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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.

This summer the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering brought 24 high school students to campus for the GAMES (Girls’ Adventures in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science) camp. They participated in a variety of activities, including demonstrations, presentations, hands-on activities, and tours which exposed them to the breadth of chemical engineering.

Led by Blue Waters Assistant Professor Diwakar Shukla, the camp’s experiments involving distillation, polymer extrusion, acid rain, starch straining, foaming face wash, and continuous distillation. Professor Diao and members of her lab led the campers in activities making chocolate shapes, drying them, and discussing how chocolate crystallizes. In another session, Professor Mary Kraft and her team led the campers in an activity about gold nanoparticles, during which the students aggregated a gold colloid. Another popular activity was the hydrogel demonstration led by the Hyunjoon Kong Lab, wherein the hydrogels run after each other on top of water. The students also enjoyed making oobleck courtesy of the Simon Rogers Lab.

For more information, check out this article about the camp by the I-STEM education initiative.

A select group of high school students have been invited to spend two days on campus this March shadowing current students in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering for a sample of what life is like as a ChBE student.

The Illinois AIChE Host Program will take place Sunday, March 11 to Monday, March 12, 2018. During those two days, prospective students will stay overnight in a dorm, attend lectures and tour labs, and participate in activities such as bowling in the Illini Union. Students will also attend a question-and-answer panel discussion with current students from the department.

“The host program helps admitted student get a better picture of what life will look like for them,” said current ChBE student and host program organizer Hannah Chait.

The department invited a select group of admitted students to attend the two-day program. All costs, excluding travel, are provided by the department. Ready to accept your invitation? Email your registration to Hannah Chait at today!

The program is organized by the Illinois Chapter of American Institute of Chemical Engineers and sponsored by the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Check out the new educational and entertaining videos from Engineer Guy Bill Hammack.

In his video on the drinking bird toy, Hammack, the Donald and Dolores Morris Professorial Scholar, reveals the operation and engineering design underlying the toy. He explores the role played by the water the bird “drinks,” shows what is under the bird’s hat, and demonstrates that it can operate using heat from a light bulb or by “drinking” whiskey.

Another new video explores Hammack’s book, Fatal Flight, The True Story of Britain’s Last Great Airship. The R.101 was a luxury liner three and a half times the length of a 747 jet. The British expected the airship to spearhead a fleet of imperial airships that would dominate the skies as British naval ships had ruled the seas. But that dream ended when, on its demonstration flight to India, the airship crashed in France, tragically killing nearly all aboard.

More videos can be found on the Engineer Guy’s YouTube channel; and at

From extracting DNA from strawberries, to making silly putty, to operating lab equipment, the 24 high school girls who participated in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering GAMES (Girls’ Adventures in Math, Engineering, and Science) camp this summer got to experience a bit of what chemical engineering is like. After hearing mini-lectures about a variety of chemical-engineering-related themes, the girls got to do fun, hands-on activities about the subject. Plus, during field trips, the girls got to see first-hand what a career in chemical engineering might be like. Even more importantly, they were exposed to women in chemical engineering who served as role models.

Extracting DNA from strawberries.

Director of the Chemical Engineering GAMES camp, Assistant Professor Diwakar Shukla, and a team of students from his lab led a number of activities, such as making foaming face wash. The campers also participated in a number of hands-on activities where they learned about and got a chance to do procedures using some of the lab equipment: they learned about pumps; DNA extraction, during which the girls extracted DNA from strawberries; the polymer extruder; enzymatic cleaning; continuous distillation; and acid rain. Students also took field trips, such as to the Abbott Power Plant and to the Urbana & Champaign Sanitary District’s waste water treatment facility.

Although Shukla and his students led several activities, he explained that he was just coordinating the ChBE GAMES camp and had lots of help from his colleagues. “The best part has been that nearly half of the faculty in our department—they decided to do a one-and-a-half-hour activity about their own lab. I’m just an organizer who is making sure the schedules are fixed and everything is in place.”

Using enzymes to clean.

Most of these faculty activities usually consisted of a short lecture about a subject, then a hands-on activity related to it. During the course of the week, the students learned about polymers and recycling from Dr. Sing & Dr. Guironnet; Dr. Kong taught about biotransportation, then he and his students led a hydrogel activity. Dr. Diao and her students taught about “Crystals All Around Us,” then led a crystal-making activity. Dr. Flaherty and his grad students taught about catalysis, surface science, and materials science, then led an activity on catalysis. Dr. Kraft and her students did an activity that involved making gold nanoparticles, which are used for immunoelectron microscopy. And finally, Shukla and his team taught and led an activity about computational games.

“I really enjoy teaching undergraduates and you know, this is even a lower level than undergrads. So there are always a lot of interesting questions, and it’s a lot of fun to teach them basic scientific ideas and get them curious about chemical engineering and, in general, engineering and STEM fields,” Shukla said.

Shukla has been actively working to increase the number of women in STEM.

Learning how the pump equipment works.

“Since I came to Illinois, I have always tried to take at least one female student in my group every year, as a graduate student, which is very difficult for a computational group. So at this point, my lab has five female students doing computer science and biology and chemical engineering.”

Did Shukla see any future chemical engineers in the group of high schoolers?

“Yes, they are all very curious,” he said. “They’re already talking about what type of courses they can take and credit transfers. So they’re asking very detailed questions about the program already. Some of them have clearly made up their mind that they will apply to an engineering school. But there are others who are freshmen, so they are really exploring.”

Story and photos by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.

In recent years the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering has offered tutoring for students who would like to improve their understanding of course material in an open, informal setting. This year, Shell is supporting the program.

“This program is a tremendous resource to those students who wish for extra help beyond the regular discussion sections and TA office hours,” Department Head Dr. Paul Kenis said.  “Already we hear anecdotes from some of our recent alumni that this program was key in them successfully obtaining their chemical engineering degree. We are grateful to Shell for supporting this valuable program!”

Shell Tutors
Shell recruiters met with ChBE tutors in Fall 2016.

The Shell Tutoring Program in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering offers peer tutoring to any student taking core ChBE courses. The goal of the program is to strengthen students’ knowledge of course subject matter and to increase retention of students who may be struggling with required courses, said Kay Moran, the department’s Academic Programs Specialist. It’s also not uncommon for high-achieving students to seek tutoring to improve their understanding of course material, she said. The tutoring program also helps students who want to transfer into the chemical engineering undergraduate program.

Shell tutoring 2“With state funding in decline and budget cuts on the horizon, donations like these are needed more than ever before,” Moran said.

The program’s slogan is “ChBE students helping students.” Depending on needs, the department hires 10 to 18 students per semester to work as tutors. If more students request tutoring, more peer tutors are hired. About 30 to 50 students receive tutoring services per semester.

Tutors hired by the department are ChBE students who have excelled in their ChBE classes and meet strict department qualifications. Students who work as tutors hone their leadership, judgement, and communication skills and increase their own understanding and knowledge of the subject matter.

Shell tutoring 1“We are grateful for the opportunity to sponsor such a promising program,” said Chris Beuerle and Andrew Lee, Shell leads for engineering recruitment at the University of Illinois. “These student tutors are developing strong leadership skills for their futures as they grow as effective mentors, while their peers are able to learn from them to excel in a field with ample opportunities to make a difference. This type of collaborative environment and the level of dedication put forth by all those involved aligns with Shell’s values. It is just one example of why Shell continues to count U of I among its core schools to find talent,” they said.

As a supporter of the program, Shell representatives have opportunities to meet with the department’s outstanding students throughout the year. As tutors, students also build competence in skills, such as leading small groups, which are beneficial to future employers.

Tutoring is provided each semester for core ChBE courses: CHBE 221: Principles of Chemical Engineering; CHBE 321: Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics; CHBE 421: Momentum and Heat Transfer; and CHBE 424: Chemical Reaction Engineering.

More information.

To make a stable structure and learn about balanced force and equal pull, a group of third graders paired up, connected their wrists and leaned back, making an inverted triangle.

Instead of passing out worksheets to elementary students, teachers can, with the help of a new book, use creative movement to introduce scientific topics such as cantilevers and compound machines.

“Today’s child needs to be taught through many more modalities than conceptually—sitting still, hearing someone talk. This (approach) is so dynamic. It’s embedded, embodied learning,” said University of Illinois teaching artist and Department of Dance lecturer Kate Kuper.

Fantastic Forces, published by Heritage Music Press (2016) and written by Kate Kuper and Troy Vogel, teaches music, movement, and science.
Fantastic Forces, published by Heritage Music Press (2016) and written by Kate Kuper and Troy Vogel, teaches music, movement, and science.

Kuper and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Lecturer Troy Vogel recently collaborated on Fantastic Forces: Music, Movement, and Science, a book designed for teachers. Kuper is a national workshop presenter with the Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education Program and the creator of several CDs of songs and activities for children. Vogel earned his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the Ohio State University and joined the Illinois Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in 2011. He teaches the department’s senior capstone course, process safety, and regular contributes to the American Society for Engineering Education.

The two connected at a “Writing Across the Curriculum” conference at the University of Illinois a few years ago. As a teaching artist, Kuper visits schools and creates dances that relate to content the students are learning, such as the Underground Railroad or types of clouds. As a graduate student, Vogel taught science to third and fourth graders as part of a National Science Foundation GK-12 fellowship, and as a lecturer he is involved in department outreach programs.

“We had a lot of fun working together—each learning quite a bit about each other’s expertise,” Vogel said.

Both decided that any activities in the book should be done without expensive or elaborate props or requirements. Kuper taught the activities outlined in the book in Champaign-Urbana elementary schools in five-day residencies, giving her many opportunities to refine the material’s content and age-appropriateness. Vogel reviewed the scientific material and wrote the “Science Corners,” which provide additional information about topics covered in the book, such as wedges and the three classes of levers.

“The goal for the science corners is so that the teacher has a deeper understanding and a broader platform from which she or he can teach,” Kuper said. “In my experience, many elementary school teachers may have only taken one or two science classes in college. This helps give them just a bit more confidence to address a range of student ability,” Vogel said.

The book, published by Heritage Music Press (2016), also offers downloadable journal pages, which encourage students to write or draw about their experience about the topics covered. The journal pages “reinforce scientific concepts, but also give students the creativity to draw and create simple machines or other things,” Vogel said.

The audience for the book is envisioned to include music teachers, physical education teachers, and elementary school classroom teachers. The booklet includes step-by-step lessons, a 2.5 hour DVD of demonstration teaching, and a CD of songs (such as the Wheel and Axle song and the Lever Dance) including data files with ready-made concept posters, lyrics and movement guides, and reproducible images.

URBANA – In an era of so many scientific and technological breakthroughs—advances in genome editing, the discovery of Higgs boson or the “God particle,” the launching of deep space satellites—two award-winning Illinois scientists have teamed up to re-introduce people to a remarkable 19th century lecture series about the candle.

Yes, the deceptively simple candle.

“There is no better, no more open door by which you can enter into the study of science than by considering the physical phenomena of a candle,” said British chemist Michael Faraday in 1848.

Even now, over 150 years later, one would be hard pressed to find an object of study that would equal the candle, said Bill Hammack and Don DeCoste in their new companion book to the YouTube series on The Chemical History of a Candle. Hammack is “The Engineer Guy,” creator of the popular YouTube channel about the fascinating engineering behind everyday objects. He also is Professor and Donald and Dolores Morris Faculty Scholar in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Don DeCoste is an award-winning chemistry instructor.

Michael Faraday's The Chemical History of a Candle
Michael Faraday’s The Chemical History of a Candle

Beginning in 1848, Faraday delivered a series of evening lectures on the chemical history of the candle. The lectures are often referred to as the Christmas lectures not because of their content, but because of when they were delivered—in December. The lectures are really an extended illustration of the scientific method, according to Hammack and DeCoste.

Standing before hundreds of people in a crowded lecture room at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Faraday spoke with authority and enthusiasm about the concepts of mass, density, heat conduction, capillary action and convection currents.

Today, Hammack and DeCoste enlighten modern readers by prefacing Faraday’s famous lectures with their own guide to the topics and demonstrations, with key points and helpful diagrams. Charmed by his language, Hammack and DeCoste opted to keep the original language of the lectures, although they updated some text and chemical terms as needed.

For his lectures, Faraday aimed his content at “the juvenile auditory.” The new YouTube series and companion book also focus on young people as the core audience. The book is available in a variety of formats (hard cover, paperback, e-book and downloadable pdf). It includes a teaching guide, with several experiments to help people understand the big ideas of chemistry, such as the particulate nature of matter.

The book: Michael Faraday’s The Chemical History of a Candle with Lectures, Teaching Guides and Student Activities. The companion book to the YouTube video series by Bill Hammack and Don DeCoste.

The book is available as hard cover, paperback, e-book, plus a free pdf, at

About the authors
Bill Hammack
is a Professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois, where he focuses on educating the public about engineering and science. He is the creator and host of the popular YouTube channel engineerguyvideo. His outreach work has been recognized by The National Association of Science Writer’s Science in Society Award; the American Chemical Society’s Grady-Stack Medal, and the American Institute of Physics’ Science Writing Award. His other books include Why Engineers Need to Grow a Long Tail (2011), How Engineers Create the World (2012), Eight Amazing Engineering Stories (2012), and Albert Michelson’s Harmonic Analyzer (2014).

Don DeCoste is a Specialist in Education in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois, where he teaches freshmen and pre-service high school chemistry teachers. He has received the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the Provost’s Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award, and the School of Chemical Sciences teaching award four times. He is the co-author of four chemistry textbooks.

To reach Bill Hammack, email whammackatillinois [dot] edu or call 217-689-1461.

Thousands of curious students, from elementary to high school age, are exploring the halls of the University of Illinois engineering buildings this weekend as part of the 96th annual Engineering Open House.

Brendan Schedler and Andrew Stolcers explain the distillation column to visitors.
Brendan Schedler and Andrew Stolcers explain the distillation column to visitors.

The popular outreach event, called “The STEM of Innovation” this year, features over 250 exhibits, four design competitions, the giant Tesla coil, and many other attractions.

Chemical and biomolecular engineering students set up exhibits in Loomis Laboratory on a range of topics, such as crystal structures, beer fermentation, organic chapstick, and soap manufacturing.

New this year was a functioning distillation column built from scratch by students.

“I was interested in chemical engineering when I graduated high school, but I didn’t really know what chemical engineers dealt with,” said senior Andrew Stolcers. “What we really wanted to do was give kids a visualization of what actually goes on in the chemical engineering world. A lot of that is seen through continuous distillation. Almost every engineer that graduates and goes into industry will work with distillation. Our goal was to show visual separation of components.”

The students did that by using an acid indicator along with a dilute amount of vinegar in water so visitors “could see the pH change across the tower, which gives little kids and idea of, ‘Oh, I can see something is changing in concentration as it goes up or down the tower.”

“We wanted to do it in the way that distillation is actually occurring, rather than just bubbling up liquid and running water down the top. We wanted to show kids what distillation is and give adults an idea of the applications of distillation, ranging from production of plastics to consumer products all the way to petrochemicals,” Stolcers said.

“What I loved about this project is it’s exactly what chemical engineers do,” said ChBE student Samantha Sutton. She graduates in December and wants to go into process engineering. Last year she worked in a chemical plant and this summer will work in food manufacturing.

The students worked on the project for about two months and met regularly with Dr. Troy Vogel, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering lecturer, to share ideas and provide updates on progress.

“It’s very cool. I’m very impressed with what they put together,” Vogel said.

Visitors learn about the continuous distillation of two components.
Visitors learn about the continuous distillation of two components.

“It’s been a hands on way for me to enjoy the design aspect, to get creative and build from scratch,” said Vishaal Yepuri, who is currently taking CHBE 422: Mass Transfer Operations. Last summer he worked for a pharmaceutical company in Puerto Rico and will work for a consumer products company this summer.

In addition to Stolcers, Sutton and Yepuri, the distillation project involved students Brendan Schedler, Morgan Folino, Ryan Sanders, Paul Schochat and Therese Brown.

The University of Illinois invites you to attend the Public Engagement Colloquium, a series about sharing best practices in public engagement among the campus community. Dr. Jerrod Henderson, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering lecturer, will discuss the St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy, created to expose underrepresented fourth and fifth grade boys to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The talk is at noon, Wednesday, Feb. 17, in the Illini Union, Illini Room B.

Brady Academy participants are engaged in hands-on STEM experiments and encouraged to learn through inquiry. They learn about STEM pioneers and inventors through weekly videos and exploration activities. They also interact with underrepresented University of Illinois graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, and staff to complete experiments. Lastly, fathers, male relatives, or mentors attend a session and conduct experiments alongside participants.

Presenters at Wednesday’s colloquium, sponsored by the Office of Public Engagement, are invited based on demonstration of exceptional success in developing and delivering public engagement programming that creates new knowledge, contributes to solving critical societal issues, furthers the teaching and research mission of the campus, and strengthens our ties with external partners.

Limited seating available. Lunch provided to attendees. Register.

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