to be the best option. From there, Bijal worked with the local hospitals to make sure they were usable, and we have been making adjustments to make our masks as effective as possible.”

Patel said he’s been frustrated by the reported shortages of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.

“Running this project and doing the best we can to help healthcare workers is a way to turn that frustration into something productive,” he said.

Ying Diao, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has been chosen as a Lincoln Excellence for Assistant Professors (LEAP) Scholar for her outstanding contributions and potential in research and teaching.

Diao is one of six early career professors selected for the honor. Fellow awardees include Marsha Barrett in the Department of History; Vincent Cervantes in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese; Xin Liu in the Department of Astronomy; Ghassan Moussawi in the Departments of Gender and Women’s Studies and Sociology; and Sepideh Sadaghiani in the Department of Psychology.

Ying Diao

Martin Camargo, associate dean for humanities and interdisciplinary programs in the College of LAS, said that the LEAP Award is granted to faculty early in their career based on scholarly productivity and contributions to the educational mission of their departments and the College of LAS. The selected LEAP scholars will hold the title for two years and receive $5,000 in discretionary research funding for each of those two years.

Diao has been on the U of I faculty since 2015. She and members of her research group have been conducting imaginative research involving materials chemistry, molecular electronics, and biomedical sciences. Her research draws inspiration from many disciplines to advance molecular assembly technology, with potential for transformative impact on electronics, clean and renewable energy, and healthcare.

Her work has been frequently featured in science journals and news media such as the Science Magazine, Nature Materials, American Chemical Society, ScienceDaily, Royal Society of Chemistry, Materials Research Society, and American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2016, she was named to MIT Technology Review’s annual list of Innovators Under 35. Diao received her PhD in chemical engineering from MIT in 2011.

For the full story, visit the College of LAS website.

Many potential pharmaceuticals end up failing during clinical trials, but thanks to new research from the University of Illinois, biological molecules once considered for cancer treatment are now being repurposed as organic semiconductors for use in chemical sensors and transistors.

The researchers report their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

Chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Ying Diao and collaborators have repurposed a failed cancer drug into a new type of organic semiconductor for use in transistors and chemical sensors.

Organic semiconductors are responsible for things like flexible electronics and transparent solar cells, but researchers are working to expand their use in biomedicine and devices that require interaction between electrically active molecules and biological molecules.

Chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Ying Diao said she was surprised when the two avenues of her research – pharmaceutical development and printable electronics – merged in her lab with the discovery of semiconductorlike features in a well-studied bioactive molecule. The molecule, which inserts itself into DNA to prevent replication, was once explored as a potential anti-cancer agent.

“This convergence of my two research areas was totally unexpected,” Diao said. “While examining these pharmaceutical molecules, we noticed that their molecular structures looked much like the organic semiconductors we were working with in the rest of my group.”

These molecules, called DNA topoisomerase inhibitors, are flat and contain neatly stacked columns of electrically conductive molecular rings – features that make a good semiconductor. Distinct from a typical semiconductor, these molecular columns are linked together by hydrogen bonds that can move charges from column to column, forming bridges that transform the entire molecular assembly into a semiconductor – something rarely seen before this study, the researchers said.

“These molecules can interact with biological material with high specificity, making them good candidates for use in biosensors,” Diao said. “They are also easily printable but will require new solvents because they are chemically different than other organic semiconductors. The fabrication infrastructure is already in place.”

The team printed and tested the semiconductors and acknowledge that their efficiency and performance need improvement. Diao said the real excitement regarding this advance will come from the possibility of discovering similar molecules.

“We envision partnering with researchers in machine learning who can train computers to spot the unique characteristics of these molecules,” Diao said. “They can mine the vast pharmaceutical databases available today in search of molecules with similar, or maybe even better semiconducting properties.”

The Shen Postdoctoral Fellowship of the School of Chemical Sciences at the U. of I. and the National Science Foundation – Illinois Materials Research Science and Engineering Center supported this research.

To reach Ying Diao, call 217-300-3505; email

The paper “Repurposing DNA-binding agents as H-bonded organic semiconductors” is available online and from the U. of I. News Bureau. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-12248-9

Written by Lois Yoksoulian, U of I News Bureau

Researchers have found a way to use polymer printing to stretch and flatten twisted molecules so that they conduct electricity better. A team led by chemical and biomolecular engineers from the University of Illinois report their findings in the journal Science Advances.

From left: Ying Diao, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; postdoc Kyung Sun Park (seated); and graduate student Justin Kwok. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer.

Conjugated polymers are formed by the union of electron-rich molecules along a backbone of alternating single and double chemical bonds. The conjunction allows electricity to travel very quickly through a polymer, making it highly desirable for use in electrical and optical applications. This mode of transporting charges works so well that conjugated polymers are now poised to compete with silicon materials, the researchers said.

However, these polymers tend to contort into twisted spirals when they join, severely impeding charge transport.

“The flatness or planarity of a conjugated polymer plays a large role in its ability to conduct electricity,” said chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Ying Diao, who led the study. “Even a slight twist of the backbone can substantially hinder the ability of the electrons to delocalize and flow.”

It is possible to flatten conjugated polymers by applying an enormous amount of pressure or by manipulating their molecular structure, but both techniques are very labor-intensive, Diao said. “There really is no easy way to do this.”

Postdoctoral researcher Kyung Sun Park and graduate student Justin Kwok noticed something while running printing experiments and flow simulations in Diao’s lab. Polymers go through two distinct phases of flow during printing: The first phase occurs when capillary action pulls on the polymer ink as it begins to evaporate, and the second phase is the result of the forces imposed by the printing blades and substrate, the researchers said.

“Park and Kwok uncovered another phase that occurs during printing in which the polymers appear to have vastly different properties,” Diao said. “This third phase occurs in between the two already-defined phases, and shows the polymers being stretched into planar shapes.”

Not only are the polymers stretched and flattened in this third phase, but they also remain that way after precipitating out of solution, Diao said, making it possible to fine-tune printer settings to produce conjugated polymers for use in new, faster biomedical devices and flexible electronics.

“We are discovering a whole zoo of new polymer phases, all sensitive to the forces that take place during the printing process,” Diao said. “We envision that these unexplored equilibria and flow-induced phases will ultimately translate into new conjugated polymers with exciting optoelectronic properties.”

Diao’s group collaborated with Rishat Dilmurat, Yoann Olivier and David Beljonne, of the University of Mons, Belgium; Xuyi Luo and Jianguo Mei, of Purdue University; and Seok-Heon Jung and Jin-Kyun Lee, of Inha University, South Korea.

Diao also is affiliated with the department of materials sciences and engineering and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois.

The National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research and the American Association of University Women supported this study.

To reach Ying Diao, call 217-300-3505; email

The paper “Tuning conformation, assembly and charge transport properties of conjugated polymers by printing flow” is available from the U. of I. News Bureau. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw7757

Congratulations to Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Ying Diao, who was recently selected to receive the 2019 American Vacuum Society’s Prairie Chapter Early Career Award.

Ying Diao

Dr. Diao will receive the award at the chapter symposium this September at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. She will deliver an award lecture at the symposium.

Diao was cited for her “original contributions bridging molecular assembly with surface science to reveal unconventional mechanisms of surface-induced nucleation, and innovative, scalable, printing methods for nanomaterials manufacturing.”

Congratulations to ChBE undergraduate Nicole Jugovich who was chosen for the Lisle Abbott Rose Award from the University of Illinois College of Engineering. The award is given to a student who most nearly approaches the ideal of technical excellence combined with cultural breadth, depth, and sensitivity.

ChBE undergrad Nicole Jugovich

Through the Illinois Scholars Undergraduate Research program, Nicole has been a part of two research teams. As a sophomore, she worked with Assistant Professor Ying Diao’s group and this year she has been a part of Professor Brendan Harley’s lab. In Dr. Diao’s lab, she worked on optimizing a dropwise fabrication process for synthesizing organic semiconductor crystals. In Dr. Harley’s lab, she investigates hydrogel systems which will be used to create a complex, 3D cell-laden model to study brain cancer cells.

The undergraduate from Western Springs said her interest in engineering grew out of an “Introduce a Girl to Engineering” day at Argonne National Laboratory in seventh grade. At that event she met a nuclear engineer who spoke about her experience as a woman in engineering and the potential applications of clean energy.

“Alongside her scholarly discussion, her sense of humor changed my perception of the ‘stereotypical’ engineer. Meeting so many intelligent and independent female engineers truly inspired me and sparked my interest in pursuing a STEM field,” Jugovich said.

She continued to challenge herself with advanced math and science coursework throughout high school at Benet Academy in Lisle and sought out more STEM-related opportunities, including a summer engineering camp at the U of I.

At Illinois she has been a member of the Society of Women Engineers, where she serves as the special events coordinator after a year as the secretary of the organization’s information and marketing committee. She is also a group leader for the Engineering Ambassador Program, which involves organizing and presenting science topics to students in grades 3-12 to spark their interest in engineering.

Pictured above are cross-polarized microscope images of organic semiconductor crystals, which precipitated from solution. Nicole Jugovich’s research in the Diao group involved achieving a deeper understanding of how organic semiconductor crystals form and what causes them to adopt different characteristics. Organic crystal research can advance organic electronics, since organic semiconductor crystals can be produced at 1/20th of silicon’s cost.

Nicole has a passion for bringing together diverse groups of people to solve problems. As the daughter of a Lebanese immigrant, Jugovich has traveled to Israel as part of Passages, a program for Christian college students. There she heard lectures from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, expanding her broad global views. This summer she will travel to China as part of the Hoeft Technology & Management Program, a partnership between the College of Engineering and the Gies College of Business. Jugovich plans to work in industry at the intersection of business and engineering. 

“Not only does the T&M program challenge students with rigorous coursework, but it also offers professional development workshops to build critical skills outside of the classroom. The unique lessons in mentorship, professional branding, and women in management have been especially helpful in my development as a rising professional,” she said.

Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Dr. Ying Diao has been named a winner of the College of Engineering Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research. The award is given annually to a handful of engineering faculty in recognition of their research. She will be honored at the college’s faculty awards ceremony on April 29.

Dr. Ying Diao

The Diao Group focuses on developing fundamental understanding of and innovative methodologies for directed assembly of functional materials and their applications in electronics, renewable energy and healthcare.

Professor Diao, a Dow Chemical Company Faculty Scholar, joined the Illinois faculty in 2015. She received her Ph.D. degree in Chemical Engineering from MIT in 2012 and completed her postdoctoral studies in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Stanford University.

Congratulations to Jee-Wei Emily Chen, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering graduate student in Professor Brendan Harley’s lab. Her image, “A Rising Moon Above the Mountain” was named winner of the School of Chemical Sciences’ 2018 Science Image Challenge.

The annual research image competition is sponsored by the School of Chemical Sciences and open to graduate and undergraduate students, postdoctoral associates/fellows, and staff members, excluding faculty members.

“Rising Moon Above the Mountain”

Description: This is a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) image of gelatin hydrogel added with false color composite with a glioblastoma brain tumor microshperoid environmental electron scanning microscope (ESEM) image. The tumor mimetic microspheroid embedded in the brain-mimetic hydrogel will allow us to visualize tumor therapeutic responses. Acknowledgement: SEM and ESEM image was taken at the Beckman Institute with assistance from Cate Wallace.

Students, faculty, and staff are invited to attend the SCS VizLab’s open house to celebrate the winner and finalists.

SCS VizLab Open House

151 Noyes Lab

2-4 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 11

2:30 p.m. awards presentation

Refreshments will be provided.

In addition to Chen’s winning image, four finalists were named.

“Fire and Ice,” Marley Dewey, Harley Lab

Description: An environmental scanning electron microscope image of a poly(lactic acid) 3D print (blue) within a porous mineralized collagen scaffold (red). 3D prints are used to reinforce the soft mineralized collagen scaffold, which is used for bone regeneration of large missing bone defects in the skull and jaw.


“Feathers of the Ocean,” Prapti Kafle, Diao Lab

Description: Presented is a cross-polarized microscopy image of nanothin films of an anti-cancer drug ellipticine on edible polymer-pullulan. The film, produced by solution shearing of the drug solution under highly non-equilibrium conditions, embraces an elegant morphology with oriented needles and spherulites, that resembles feathers of a bird, camouflaging in the ocean.


“Molecular Machinery,” Matthew Chan, Shukla Lab

Description: Proteins are intricate molecular machines. Shown here, the serotonin transporter undergoes conformational changes to transport serotonin and ions across the membrane. Using computational simulations, we can visualize the complex dynamics to understand of how these molecular machines can be regulated. Image was based on simulation results and drawn in Illustrator.


“Molecular Dynamics of Cytochrome P450 with Endogenous Inhibitor Virodhamine,” Andres Arango, Tajkhorshid Lab, Center for Biophysics and Quantitative Biology

Description: Cytochrome P450s (CYPs) are responsible for the metabolism of many exogenous and endogenous biomolecules. This image depicts the molecular dynamics simulations virodhamine, an endogenous inhibitor of CYP2J2, the predominant CYP in heart tissue.

Dr. Ying Diao, assistant professor and Dow Chemical Company Faculty Scholar, has been awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for her research proposal, “Multiscale Assembly of Conjugated Polymers at Dynamic Reconfigurable Interfaces.”

The National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program’s CAREER Awards are prestigious and competitive awards given to junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their respective organizations.

The program will provide five years of support to Diao’s research project as well as a number of educational outreach and public engagement activities in the areas of directed assembly, polymer sciences, and organic optoelectronics.

Ying Diao

Diao received her Ph.D. degree in Chemical Engineering from MIT in 2012 and completed her postdoctoral studies in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Stanford University. She joined the Illinois faculty in 2015. Her work has focused on developing fundamental understanding of and innovative methodologies for directed assembly of functional materials and their applications in electronics, renewable energy and healthcare.

Her proposal for the CAREER Award aims to develop dynamic, reconfigurable interfaces to direct the assembly of semiconducting polymers into highly ordered structures across length scales. Controlled assembly of electrically active materials has been a cornerstone of the electronics and energy industries. In recent years, there has been an increase in semiconducting polymers which could be applied in everything from flexible electronics to imperceptible medical devices. But there remains a challenge in controlling the assembly of semiconducting polymers from the molecular to the device scale.

“I am really excited for the opportunities this CAREER award brings to my group. The award will enable us to explore new concepts and to uncover unknown mechanisms of directed assembly of semiconducting polymers – a new area I ventured into since joining Illinois,” Diao said.

Ultimately the goal of such work is to enable high-performance and low-cost printed electronic, energy and biomedical devices which interact seamlessly with the human body and the living environment.

Diao’s CAREER proposal also includes planning for outreach activities, including educational outreach for high school girls and mentoring through the Illinois Scholars Undergraduate Research Program.

Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering assistant professor Ying Diao has won a 2018 Non-Tenured Faculty Award from 3M.

Ying Diao, Dow Chemical Company Faculty Scholar and Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

The competitive program provides financial support for non-tenured faculty, encouraging recipients to remain in academia, teach, conduct research, and develop an awareness of science in an industrial setting. Recipients also attend the 3M Tech Forum. In June, Diao and other winners will participate in a poster session and interact with members of the 3M technical community.

Diao received her Ph.D. degree in Chemical Engineering from MIT in 2012 and joined the Illinois faculty in 2015. Her work has focused on developing fundamental understanding of and innovative methodologies for directed assembly of functional materials and their applications in electronics, renewable energy and healthcare.

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