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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Illinois researchers are part of multi-institutional team that found that solvents spontaneously react with metal nanoparticles to form reactive complexes that can improve catalyst performance and simultaneously reduce the environmental impact of chemical manufacturing. Reprinted with permission from D. Flaherty et al., Science 371:6529 (2021). Graphic courtesy Alex Jerez, Imaging Technology Group – Beckman Institute.

Chemical manufacturers frequently use toxic solvents such as alcohols and benzene to make products like pharmaceuticals and plastics. Researchers are examining a previously overlooked and misunderstood phenomenon in the chemical reactions used to make these products. This discovery brings a new fundamental understanding of catalytic chemistry and a steppingstone to practical applications that could someday make chemical manufacturing less wasteful and more environmentally sound.

The study led by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign researcher David Flaherty, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities researcher Matthew Neurock and Virginia Tech researcher Ayman Karim is published in the journal Science.

Combining solvents and metal nanoparticles accelerates many chemical reactions and helps maximize yield and profit margins for the chemical industry. However, many solvents are toxic and difficult to safely dispose, the researchers said. Water works, too, but it is not nearly as efficient or reliable as organic solvents. The reason for the difference was thought to be the limited solubility of some reactants in water. However, multiple irregularities in experimental data have led the team to realize the reasons for these differences were not fully understood.

To better understand the process, the team ran experiments to analyze the reduction of oxygen to hydrogen peroxide – one set using water, another with methanol, and others with water and methanol mixtures. All experiments used palladium nanoparticles.

“In experiments with methanol, we observed spontaneous decomposition of the solvent that leaves an organic residue, or scum, on the surface of the nanoparticles,” said Flaherty, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Illinois. “In some cases, the scumlike residue clings to the nanoparticles and increases reaction rates and the amount of hydrogen peroxide formed instead of hampering the reaction. This observation made us wonder how it could be helping.”

The team found that the residue, or surface redox mediator, oxygen-containing species, including a key component hydroxymethyl. It accumulates on the palladium nanoparticles’ surface and opens new chemical reaction pathways, the study reports.

“Once formed, the residue becomes part of the catalytic cycle and is likely responsible for some of the different efficiencies among solvents reported over the past 40 years of work on this reaction,” Flaherty said. “Our work provides strong evidence that these surface redox mediators form in alcohol solvents and that they may explain many past mysteries for this chemistry.”

By working with multiple types of experiments and computational simulations, the team learned that these redox mediators effectively transfer both protons and electrons to reactants, whereas reactions in pure water transfer protons easily, but not electrons. These mediators also alter the nanoparticles’ surface in a way that lowers the energy barrier to be overcome for proton and electron transfer, the study reports. 

“We show that the alcohol solvents as well as organic additives can react to form metal-bound surface mediators that act much in the same way that the enzymatic cofactors in our bodies do in catalyzing oxidation and reduction reactions,” Neurock said.

Additionally, this work may have implications for reducing the amounts of solvent used and waste generated in the chemical industry.

“Our research suggests that for some situations, chemical producers could form the surface redox mediators by adding small amounts of an additive to pure water instead of pumping thousands of gallons of organic solvents through these reactors,” Flaherty said.

The Energy and Biosciences Institute through the EBI-Shell program and the National Science Foundation supported this research.

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This story was written by Lois Yoksoulian, the physical sciences editor at the U. of I. News Bureau.

The paper “Solvent molecules form surface redox mediators in situ and cocatalyze oxygen reduction on Pd” is available from the U. of I. News Bureau.

Xiao Su
ChBE Professor Xiao Su

Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Professor Xiao Su was awarded funding through the inaugural initiative called Scialog: Negative Emissions Science, co-sponsored by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Su joins one of eight teams of Scialog Fellows investigating novel approaches to tackle greenhouse gases accumulating in the Earth’s atmosphere. Scialog is short for “science + dialog.” The 2020 Scialog Meeting on Negative Emissions Science (NES) brought together early-career scientists for multidisciplinary input on the topic, including chemistry, physics, materials science, biology, engineering, and geophysics.

Su developed the proposal “Electrifying humidity-swing adsorption for DAC by modulation of redox-polymer hydration” during a virtual meeting in November along with two other early-career Scialog Fellows: Burcu Gurkan, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Case Western Reserve University, and Shaama Mallikarjun, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Southern California. 

The goal of the project is to mitigate global warming by reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere—a task that is much more difficult than addressing the problem at the source where levels are more concentrated. 

“We are seeking new approaches to use renewable energy for driving carbon capture, and achieving net zero or even negative emissions by electrification,” Su said. “Materials design can play an important role, especially discovering new adsorbents for capturing these low concentrations of carbon dioxide from air.”

Today’s carbon dioxide levels are about 410 parts per million, which means this greenhouse gas accounts for less than one percent (0.041%) of molecules in the atmosphere. Still, these levels have surged in recent decades and represent a doubling of pre-human concentrations.  

The awards provide funding of $55,000 for each researcher, to support their efforts in developing materials and processes to economically capture and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Each Scialog proposal was subject to peer review and only those proposals seen as highly innovative and with the potential to transform their fields of research were selected.

Read more about the Scialog initiative, including the full list of Scialog teams, from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

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Claire Benjamin

The Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign seeks energetic and student-oriented individuals for a Specialized Teaching Faculty position – Teaching Professor (all ranks – Assistant/Associate/Full Professor) and Lecturer/Senior Lecturer. Teaching Faculty positions are 9-month (Aug 16- May 15; paid over 12 months), full-time academic appointments (non-tenure track). The Department has approximately 600 total undergraduate students. The department resides in the School of Chemical Sciences, within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Aerial view of the entrance to the Roger Adams Laboratory.
The ChBE department is located in the Roger Adams Laboratory at Illinois.

The University of Illinois is an Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action employer that recruits and hires qualified candidates without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, national origin, disability or veteran status. For more information, visit

Responsibilities: The principal duties are to (i) effectively teach required Chemical Engineering undergraduate courses, and (ii) develop, implement and evaluate programs that improve the engagement and education of the students within the program. Teaching Faculty of all ranks are responsible for preparing and presenting lectures, organizing and supervising laboratory sections, supervising design projects, writing and grading examinations and laboratory reports, holding office hours to meet with students outside of class time, monitoring teaching assistants, and assigning grades. Teaching Faculty duties also include involvement in course and program assessment, curriculum development, advising, K-12 outreach and recruitment, and other education-related committee work. Finally, applicants for the Teaching Professor position (all ranks- Asst/Assoc/Full) will be expected to engage in scholarly research and service to the university, especially through the development of innovative teaching methods and educational enrichment activities.   

Qualifications: These positions require a PhD in chemical engineering, engineering education, or closely related field. Applicants must have strong chemical engineering teaching skills. Preference will be given for three years’ experience in a university teaching and/or work experience as an engineering professional. Preference will be given for familiarity and use of computer-based learning tools including ChemCAD, Python, Matlab or other languages. Senior Lecturer and Teaching Professorial applicants will have demonstrated excellence in university-level teaching. Teaching Assistant/Associate/Full Professor level applicants must demonstrate instructional and curricular impact both within the department and beyond, either through scholarly publications, invited talks, or other related activities involving their discipline, pedagogy, and student interactions.

Salary is competitive and based on experience. The actual start date is negotiable, beginning as early as July 2021.

Create your University of Illinois application through selecting the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences: Open Rank Specialized Teaching Faculty Positions-Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering and upload PDF files as follows:

*Lecturer/Senior Lecturer are required to submit a cover letter, curriculum vitae, and statement of teaching philosophy. The online application will require names and contact information for three references.

*Teaching Assistant/Associate/Full Professor applicants are required to submit a cover letter, curriculum vitae, as well as a teaching statement that summarizes their teaching philosophy and teaching accomplishments, including contributions to the curriculum beyond one’s own classroom (no more than 3 pages, single-spaced), research narrative that describes their current research agenda and plan for contributing scholarship that enhances the department and university and makes an impact beyond the Campus. The online application will require names and contact information for three references.

Please contact the unit at if you have questions.  In order to ensure full consideration, application materials (in PDF format only) must be received by February 8, 2021. No hiring decision will be made until after that date.

The University of Illinois conducts criminal background checks on all job candidates upon acceptance of a contingent offer.  As a qualifying federal contractor, the University of Illinois System uses E-Verify to verify employment eligibility. The University of Illinois System requires candidates selected for hire to disclose any documented finding of sexual misconduct or sexual harassment and to authorize inquiries to current and former employers regarding findings of sexual misconduct or sexual harassment. For more information, visit Policy on Consideration of Sexual Misconduct in Prior Employment.

This application closes on February 8, 2021.

Today the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign held a virtual winter convocation ceremony to celebrate 54 bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral graduates via Zoom. 

Marchoe Northern (‘BS 97)

Remarks were given by the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Associate Dean Matthew Ando and Marchoe Dill Northern (BS ’97), senior vice president – global home care brand franchise leader at Procter & Gamble. After graduation, Dill Northern began her chemical engineering career at P&G and later transitioned to marketing, holding positions such as senior brand director for Oral Care, including top brands like Crest, Oral B, and Fixodent. While working full time at P&G, she earned her Masters of Business Administration from the University of Chicago.  

Her message to the graduating class: to access your destiny, you must affirm your gifts, build relationships, and impact the world in an area of personal passion. 

“It’s 2020, certainly not the year, or graduation, you envisioned at the start of your time at U of I,” Dill Northern said in her remarks. She described how the COVID-19 crisis has changed life as we know it, stalled industries, and exposed racial, educational, socioeconomic, urban/rural, and age inequities. 

“But the question for today is what does it mean for you? How will this experience shape your narrative?” Dill Northern asked the 2020 graduates. “Will you describe it as a complication, clouding your view of your college experience and your capabilities. Will you be filled with uncertainty and skepticism regarding the job market prospects, or conditions that may require you to start a career remotely or continue your education virtually? 

“Or will you flip this into the opportunity it affords to reset, reimagine, and activate the workplace, education, government, and industries of now? Will you take the protests that so many of us participated in over the summer, and the passion that led to a record turn out at the ballot box in the fall, to create a world that we are all counting on you to lead?” 

Dill Northern said her time at Illinois was a controlled experiment designed to help her build the skills that have propelled her into the future. She told students to remember that complications are indeed the rocket fuel for their future. “I believe in you, I am inspired by you, and most of all, I am connected to you. This day and for the ages, we are alumni of the greatest proving ground on the planet—the University of Illinois.” 

A picture of the Alma Mater compiled from pictures of ChBE graduates.
A picture of Alma Mater compiled from pictures of ChBE’s December 2020 graduates.

As the ceremony concluded, ChBE Department Head Paul Kenis asked graduates to move their tassels—real or imaginary—to the left. He also reminded them that they have joined an elite rank of 5,000 departmental alumni who have graduated since 1901. 

“Many have gone on to remarkable careers, for example, in the energy, food, pharma, or chemical industries,” Kenis said. “Many alumni also have applied their Illinois problem-solving education in unexpected directions: in the banking world, for example on Wall Street, or as VP of the Bank of America.”

“In years to come, we hope to see many of you back on campus to share your achievements with us, just as Marchoe Dill Northern did today,” he said, encouraging the graduates to stay in touch. 

The ceremony was recorded and is available for download


Claire Benjamin

The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AlChE) recognized ChBE’s Ajit Vikram with the first place award at the 2020 AIChE Graduate Student Award Competition in the Inorganic Chemistry Area.

The Inorganic Chemistry Graduate Student Award Session at the AIChE Annual Conference recognizes graduate students whose research achievements, in the broad area of inorganic materials, demonstrate a high level of excellence. Winning the award is a great recognition of their accomplishments because awardees must demonstrate a leading role in advancing their research field.

“It was truly our honor to learn about your research achievements! We look forward to seeing more wonderful research from you in the future!” said Xueyi Zhang, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Pennsylvania State University, who chaired the 2020 Graduate Award Session in Inorganic Chemistry Area within the Materials Engineering & Sciences Division (MESD) in the award letter.

Vikram’s faculty advisor is Paul Kenis, the ChBE Department Head and Elio Eliakim Tarika Endowed Chair in Chemical Engineering. Vikram develops flow reactor platforms for the synthesis of heavy-metal-free quantum dots used in next-generation display technologies.

“I am honored to receive this award, which represents the culmination of my education in ChBE and many collaborations within and outside of the department,” Vikram said.

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Claire Benjamin

For more information about our PhD program, please join us for one of our graduate admissions information sessions:

Grad Admission Info Session 1
Friday, Nov 20, 2020 
11 AM (US Central Time)
Presenters: Prof. Ying Diao, Prof. David Flaherty
Register here to receive Zoom link
Grad Admission Info Session 2
Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020
10 AM (US Central Time)
Presenters: Prof. Charles Sing, Prof. Ying Diao
Register here to receive Zoom link

Key Dates

Online applications can be accessed through the Graduate College website.

Applications will be reviewed on a continuous basis, and applicants are strongly encouraged to submit their complete applications by December 15, 2020. The final deadline is December 31, 2020. Applications that are incomplete after that date will not be considered.

*Note: The Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering does not admit students into the program with the intention of earning a terminal Master’s degree; however, students who have met the requirements may obtain a Master’s degree as a milestone on the path to completing their Ph.D. degree.

Applying to the Ph.D. Program

ChBE does not require GRE scores for admission

Students applying to the Ph.D. program in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering should have a baccalaureate degree from an accredited university, an exceptional academic record and three recommendation letters. International students are required to submit TOEFL/IELTS scores. Preferred applicants possess a grade point average of at least 3.5 on a 4.0 scale (4.0 is A).

Outstanding students with degrees in areas other than Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (such as Chemistry, Materials Science, Bioengineering, and Biomedical Engineering) are welcome to apply. Such students will be required to take additional courses as determined by the graduate program committee.

We seek to recruit a diverse group of highly-motivated graduate students; underrepresented students are strongly encouraged to apply. The university offers several diversity programs, including the Sloan Scholars program for doctoral students from underrepresented groups, which provides excellent mentoring and professional development opportunities.

Admission Procedure

1. Prospective graduate students apply to our program through the University of Illinois Graduate College website. On the Graduate Admissions page you will be asked to create an application account and fill out an electronic application. Please review the application instructions before contacting the department with general application questions.

2. Pay the application fee online to the Graduate College.

If eligible, request an application fee waiver through the Committee on Institutional Cooperation’s FreeApp program. The program is designed to increase access to graduate education for students who possess qualities and experiences that enhance the diversity of the intellectual, cultural, and social environments at CIC universities, including the University of Illinois. International applicants are not eligible for waivers.

3. Obtain three recommendation letters. Forms and instructions for submission are on the Graduate College website.

4. Upload unofficial transcripts to the Graduate College’s online application system. Upon acceptance, students should request their official transcripts be sent to the Graduate College before they begin the program.

For International Students

5. For all applicants whose native language is not English, please request that the Educational Testing Service (ETS) send your official TOEFL score to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The institution code is 1836. Department codes are not necessary for our school; you can fill in any number or leave it blank. As long as the institution code is correct, all departments to which you apply will be provided access to your test scores.

6. After you are accepted in our program, you may need to provide a Declaration and Certification of Finances form for your visa application through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) Office of the Graduate College’s Admissions Office.

7. All students will be required to teach three to four semesters as teaching assistants. If the Spoken English section of your TOEFL score is 23 or below, you are urged to retake this test prior to joining our program to meet the maximum score for teaching requirement.

Graduate Admissions FAQ’s


National Science Foundation funds collaborative effort to reimagine creation of chemicals and fuels

David Flaherty
David Flaherty of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

A $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation will help a team of scientists at the University of Illinois develop ways to use renewable energy to remediate carbon dioxide emissions and generate chemical building blocks and liquid fuels. 

The main idea of their proposal is to reimagine the manufacturing of chemicals and fuels as society shifts from using petroleum for these processes to renewable sources such as biomass and carbon dioxide. David Flaherty, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and Dow Chemical Faculty Scholar, said he and his colleagues have been laying the intellectual groundwork for this proposal over the past several years.

The team is comprised of five faculty members at the University of Illinois including Flaherty, Andrew Gewirth (chemistry), Paul Kenis (chemical and biomolecular engineering), Joaquín Rodríguez-López (chemistry), and Ashlynn Stillwell (civil and environmental engineering).

The team’s proposal was selected among hundreds of others in a rigorous review process for the grant through National Science Foundation’s Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation Research Projects program. Their concept uses renewable energy that comes off the grid from solar or wind power to drive an electrochemical reactor that performs two useful reactions simultaneously.

First, they use one side of the reactor to reduce carbon dioxide to form molecules currently used to make durable goods such as plastics. This will reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions. However, reducing carbon dioxide requires a large amount of energy, because these reactions are thermodynamically unfavorable, Flaherty said. The challenge here is turning a stable molecule such as carbon dioxide into a much less stable molecule, he said. 

“Another way to think about this is that we are trying to reverse the combustion process that is used to generate energy to move cars or produce electricity in power plants,” Flaherty said.

Second, the other side of the reactor partially oxidizes (or burns) renewable and abundant materials that are locally available. The energy captured from this process helps drive the reduction of carbon dioxide while the oxidation reaction produces useful chemicals. 

“We have to change our approach for making building block chemicals,” Flaherty said. “How do we manufacture chemicals and create fuels and energy that will support all the things we enjoy doing but doing it in a distributed manner that aligns with the location of emerging resources? We need to move away from these hundred-acre petroleum refineries and find solutions that work at smaller scales.”

Paul Kenis
Paul Kenis of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Kenis, the Elio E.Tarika Endowed Chair in Chemical Engineering, found a way to reduce carbon dioxide that would decrease the amount of renewable energy necessary for the process by up to 50 percent. He found that by coupling the carbon dioxide reduction with a more favorable type of chemistry on the other side of the reactor, the amount of energy necessary will greatly decrease.

“Electrolysis is seen as an option for industry to change over from the present plants to electrolysis processes,” Kenis said.

He added that, as part of the Paris Accord, the chemical industry is in an energy transition from 2020 to 2050 in which the dependency on fossil fuels and the associated carbon dioxide production must be decreased.

This is a win-win-win scenario, Flaherty said. If successful, they will efficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions, produce renewable chemicals and fuels, and create new job opportunities for operators and engineers in an emerging distributive chemical manufacturing economy.

“We are going to learn so much from each other along the way,” Flaherty said. “We all have our own perspectives, our own expertise, and this is an awesome opportunity for us to tackle a critical challenge. In addition, this will be an excellent way for us to teach students a diverse set of skills they need to solve important societal problems.”

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Samantha Boyle



Illinois engineers Kwiyong Kim, left, Professor Xiao Su, Johannes Elbert and Paola Baldaguez Medina are part of a team that developed a new polymer electrode device that can capture and destroy PFAS contaminants present in water. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Researchers have demonstrated that they can attract, capture and destroy PFAS – a group of federally regulated substances found in everything from nonstick coatings to shampoo and nicknamed “the forever chemicals” due to their persistence in the natural environment.

Using a tunable copolymer electrode, engineers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign captured and destroyed perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances present in water using electrochemical reactions. The proof-of-concept study is the first to show that copolymers can drive electrochemical environmental applications, the researchers said.

The results of the study are published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

“Exposure to PFAS has gained intense attention recently due to their widespread occurrence in natural bodies of water, contaminated soil and drinking water,” said Xiao Su, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering who led the study in collaboration with civil and environmental engineering professors Yujie Men and Roland Cusick.

PFAS are typically present in low concentrations, and devices or methods designed to remove them must be highly selective toward them over other compounds found in natural waters, the researchers said. PFAS are electrically charged, held together by highly stable bonds, and are water-resistant, making them difficult to destroy using traditional waste-disposal methods.

“We have found a way to tune a copolymer electrode to attract and adsorb – or capture – PFAS from water,” Su said. “The process not only removes these dangerous contaminants, but also destroys them simultaneously using electrochemical reactions at the opposite electrode, making the overall system highly energy-efficient.”

To evaluate the method, the team used various water samples that included municipal wastewater, all spiked with either a low or moderate concentration of PFAS.

 “Within three hours of starting the electrochemical adsorption process in the lab, we saw a 93% reduction of PFAS concentration in the low concentration spiked samples and an 82.5% reduction with a moderate concentration spiked samples, which shows the system can be efficient for different contamination contexts – such as in drinking water or even chemical spills,” Su said.

Based on concepts first proposed in Su’s previous work with arsenic removal, the process combines the separation and reaction steps in one device. “This is an example of what we call processes intensification, which we believe is an important approach for addressing environmental concerns related to energy and water,” Su said.

The team plans to continue to work with various emerging contaminants, including endocrine disruptors. “We are also very interested in seeing how these basic copolymer concepts might work outside of environmental systems and help perform challenging chemical separations, such as drug purification in the pharmaceutical industry,” Su said.

Postdoctoral researcher Kwiyong Kim and graduate student Paola Baldaguez Medina are the lead authors of the study. Postdoctoral researchers Johannes Elbert and Emmanuel Kayiwa also contributed to the study.

The U. of I., the National Science Foundation and the Illinois Water Resources Center supported this study.

The paper “Molecular tuning of redox-copolymers for selective electrochemical remediation” is available online and from the U. of I. News Bureau. DOI: 10.1002/adfm.202004635.

Byungsoo Kim, left, and professor Hyunjoon Kong stand outdoors, socially distanced.
Postdoctoral researcher Byoungsoo Kim and professor Hyunjoon Kong led a team that developed an octopus-inspired device for transferring fragile, thin sheets of tissue or flexible electronics. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Thin tissue grafts and flexible electronics have a host of applications for wound healing, regenerative medicine and biosensing. A new device inspired by an octopus’s sucker rapidly transfers delicate tissue or electronic sheets to the patient, overcoming a key barrier to clinical application, according to researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and collaborators.

“For the last few decades, cell or tissue sheets have been increasingly used to treat injured or diseased tissues. A crucial aspect of tissue transplantation surgery, such as corneal tissue transplantation surgery, is surgical gripping and safe transplantation of soft tissues. However, handling these living substances remains a grand challenge because they are fragile and easily crumple when picking them up from the culture media,” said study leader Hyunjoon Kong, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Illinois.

Kong’s group, along with collaborators at Purdue University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Chung-Ang University in South Korea, and the Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology, published their work in the journal Science Advances.

Current methods of transferring the sheets involve growing them on a temperature-sensitive soft polymer that, once transferred, shrinks and releases the thin film. However, this process takes 30-60 minutes to transfer a single sheet, requires skilled technicians and runs the risk of tearing or wrinkling, Kong said.

“During surgery, surgeons must minimize the risk of damage to soft tissues and transplant quickly, without contamination. Also, transfer of ultrathin materials without wrinkle or damage is another crucial aspect,” Kong said.

Seeking a way to quickly pick up and release the thin, delicate sheets of cells or electronics without damaging them, the researchers turned to the animal kingdom for inspiration. Seeing the way an octopus or squid can pick up both wet and dry objects of all shapes with small pressure changes in their muscle-powered suction cups, rather than a sticky chemical adhesive, gave the researchers an idea.

They designed a manipulator made of a temperature-responsive layer of soft hydrogel attached to an electric heater. To pick up a thin sheet, the researchers gently heat the hydrogel to shrink it, then press it to the sheet and turn off the heat. The hydrogel expands slightly, creating suction with the soft tissue or flexible electronic film so it can be lifted and transferred. Then they gently place the thin film on the target and turn the heater back on, shrinking the hydrogel and releasing the sheet. 

The entire process takes about 10 seconds. See a video on YouTube.

Next, the researchers hope to integrate sensors into the manipulator, to further take advantage of their soft, bio-inspired design.

“For example, by integrating pressure sensors with the manipulator, it would be possible to monitor the deformation of target objects during contact and, in turn, adjust the suction force to a level at which materials retain their structural integrity and functionality,” Kong said. “By doing so, we can improve the safety and accuracy of handling these materials. In addition, we aim to examine therapeutic efficacy of cells and tissues transferred by the soft manipulator.”

The National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense Vision Research Program and the  Jump Applied Research in Community Health through Engineering and Simulation endowment supported this work.

Editor’s notes: To reach Hyunjoon Kong, call (217) 333-1178; email: 

The paper “Electrothermal soft manipulator enabling safe transport and handling of thin cell/tissue sheets and bioelectronic devices” is available online.

DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abc5630

A team led by Steven L. Miller Chair professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering Huimin Zhao (BSD leader/CABBI/MMG) was awarded a five-year $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the NSF Artificial Intelligence (AI) Institute for Molecular Discovery, Synthetic Strategy and Manufacturing (Molecule Maker Lab Institute or MMLI). The multi-institutional team also consists of researchers and collaborators from the Grainger College of Engineering, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and from University Laboratory High School, Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, Northwestern University, Penn State University, and Rochester Institute of Technology.

Professor Huimin Zhao, Steven L. Miller Chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, will lead the Molecule Maker Lab Institute with a multi-institutional team.

The MMLI focuses on development of new AI-enabled tools, such as AlphaSynthesis, to accelerate automated chemical synthesis and advance the discovery and manufacture of novel materials and bioactive compounds. Researchers use the data generated from the analysis of these molecules to guide further development of synthesis planning and catalyst design tools using AI and machine learning. The institute also serves as a training ground for the next generation of scientists with combined expertise in AI, chemistry, and bioengineering.

“The MMLI is a first-of-its-kind research infrastructure that will have a powerful impact on the U.S. research community,” said Zhao. “This proposed infrastructure will respond to high-priority needs of communities seeking to 1) discover and optimize a wide range of molecular functions (Molecules), 2) harness the power of data to advance the science of molecular synthesis (Data), and 3) inspire a broad audience of scientists, teachers, students, and citizen scientists to participate in the process of molecular innovation (Open Door). The MMLI will revolutionize the way chemistry is taught and capture the imagination of a new generation of molecule makers.”

The NSF is establishing five new AI institutes to accelerate research, expand America’s workforce, and transform society in the decades to come. Enabled by sustained federal investment and channeled toward issues of national importance, continued advancement in AI research holds the potential for further economic impact and improvements in quality of life.

With an investment of over $100 million over the next five years, NSF’s AI Institutes represent the nation’s most significant federal investment in AI research and workforce development to date. The $20 million investment in each of five NSF AI institutes is just the beginning, with more institute announcements anticipated in the coming years.

“Recognizing the critical role of AI, NSF is investing in collaborative research and education hubs, such as the NSF MMLI anchored at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which will bring together academia, industry, and government to unearth profound discoveries and develop new capabilities advancing American competitiveness for decades to come,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “Just as prior NSF investments enabled the breakthroughs that have given rise to today’s AI revolution, the awards being announced today will drive discovery and innovation that will sustain American leadership and competitiveness in AI for decades to come.”
“Over the past decade there have been major advances in both AI and automated chemical and biochemical synthesis, making the timing for the launch of the MMLI both judicious and urgent,” said Zhao. “Synergistically integrating these powerful disciplines now has the potential to dramatically accelerate and advance the manufacturing and discovery of molecules with important functions that address major unsolved problems in society. Not doing so would result in a major missed opportunity for the U.S. research community.”

To learn more about the MMLI visit

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