Meet our Students
PhD student Chris Torres joined the department in Fall 2018
What led you to the U of I and the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering?
I had several choices for graduate school. What I liked most about U of I and ChBE were the wide range of topics I was interested in for research, as well as how approachable faculty and current grad students were. I believed that I would be able to perform excellent research and take advantage of the facilities and reputation of U of I to achieve my professional goals, but perhaps more importantly, I also felt I could “fit in” with the people around me. I’m that weird person that always talks to strangers in public, and the community here seemed to embrace that right away and accommodate my eccentricities. *laughs*
Tell us about the research you do in the Flaherty Lab.
I was drawn to Prof. Dave Flaherty’s group for many reasons. I developed an interest in studying molecular-scale phenomena throughout my undergraduate research career, and Prof. Flaherty’s research themes matched with my desire to become a skilled, detail-oriented experimentalist. In Dave’s group, I study heterogeneous catalysis at solid-liquid interfaces, specifically the effect of extended interactions between a catalyst surface, reactive intermediate species, and reactant and co-solvent molecules for liquid-phase oxidation reactions. We synthesize and characterize materials for use in classical chemical engineering reactors to evaluate reaction kinetics, which are combined with in situ spectroscopic and calorimetric techniques to further inform our understanding of the fundamental phenomena governing heterogeneous catalysis. One of our main goals from this research is to create design rules for novel catalysts or inform reaction conditions which may reduce the environmental impact of the chemical industry for a wide array of chemical systems.
What made you study this particular area of chemical engineering? What do you love about this field?
I always had an interest in what happens at length scales below what the human eye can resolve. My step-father worked at a semiconductor fabrication facility when I was a child, and he often brought home defective “chips” for me to collect. I was destined to be an electrical engineer, I believe, before I took my first chemistry class in college. I quickly fell in love with the language of atoms and molecules, realizing that everything (quite literally) is made of atoms and molecules, including semiconductors.
So, I made the switch to chemical engineering at the University of New Mexico and realized throughout my undergraduate research opportunities that there are several different ways to explore molecular-scale science. In one way or another, every project I worked on was rooted in sustainability efforts. I was involved in school clubs during undergrad where we cleaned up refuse around the community, among other tasks, and I began to realize I could have an impact on my environment through the research I perform, as well.
What I love most about my work is that I can contribute to the fight to keep our planet healthy for future generations while also satiating my own desire to continue exploring molecular-scale phenomena.
You recently were selected for a prestigious Ford fellowship and NSF fellowship. What did it mean to you to be recognized with these honors?
Wow… that’s still how I feel about that, weeks after receiving the news. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am now, as I know so many of my peers have, also. Earning these fellowships, one primarily for my contribution to diversity in STEM (Ford) and the other for my potential as an impactful researcher (NSF), really gave me the motivation to continue in my studies and pave ground for future scholars like me. I came from a tough background (1st gen. college graduate, minority status, etc.) where I often had to learn things the hard way, in school and in life, and it would be awesome if future generations could learn from my mistakes and avoid the pitfalls that I encountered along my path to higher learning in STEM. I think it is an incredible honor and opportunity I have received, and I want to make sure that I make the most out of it so I can give back more later.
Favorite way or place to unwind on or off-campus?
I love coming home after lab to relax, play video games, and hang out with Butters, my cat. Some of my fellow grads and I will play pick-up basketball at the gym to let off steam once in a while, and most weekends many of us can be found in downtown Champaign, tossing one back and looking for bar food. I enjoy putting together model kits and tinkering with electronics as well.
What are your plans for after you receive your PhD?
I would love to find a postdoctoral research position in a big city like NYC or Tokyo to experience the big city life for a couple years, before eventually settling down into an academic role, primarily teaching, where I can impart my life lessons on future scientists and engineers. Eventually, I’d like to return to the University of New Mexico to teach and reinsert myself to the Hispanic community which I grew up in.
Meet our Alumni
Alumnus Mark Tracy, a leader in drug delivery and RNA therapeutics, reflects on his career and offers insights on biotech opportunities for ChemEs
A leader in biopharmaceutical product development, Dr. Mark A. Tracy, BS ’86, has developed more than 10 new medicines that have advanced into clinical trials and onto pharmacy shelves, including a first-in-class therapeutic using the gene silencing technology RNA interference (RNAi).
Now a consultant who works with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies around the world, he is optimistic and enthusiastic about advances in RNA therapeutics, cell and gene therapies, and gene editing. He also is excited about the many roles chemical engineers can play in developing, scaling up, and manufacturing new medicines.
Tracy has held a lifelong curiosity about the world and a passion for building and making things, from model ships to cakes as a child to new therapeutics and biopharmaceutical companies as an adult. It was at the University of Illinois where he was inspired by great faculty to pursue a career in science and where he was first introduced to and developed a passion for research in chemistry and engineering.
Inspired by research
Tracy grew up in the Chicago suburbs. As a child he and his family often stopped at the U of I campus on their way to visit relatives in southern Illinois. (His father was a graduate of the College of Commerce, now Gies College of Business.) When he was young, he was interested in many topics, from dinosaurs and nature to history, cooking, sports, and music. In high school he developed an initial interest in chemistry and gravitated toward subjects that supported his interest in building and making things. A chemistry class with Professor Steve Zumdahl during his first year at Illinois cemented his interest and future in chemical sciences. Zumdahl provided Tracy and many other students with their first experience of working in an academic research lab.
As he advanced in the chemical engineering curriculum, Tracy became interested in polymers after taking a class with Professor Tony McHugh, whose research is in polymer science and engineering. Tracy decided to complete a senior thesis with new professor Charles “Chip” Zukoski entitled “The Synthesis, Characterization, and Sizing of Monodisperse Silica Dispersions.” This work resulted in his first published paper in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Professor’s Zukoski’s enthusiasm for the field was infectious.
“It was exciting and inspiring to be working for him. I was hooked on research!”
At Illinois, Tracy was a member of the AIChE student chapter and was a recipient of its Achievement Award. He also was president of the Phi Lambda Upsilon Chemical Science Honor Society and a member of Tau Beta Pi. He was an active member of the Illini Union Board, helping to organize events that brought in speakers such as Rosalyn Yalow, a Nobel Prize-winning medical physicist and Illinois alumnus. He also volunteered as an usher at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and enjoyed attending football and basketball games, including the most memorable games during the year in which the football and men’s basketball teams won Big Ten Championships.
Industry boot camp
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Tracy headed to Stanford University where he pursued a master’s degree in chemical engineering and a PhD in chemistry. At Stanford, his mentor was chemistry Professor Robert Pecora, who used light scattering techniques to study polymers and colloidal solutions. Tracy found himself using much of what he learned at Illinois, such as physical chemistry, mass transfer, fluids, and polymer science. As the Pecora lab engaged with people in industry and worked on industrial problems, Tracy realized he wanted to go that route after graduation.
Tracy joined a biotechnology start-up Enzytech, Inc, co-founded by MIT Professors Alex Klibanov and Robert Langer. Langer is considered a pioneer in the fields of drug delivery and tissue engineering and founder of more than 25 medical science-based companies. At Cambridge, MA-based Enzytech, which later merged with another biotech firm, Alkermes, Inc., Tracy helped to develop the first sustained release protein product approved by the FDA and several other commercialized products based on novel drug delivery science. These include Vivitrol® for treatment of alcohol and opiate dependence and Bydureon® for Type II diabetes. While there he gained experience in formulation science, proteins, peptides, and small molecules, manufacturing of complex injectable products, clinical and nonclinical studies, and much more.
“I call it my biopharmaceutical development boot camp. I learned what it took to build on academic research to develop and commercialize a new medicine,” he said.
In 2006, Tracy left Alkermes to join the biopharmaceutical company Alnylam, Inc. to apply his drug delivery science and product development experience in the new and emerging field of RNA therapeutics.
RNA acts as a messenger within the body’s cells, carrying instructions from DNA for controlling the synthesis of proteins. RNA interference is a process that occurs naturally within our cells to block how certain genes are expressed. The new class of drugs being developed at Alnylam, called siRNAs, works by silencing a portion of RNA involved in causing disease. Unlike most small molecule or protein drugs, siRNA needs to be delivered within specific cells to silence the target gene, he said.
“This was an exciting time. The Nobel Prize was awarded that year to (Andrew) Fire and (Craig) Mello for the discovery of RNA interference. The promise was high—to alter genetic drivers of disease for new and better medicines. Drug delivery was the main road block to advancing this new discovery to the clinic. My job at Alnylam was to solve delivery challenges and develop products,” he said.
Ultimately Tracy and his team zeroed in on two potential delivery solutions. The first was a lipid nanoparticle-based (LNP) formulation which involved wrapping the siRNA in special lipids which can be taken up in the desired cell. The second was to chemically attach a cell targeting ligand directly to the siRNA.
“Both worked but the path to the clinic was faster for the LNP approach at the time. Fast forward to today, the company has built a pipeline of new medicines using both delivery platforms,” Tracy said.
Of all the products and projects Tracy has been involved with over the years, he is most proud of the role he played in developing Onpattro®, the first RNA interference-based therapeutic approved by the FDA. Onpattro uses the LNP delivery system. It is also the first FDA-approved treatment for patients with polyneuropathy caused by hereditary transthyretin-mediated amyloidosis (hATTR), a rare, debilitating and often fatal genetic disease characterized by the buildup of abnormal amyloid protein in peripheral nerves, the heart, and other organs.
“It was rewarding to help develop a treatment for patients with this rare and devastating condition, one that shows the potential to slow or even halt disease progression in patients. It doesn’t get much better than that in my experience,” he said.
Since he became involved in developing RNA therapeutics, Tracy said he has been amazed by the progress made in understanding the genome and the role of nucleic acids in impacting disease. Those new understandings have translated to the development of emerging products, such as the new RNAi therapeutic for treatment of TTR amyloidosis. In the future, Tracy hopes they could also translate to new treatments for cancers and more common diseases like infectious, neurodegenerative, and cardiovascular diseases. He is particularly excited about research utilizing mRNAs, or messenger RNAs, to express antigens in a way that will enable more rapid development of vaccines for pandemics. He expects continued rapid advances in gene therapy and gene editing.
“The challenge is these new therapies currently are costly and often very difficult to manufacture. But these are problems chemical engineers are well-equipped to solve,” he said.
Sharing his knowledge
In 2012 he established Tracy BioConsulting, LLC. He works with a variety of clients, from single-person start-ups to large multi-national firms, to share the knowledge and experience he’s gained from his years in drug delivery and biopharmaceutical product development. Tracy assists clients to plan, build, and navigate a successful path from research through the clinic for new therapeutic platforms and drug programs. He also helps clients to create business opportunities and sits on several corporate and university advisory boards.
“I thought I could enable organizations small and large to come up with effective drug development plans to move a product past the research setting. That’s the primary focus of my consulting—supporting that translational gap and exploiting new business opportunities that emerge ultimately to get novel, safe, and effective drugs to patients.”
About a decade ago, he connected with staff at the University of Illinois Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, which was established in 2000.
“I was blown away by what they accomplished in such a short time. I wanted to be a part of it in a small way and help support their efforts in human health research by providing students with exposure to drug development and biotech entrepreneurship beyond the academic research setting.”
The National Institutes of Health calls the process of translating basic drug research into a viable medical product the “Valley of Death.” This is the period of transition when a technology is seen as promising, but is too new to validate its commercial potential. Effectively navigating through this period, he believes, requires an understanding of the perspectives of industry and foundations to ultimately attract the necessary funding and support in order to reach the clinical stage.
“I always felt that to solve the biggest problems we face, including those in human health, you need to bring people together from across the traditional academic, industry, and other societal boundaries,” he said. “By facilitating biotech industry or entrepreneurship-related experiences for students, we’re providing them with a broader perspective ultimately necessary to transform a discovery into an approved drug.”
Tracy’s advice to students, especially those interested in entrepreneurship, biotechnology, or biopharmaceutical development is to take in as many different experiences. Students interested in developing novel therapies need to understand the business and medical sides, as well as the physical and biological sciences, he said.
“Expect some failures along the way. In biotech, you can’t be at the edge of a discipline or technology without experiencing setbacks. Setbacks are often opportunities. If you can see an opportunity in a setback, at least over time, sometimes that puts you in better position.”
Tracy said he received an excellent technical and scientific education at Illinois.
“It was hard work for sure but my experiences at Illinois set me up for my career. That foundation provided me with the skills and confidence to launch a career I find very rewarding. I am grateful to the university and all my professors and mentors. I am proud to be an Illini.”
Meet our faculty
Baron Peters: Catalysis, Nucleation, and Reaction Rate Theory
New faculty member joined department in January 2019
For the past 11 years, Dr. Baron Peters has worked at the University of California, Santa Barbara as a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry. His work there was recognized by a National Science Foundation CAREER award in 2010 and a Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award in 2013. Alumni from his group have become assistant professors at the University of Michigan and the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, staff engineers at three national laboratories, and research and development engineers in industry.
Peters studies the kinetics and mechanisms of chemical reactions using computational methods and theoretical analysis.
“In our work we are particularly interested in reaction rates, mechanistic hypothesis tests, and using natural time and length scale separations to construct multiscale models. These seem like niche topics, but they have several applications: catalysis, polymerization kinetics, nucleation and growth, and reactions in complex environments,” Peters said.
“We use a very broad tool set, which includes electronic structure calculations, molecular dynamics simulations, Monte Carlo, and population balance models. The common thread running through all of our work is the theory of rare events, fleeting transitions separated by long random waiting times.”
Peters grew up in Moberly, a small town in Missouri. Although his current work involves a lot of math and computation, those interests didn’t blossom until he was older. As a child, he was interested in art, fishing, and sports and his first exposure to computers didn’t occur until his senior year of high school. He credits high school teachers for sparking an interest in math and science and inspiring him to apply to college. Peters started at the University of Missouri on a full scholarship in 1994.
Peters went on to major in chemical engineering and math. He continued his studies and earned a PhD in Chemical Engineering at UC-Berkeley, studying with Professors Arup Chakraborty and Alex Bell.
“I chose Berkeley because I had read some of Chakraborty’s fascinating papers as an undergraduate, and I was tempted by the mountains and trout streams of California,” Peters said. “In the Pitzer Center, I was surrounded by brilliant scientists who worked in reaction dynamics, quantum chemistry, and statistical mechanics. It was an enriching environment where students were constantly exposed to research outside of what their advisers did. My own PhD work ultimately did not like look like what my advisers focused on.”
As a postdoc with Professor Bernhardt Trout at MIT, Peters studied protein degradation mechanisms, activated gas diffusion in methane hydrates, solid-solid nucleation, and he developed path sampling-based mechanistic hypothesis testing tools that remain state-of-the-art.
Peters left Santa Barbara to join the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois in January 2019. To Peters’ great relief, all the members of his research lab decided to move with him to Illinois.
“At Santa Barbara, I had two great collaborations with Susannah Scott (in catalysis) and Mike Doherty (in crystallization). Modern funding models favor large teams with shared goals, and the smaller campus at Santa Barbara provided few opportunities to expand beyond those two collaborations,” explained Peters. “I chose the University of Illinois because they made me a great offer and because it has many excellent programs that overlap with my interests. I have met many faculty members within the Departments of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Chemistry whose interests overlap with mine.”
The Peters Lab has developed state-of-the-art models and simulation methods for nucleation in systems with multiple components. Their work on crystal nucleation and growth, which is funded by Eli Lilly, is focused on developing drugs with the correct crystal structures. The lab also has National Science Foundation and Department of Energy-funded projects on ethylene polymerization and amorphous catalysts.
“The Phillips ethylene polymerization catalyst makes about half the world’s polyethylene. However, it is still unclear how it works,” explained Peters. “It is an amorphous catalyst, so all of the sites are a little bit different, which makes it difficult to investigate them experimentally and theoretically.”
Several other catalysts also are made from amorphous materials. By building reliable computational tools for this family of catalysts, Peters hopes to understand how they work so that their properties can be systematically improved.
Peters is teaching a new graduate course on kinetics and reaction engineering.
“For decades, this course has been taught with a focus on catalysis, but I’m working to make it a graduate-level kinetics course for every branch of chemical engineering. Everyone in the chemical sciences encounters kinetics, whether you’re growing crystals, making polymers, synthesizing nanoparticles, growing cells, or doing catalysis. Understanding the rate processes involved, formulating models that can predict changes in time and position is important. There are a lot of opportunities, applications, and challenges in those areas,”
While working in the disparate areas of catalysis, nucleation, and reaction rate theory, Peters noted some oddly persistent gaps between the chemistry, physics, and engineering perspectives on kinetics.
“Chemistry, chemical engineering, and chemical physics books cover almost mutually exclusive branches of kinetics, and advances from the last 40 years are all confined to the original literature, making them incomprehensible to most of the new PhD students. The key to progress in many areas is recognizing which theories are appropriate for which process, which tools can do the required calculations, and knowing how to stitch theories at different scales together into internally consistent models,” he explained.
To address these gaps in the literature, Peters published the first comprehensive kinetics textbook, Reaction Rate Theory and Rare Events, in 2017. The book is being used in graduate kinetics and reaction engineering courses in several chemical engineering departments.
In his spare time, Peters dabbles in pottery and likes backpacking and hiking. “I have taken my wife and kids, and sometimes my PhD students, on backpacking trips. Now that the kids and I are both getting older, I’m excited to let them carry my stuff for a change,” he said.
Written by Ananya Sen.
Meet our students.
PhD student Danielle Harrier joined Illinois in Fall 2017
Where are you from? Where did you receive your undergraduate degree?
I am from Española, a small town in northern New Mexico. I received my bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of New Mexico. Go Lobos!
Why did you choose the University of Illinois and the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering program?
I chose to attend graduate school at Illinois because the breadth of research offered by the department and more particularly by the opportunity I received to work with two principle investigators, Professor Damien Guironnet and Professor Paul Kenis. This collaboration puts me at the forefront of understanding and solving current global issues—including creating sustainable polymers.
Tell us about your research interests. What lab do you work in and what is your role in the lab?
My research surrounds utilizing microfluidics to perform advanced encapsulation of catalytic material. This encapsulation will allow me to perform water sensitive catalytic polymerizations of biodegradable polymers in an aqueous dispersion. This project utilizes the expertise in catalytic polymerization and emulsion polymerization of Professor Damien Guironnet. The development of the microfluidic technology is overseen by Professor Paul Kenis.
What are your plans after you receive your Ph.D.?
I have found my passion in the laboratory and I want to continue exploring the depth of research that I am passionate about. I would like to continue my research career as a professor, to solve global problems, while providing information, mentorship, and support for minority students across the STEM disciplines.
What’s your favorite thing to do around campus or in Champaign-Urbana? (Favorite restaurant, favorite way or place to unwind?)
Every morning you can find me starting my day at the Campus Recreation Center with a couple of other women in the department. I’m also a huge fan of going around town and trying all of the different coffee shops.
Meet our students
Born in Mumbai, Mihir Joshi was raised in the Netherlands and came to Illinois because of the strong chemical engineering program, diverse opportunities, and a strong sense of community on the campus. He is majoring in chemical engineering and minoring in the Hoeft Technology & Management program. In 2018, he won first place in the project mangers competition of Illinois Business Consulting, a student-run consulting agency housed in the College of Business.
Why did you choose to study Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering?
I chose chemical engineering because I was, and still am, interested in creatively applying chemistry, physics, and math concepts to solve real-world problems related to sustainability.
What are your academic interests and what activities are you involved in on campus?
- Student in Hoeft Technology & Management Program
- Project Manager at Illinois Business Consulting
- Undergraduate Student Researcher at Kenis Research Group
- Volunteers Coordinator at Engineering Employment EXPO
- Engineering Learning Assistant for ENGINEERING 100
- Halloween Haunted House Co-Director
- Member of Ghungroo Dance Company
What do you love about the ChBE program at Illinois?
The diversity in elective courses offered to chemical engineering students allows for students to explore their interests in different industries in the context of chemical engineering.
Favorite place on campus?
Illini Union Basement
Favorite way to spend your free time?
Hanging out with friends at the Illini Union Rec Room!
What are your post-graduation plans?
After four years here, I learned that I really like to create and design products. For this reason, I will be pursuing a chemical engineering master’s degree with a focus on product design.
Meet our Alumni
A “great time” to be in the chemical industry
Meet Chevron Phillips Chemical’s Ron Corn, BS ’79, leader behind the company’s new megaprojects
In 2010, on a flight from Singapore to the United States, Ron Corn was reflecting on global demand growth and where the company should build its next facility. At the time, he’d just finished a one-year appointment managing Chevron Phillips Chemical’s business in Asia and witnessed the explosive growth of the middle class there.
The answer, he concluded, was the US even though it had been more than a decade since an ethylene cracker had been built in the States. While it had not yet been reflected in the feedstock markets, shale fracking was likely going to be a game changer.
Eight years later, Chevron Phillips Chemical is operating a new ethane cracker in Baytown, Texas. South of that facility, in Old Ocean, the company is converting ethylene from the Baytown facility into polyethylene and other plastics that will be used by consumers around the world. Corn, BS ’79, oversaw both megaprojects from concept to successful startup. In total, the new facilities represent a $6+ billion investment for the company.
“It was an awesome opportunity from a career standpoint to be involved in something that will be around for so long and is transforming the company,” said Corn, senior vice president of petrochemicals.
While overseeing the petrochemical projects, Corn made time to visit his Alma Mater as a guest lecturer and a recruiter. He’s shared his insights with chemical engineering students about job opportunities and where he sees the industry headed.
Rooted in Illinois, bound for California
Born and raised in Illinois, Corn graduated from Downers Grove South High School. He credits his interest in chemistry and chemical engineering to his high school chemistry teacher, Michael Mayfield. Corn’s father was a Purdue graduate in electrical engineering who worked in control system sales. His mother taught seventh grade English. Both his parents emphasized the importance of a college education.
As a chemical engineering major at Illinois, Corn said he enjoyed learning about reactors and engineering optimization from the late Dr. Thomas Hanratty. During his junior year, he saw a job posting from a graduate student who’d broken his leg and needed help building a heat transfer experiment. Initially, he was only looking to earn some extra cash, but the part-time job provided an excellent opportunity for Corn to gain hands-on experience building experiments. It also led to another job building pipe experiments in the Unit Ops Lab.
When it came time to deciding where to interview for his job after graduation, Corn looked west. The winters of 1978 and 1979 in Illinois were among the coldest and snowiest on record. He accepted a position in process engineering at Chevron in Richmond, in northern California.
In his early years at Chevron, Corn worked in operations at plants that manufactured wax for coatings on cups, candles, and other consumer products. After about 12 years
in a variety of roles, including in engineering, operations, and project management, he transferred to Port Arthur, Texas, where he managed the company’s chemical operations. Corn said he is proud that while he was there the chemical area had the lowest recordable injury rate in the plant, including one year with no injuries.
In 1994, Chevron sold its Port Arthur refinery and kept the chemicals business. Corn became a Chevron Chemical employee and moved to the commercial side of its business in Houston. In 2000, Chevron and Phillips Petroleum Company, now Phillips 66, merged their chemical assets to create a new company, Chevron Phillips Chemical. The company boasts three high-level executives with Illinois ChemE degrees. In addition to Corn, there is Dave Smith (BS ’79), senior vice president of corporate planning and technology, and Jim Becker (BS ’80), vice president of polymers and sustainability.
At Chevron Phillips Chemical, Corn has worked in olefins, polyethylene, and global business development. From 2009 to 2010, he managed the company’s Asia office in Singapore and spent time visiting sales offices and plants in China, Japan, Thailand, India, Australia, New Zealand, and Vietnam.
“From a personal perspective, it was certainly interesting and fulfilling seeing different cultures and understanding how the world works and seeing the emergence of China and its economic importance. From a business perspective, it was also interesting seeing these growing economies and the emergence of the middle class (in countries such as, India, Thailand, and Vietnam),” providing a deeper perspective of the global pulse of the chemical business, he said.
For the last seven years, Corn has focused his time planning for and overseeing the development of the ethylene cracker plant in Baytown, Texas. “It’s a project close to my heart,” he said.
The plant, which turns ethane into ethylene, is one of the world’s largest. The chemicals from Baytown are transported to the company’s new polyethylene plants in Old Ocean, where resin that is ultimately converted to pipe, films, curbside garbage cans, and many other consumer products is made. The project is one of several massive units being built in the Gulf Coast. ExxonMobil, Dow, and Sasol are all building or have built similar plants.
The ethylene cracker plants are “all part of a resurgence creating lots of jobs and that’s driven by feedstocks coming from shale fracking in Texas, the mid-continent, and the northeast US,” Corn said.
Recruiting the next generation
Corn is bullish on the petrochemicals industry and future job opportunities for chemical engineers.
A chemical engineering degree “is a great foundation” and at Illinois, Corn “learned to triangulate and how to be curious about why things are the way they are and why they work the way they do. It’s not just about, ‘this is what you need to memorize.’” Being a chemical engineering major taught him to love learning and to embrace lifelong learning, he said.
In addition to sharing his insights with students through classroom visits, Corn established a scholarship for ChBE students at Illinois. His preference is for the scholarship to be awarded to women and/or underrepresented students to help make their education more affordable.
“I give a lot of credit to this time frame (at Illinois). I certainly appreciate the doors my degree opened,” he said.
Until recent years, Chevron Phillips Chemical traditionally recruited students from former Big Eight schools like the University of Oklahoma and Texas A&M, Corn said. When he became involved in student recruiting at his company, he encouraged his colleagues to come to Illinois because of the talented and diverse student population and his belief that graduates are open to moving to Texas.
Since he’s become more involved in recruiting, Corn said he’s noticed that universities are doing a better job of preparing students for industry. Students come with experience of working in teams, collaborating, addressing real-life problems, and having done more interdisciplinary projects, he said.
“This is great time to be in chemical industry, especially if you live and work in the US. A decade ago, growth was in the Middle East. Now the growth is in the US,” he said, referring to the rise of projects in the Gulf Coast.
“If you want to work in a growing and vibrant area, making materials and products that improve everybody’s lives, it’s a good time,” he said. “My advice and my plea is we need everybody to think critically, to use the data, to not lock in on the ‘easy’ answer for simple solutions. We need to look for ‘and’ solutions. It’s not just low cost or tradeoff on environmental or efficiency over safety. You’re going to have to find solutions that are safe, that are economical, that people want and will buy, that are positive for the environment and that can get delivered to the consumer base, whether that is Iowa or southeast Asia,” he said.
Because of the growth in world population and especially the growth in the global middle class, there will be increased demand for clean water, food, shelter, health care, and quality of life.
“Chemical engineers will be central to delivering these to people,” Corn said.
Meet our Faculty
This profile originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Mass Transfer, the magazine for alumni and friends of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois.
Xiao Su: In pursuit of novel technologies for advanced separations and process intensifications
The Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering is pleased to welcome new faculty member, Xiao Su.
Su, who will officially join the department in January 2019 as an assistant professor, will establish a research program in developing advanced materials for molecularly-selective separations and process intensification. This emerging class of materials will find broad applications in chemical manufacturing and energy and environmental sectors.
“I’d like to bring a greater degree of molecular engineering and chemical design principles into separation processes. The field of separations has been traditionally quite conservative in terms of the methods used, mostly relying on thermal-based technologies,” Su said.
“With recent advances in materials science and electrochemistry, there’s a unique opportunity to bring more finesse to the field and develop greener and more sustainable separation technologies. We want to present the community with a new molecular design perspective for separation processes through leveraging stimuli-responsive materials,” he said.
This fall, Su has been busy finishing his postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and planning his research lab at Illinois. He was drawn to the University of Illinois because of its rich history and tradition of chemical engineering research, and its strength in areas related to his work, including electrochemistry, environmental engineering and materials science.
“The University of Illinois has a focus on high-level research. I think it’s the perfect environment for the work I want to do,” he said. “Illinois is one of the few schools where there’s a School of Chemical Sciences that combines chemistry and chemical engineering within the same division. I think there’s a lot of ground for tapping into fundamental research and establishing exciting collaborations.”
Born in Beijing to Chinese parents, Su and his family moved to Brazil when he was only a year old after his father was accepted into a PhD program in mechanical engineering at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Su grew up in Niterói, a beautiful city overseeing the Guanabara Bay in Rio.
In high school, Su, like many future chemical engineers, excelled in math and chemistry.
“In high school, I was interested in many different topics in exact sciences and did not want to be limited to a single subject when going into undergraduate. Chemical engineering seemed to offer the most diversity and flexibility, with a chance to work with chemistry, physics, biology and mathematics in almost equal measure.”
For his undergraduate studies, he pursued a major in chemical engineering at the University of Waterloo in Canada. The school appealed to him because of its co-op program. Every other term, students at Waterloo could spend time in a co-op internship. Through this program, Su sought to discover his interest by working in very different fields.
He worked at several engineering firms, including a geotechnical and a computational fluid dynamics software company, a research center from Agriculture Canada, and as an undergraduate researcher at labs at the University of Waterloo, one in the School of Optometry and the other in the Department of Chemical Engineering. During his senior research, he had the opportunity to work with membranes for bioseparations.
Both his co-op and the undergraduate lab work at Waterloo taught Su that he wanted to continue pursuing research at the graduate level. Also during his studies at Waterloo, Su followed his passion for ancient history and completed a minor in Classical History.
“First, in terms of subjects, I always liked transport, especially mass transfer. I always considered mass transfer as the course that really separates us from other engineers, and separations is the topic where it plays a central role,” he said. Also, ever since my undergraduate research, I have always been fascinated by process intensification, which started from coming across the concept of membrane reactors.”
After earning his BS in Chemical Engineering from Waterloo, Su moved to the U.S. to pursue a PhD in Chemical Engineering from MIT. He joined the lab of T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor and director of the David H. Koch School of Chemical Engineering Practice. Hatton’s research program is highly multidisciplinary, combining concepts in interfacial science and colloids with separation processes. Su was also co-advised by Tim Jamison, the Robert R. Taylor Professor of Chemistry and department head, whose work focuses on synthetic organic chemistry and continuous flow chemistry. Being mentored by a chemical engineer and a chemist helped him develop a well-rounded view of research which combines fundamental understanding with applied interests.
New electrochemical tools
At MIT, Su initially pursued the design of porous materials for gas phase separations before developing a passion for electrochemistry and redox-materials. In 2016, Su and his colleagues developed an electrochemical method to remove dilute concentrations of contaminants from water, ranging from pesticides to pharmaceuticals. Current methods to remove pollutants are energy and chemical intensive; Su wanted to develop not only a low-energy process, but also one that did not heavily rely on chemicals.
For this work, Su and his team were awarded the MIT Water Innovation Prize, the Veraqua Prize, and a Catalyst Award from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to pursue translation of their research into a commercially-viable technology. In addition to devoting time to work related to the Catalyst Award, Su has expanded his research interests during his postdoc appointment to explore fundamental materials properties through in-situ methods and to develop different synthetic routes to functionalize his electrochemical interfaces.
At Illinois, Su envisions using electrochemical tools to tackle pressing challenges in separation processes, including water treatment and purification, fine chemical separations in the pharmaceutical industry, and separation of waste and ore in mining, as well as his long-held interest in process intensification.
“I would like my group to push the boundaries of doing novel separations processes and discovering more sustainable platforms for combining separations with other chemical processing steps,” he said. “On the way, we hope to make an impact to the world by creating a better environment, by providing new alternatives for clean water, lessening pollution caused by industrial processes, and increasing the energy efficiency of our chemical industry.”
“I want to create an environment where students have the ability to pursue their own interests and build their confidence as independent researchers. I want to foster creativity and freedom for them to look at new directions, beyond even those initially set by their projects,” he said.
Dr. Paul Kenis, the Elio E. Tarika Chair in Chemical Engineering and Department Head at the U of I, said he and the faculty were impressed with Su’s scholarship and his potential to build a successful research program at Illinois. The addition of Su will strengthen the department’s research portfolio in energy and sustainability.
“Separations was seen as a traditional area within chemical engineering,” Kenis said. “It went out of vogue because chemical engineers thought they had figured out all separations processes needed in industry, such as distillation and precipitation, leaving no room for further discovery,” he said. “But now, as we look for opportunities to boost energy efficiency, improve water treatment processes and remove contaminants, separations is making a comeback.”
This spring Su will teach CHBE 422: Mass Transfer Operations. His lab will be located on the ground floor of Roger Adams Laboratory.
In his free time, Su enjoys playing and watching soccer, which includes supporting for his hometown team Fluminense and the Brazilian national team.
Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering undergraduates have the opportunity to work alongside world-class faculty and graduate students on a variety of research projects. We caught up with Ugonna Oduocha, who worked in the Simon Rogers Lab before graduating in May 2018.
How did you come to work in the Rogers lab?
I came to work in Dr. Rogers’ lab because I liked the way he taught my material balances class (CHBE 221: Principles of CHE). I would often speak with him about the class material. One day we started talking about his research in rheology and soft solids and how he would eventually have spots for undergraduates to join his lab the following year. In the meantime, I kept in touch with him and visited his office periodically and read suggested papers Dr. Rogers gave me about his projects. That next year, I was one of the first undergraduates to begin working in his lab.
Tell us about the research project or projects you’re involved in.
I am currently working on a project that deals with inducing a large amplitude oscillatory sheer (LAOS) to a colloidal gel. The purpose of this is to apply a new analysis method, sequence of physical process (SPP), to the LAOS results. The results from SPP will be compared to structural information from modeling.
How has working in a university research lab had an impact on your undergraduate education?
It has impacted my undergraduate experience tremendously. It has given me an idea of how to write and plan experiments to achieve specific objectives, rather than the procedure being provided to me, such as in classes. It has also given me the ability to present my findings to a group of people who are very knowledgeable on the topic and then defend the results. Lastly, it has also given me the ability to be content with not knowing what the answer is, but always trying to ask questions and strive for better understanding from the results I have obtained.
What are you post-graduation plans?
I plan to work for Honeywell UOP following my graduation in Spring 2018. I will be working on oil and natural gas refining at the different UOP locations around the world.
Meet our alumni
Lili Deligianni, PhD ’88
Deligianni has made a career out of doing what was once deemed impossible in the electronics industry. Now she is forging a new path in developing materials and devices for neuroscience.
When Lili Deligianni interviewed with IBM researcher Lubomyr Romankiw in 1988, he told her his group tackles problems that others have said are unsolvable. If she was up for doing the impossible, she was welcome to join the group.
“I jumped right in,” recalled Deligianni, who as a newly-minted PhD grad, was thrilled to become part of a team of electrochemists and electrochemical engineers from top universities.
A self-described workaholic who embraces taking risks, Deligianni would play a leading role in solving a number of technical challenges in the electronics industry while at IBM. She and her colleagues introduced electrochemical processes in solder bump technology, now a standard practice for joining silicon chips to packages. She also co-invented the copper electrodeposition process for on-chip interconnects, which has revolutionized the capability of computer chips, allowing computers to run faster.
For her work, she’s garnered a number of accolades, most recently the 2018 Vittorio de Nora Award from the Electrochemical Society; she will be the first woman to receive the award. She and the team at IBM received the 2004 National Medal of Technology and Innovation. And for the patents associated with the copper interconnect process, she and other members of the IBM team received the 2006 Inventor of the Year Award of the New York Intellectual Property Law Association and an IBM Corporate Awards. An ECS fellow, she’s also served on its board of directors and as its secretary.
This spring she retired from IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center after a 30-year career. Her career has evolved from working with materials and methods for the electronics and microelectronics semiconductor industry to moving into the renewable energy sector, with solar cells and battery materials and most recently into biomaterials and biomedical devices. Deligianni, who thrives on changing directions every few years, is now embarking on a new endeavor—in neuroscience and brain-computer interfaces. She wants to develop electrochemical tools to better understand and treat diseases of the nervous system.
“Things have come full circle,” she said.
Born and raised in Athens, Greece, Hariklia “Lili” Deligianni was drawn to science and engineering as a child. She and her younger brother often played “meccano (mechanics made easy),” a game that reinforced design and building skills and board games and puzzles that reinforced math and strategic planning skills. Her parents were her first mentors and role models. Her mother had only a high school education, but she was an avid reader and always spoke about the value of an education.
“’An education stays with you forever,’ she would say.”
Deligianni initially considered studying medicine (her paternal grandfather was a medical doctor and an uncle studied medicine), but at Aristotelion University in Thessaloniki she chose chemical engineering because she considered it to be the toughest and most competitive of disciplines.
“I was determined to study the most challenging subject,” she said.
When it was time for her to choose a research project during her final year, her academic advisor, a former employee of Amoco Oil, encouraged her to intern at Amoco in Naperville, Ill. For two summers she worked on methods for methanol synthesis.
“I saw tremendous opportunity in the U.S., especially for a woman, to have a career,” she said.
The experience at Amoco solidified her decision to pursue graduate study in the U.S. At the suggestion of an advisor, she applied to several schools and chose Illinois after being awarded a fellowship. She joined Professor Richard Alkire’s research group.
“He was the best. Not only because of the education we got in terms of technical education, which was excellent, but we were taught leadership skills from him,” she said. Alkire pushed lab members to solve problems by thinking deeply about the questions and the solutions.
“His style was that you had to find the essence of the problem. Even in a multivariable problem, there are always a few variables, a few aspects, that are very important in getting answers. In the end, you need a high-level view of what is important and why, and to be able to explain it.” In industry, you need to be able to describe a problem in a few sentences that make sense, she said.
Not long after arriving at Illinois, Deligianni attended a Greek student gathering and met her future husband, George Leventis. He was also from Athens and lived only a few miles from where she grew up. They even had a few friends in common, but did not know each other until their time at Illinois. Leventis was studying civil engineering and graduated with a master’s degree in 1985. He is now the managing principal at Langan Engineering New York office and the managing director of Langan International, working on a number of projects, including the Hudson Yards in New York and the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia. He was also director general of the Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games in Athens 2004.
After she graduated with her PhD in 1988, Deligianni joined Romankiw’s research group at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in New York as a postdoc. She never left.
Upon the occasion of her retirement, a female colleague wrote to her thanking her for being a role model and showing her that a woman could be successful at work and be able to raise a family.
“I consider that to be a top accomplishment,” said Deligianni, who has three daughters with Leventis.
Although numbers are improving, there are too few women in positions of power in Corporate America.
“My perspective, after so many years, is that women should not change. Corporate America should change. It should embrace women and minorities by offering ample (many and accommodating) opportunities to these groups.”
If a company mirrors the diversity of society, it will have diversity of thought, which is of paramount importance for businesses, she said. Diversity of thought brings great results, in terms of designing and marketing products and services for the entire population.
At IBM, she joined and later chaired the Watson’s Women’s Network, which organizes seminars and networking events and encourages mentoring. She also has been involved in a number of outreach events aimed at K-12 students.
Deligianni is proud to have played a role in the microelectronics computer industry that has embraced and adopted electrochemistry and electrochemical engineering as a mainstream method for volume manufacturing of state-of-the art computer chips for mobile devices such as iPhones to high end computer servers used for cloud computing in data centers.
This change didn’t happen overnight. First, she introduced electrochemical processing for semiconductor wafers for the solder ball (Controlled Collapse Chip Connection – C4) interconnects of connecting wafer chips to packages. That paved the way for replacing aluminum in chip wiring with electrodeposited copper, which gave the lowest resistivity, a measure of how fast the electricity flows in the wire. As a result, computer chips could now run much faster.
Both approaches—solder ball (Controlled Collapse Chop Connection-C4) interconnects and implementing copper electrodeposition for on-chip interconnects—have become industry standards.
An additional technical advancement which Deligianni expects to be adopted in the next five years has to do with thin film solar cells. At IBM she initiated research on thin film solar cells using electrodeposition and scaled-up the fabrication of thin film solar cells to a full panel size (60 cm x 120 cm). This technology has applications in the building sector with glass thin film solar panels that are used in building facades, in electric cars for recharging lithium car batteries, in green data centers to power power-hungry computer servers, and in smart cities to supply part or most of the energy requirements.
Tools for brain research, neurological disease treatment
Deligianni’s current research interests include nanomaterials and nanodevices for neuroscience. She plans to continue advancing research in this area.
Aside from an interest in medicine that developed at an early age, Deligianni became drawn into biomaterials and related subject matter when her youngest daughter, a competitive gymnast, was scheduled to have spinal surgery after dealing with years of back pain. Prior to the surgery, Deligianni conducted research and consulted with experts on materials that were being used in medical devices. As a result, she influenced the doctor’s decision as to the choice of materials for her daughter’s biomedical implanted device.
“That motivated me toward moving in the biomedical domain,” she said.
Complex neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy are not well understood; there is a need for more advanced tools and methods to help us better understand and treat them, she said.
Recently, Deligianni and nanotechnology students from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland and from Politecnico di Torino in Italy published research papers on how to measure neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and adenosine, and how to improve the measurements for higher sensitivity and selectivity.
They also created nanoscale carbon electrodes that could be integrated with electronics to measure dopamine. Envision a needle as thick as a human hair which has even smaller electrodes on it which measure neurotransmitters and the electroconductivity of neurons, she said. At the same time, the device can stimulate neurons via different methods—electrical stimulation, light stimulation, magnetic stimulation, and ultrasound.
“These methods are typically used to suppress epileptic seizures. If one of these needles is implanted in the deep brain structure perhaps it could detect when a seizure is coming and it could use electricity to suppress the seizure. And, how do you know the seizure is really suppressed? Other than asking the patient, if we had neurotransmitter as a biomarker, then we would predict an upcoming seizure, depending on how high or low this biomarker is,” she explained.
Similarly, with Parkinson’s patients, these devices could provide deep brain stimulation, sending electrical signals to activate existing neurons to produce dopamine.
“If we could find out the correspondence between the L-DOPA (drug) that we give and dopamine that is produced, we could adjust dosage medication and timing more precisely with measurements. What usually happens now is patients are given a higher dosage of L-DOPA than what they may need and after a certain time period, the doctor adjusts the dosage and frequency based on the patient’s disease symptoms. Instead of making it empirical, we can use measurements. Then medicines can work more effectively for patients and improve quality of life.”
Throughout her successful career, Deligianni has remained in touch with the department and Professor Alkire, as well as with former graduate students. She and her husband have been great friends and supporters of the department, and especially to the Richard C. Alkire Fund, which supports an endowed chair in honor of Alkire.
“It’s one of the top departments in the country and it has given me an excellent education. The department has expanded multidisciplinary research and collaboration in new and emerging areas. And (as it happens) the department’s research is converging with my interests, too.”
Meet our Faculty
This profile originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Mass Transfer, the magazine for alumni and friends of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois.
David W. Flaherty: Pursuing new approaches and tools in catalysis, surface science and materials synthesis
In David Flaherty’s lab for catalysis, spectroscopy, and materials chemistry research, Flaherty and his team of students and postdoctoral fellows are committed to solving some of the most formidable and longstanding challenges in the chemicals industry. Those challenges include developing methods to make fuels and chemicals from renewable sources and generating insight to decrease waste and environmental impact of oxidation chemistry.
A dedicated scientist and teacher, Flaherty joined the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois in January 2013. Since then, he has become a rising star in heterogeneous catalysis and has received a number of notable awards, including the National Science Foundation CAREER Award and honors for research, teaching, and advising.
He and members of his group have performed pioneering research into the direct synthesis of hydrogen peroxide and established principles for its use in clean oxidations and replacing toxic chlorine. They aim to improve production of value-added fuels and chemicals from small alcohols derived from biomass fermentation. They have been researching ways to create new sources for key platform chemicals needed for specialty polymers, lubricants and surfactants. And the group is developing spectroscopic methods to investigate catalysis at complex interfaces.
Born in the San Francisco Bay area, Flaherty grew up in California, Utah, Wyoming, and Louisiana. His father worked for Chevron for 30 years and his mother taught at elementary schools. When it came time to choose a college, he headed to the University of California, Berkeley. He would become the third generation of his family to graduate from the school.
Being the son of a chemical engineer and a teacher, perhaps it was inevitable that Flaherty would become a chemical engineering professor. But the path wasn’t always clear to him and when he meets with undergraduates who are questioning if the program is right for them, he’ll tell them he can identify with those feelings.
It wasn’t until later in his college years that he was certain chemical engineering was the field for him. That’s when he began taking classes such as thermodynamics and mass transfer, when he learned about reactors and separation processes, and he clearly saw the connections between classroom concepts and practical engineering challenges. This coincided with Flaherty’s initial involvement in research.
His first project, led by Professors Clay Radke and John Prausnitz, entailed characterizing water absorption and diffusion rates into new polymer composites for contact lenses. For the second project, done in collaboration with Professor David Graves and retired IBM scientist Harold Winters, Flaherty measured the dissociation cross sections of gases used in plasma processing for semiconductors. With help from his mentors, he designed experiments, built instrumentation, took measurements, and eventually published results.
“I realized I enjoyed the research process and it would be rewarding to work with students and train them to develop their own scientific skills. I valued the time and energy my advisors invested in me and wanted to give back. I also appreciated the freedom we had to choose problems and develop innovative methods to study them,” Flaherty said.
With a newly-discovered passion for research, he chose to pursue graduate school in chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Under the guidance of his advisor, C. Buddie Mullins, Flaherty pursued a number of projects under the umbrella of surface chemistry, such as clean production of hydrogen and selective oxidation chemistry on gold surfaces. For his postdoctoral research, Flaherty returned to UC-Berkeley, where he worked alongside chemical engineering professor Enrique Iglesia, the same faculty member who had first piqued his interest in reactor design and engineering as an undergrad. Flaherty’s mentors led by example and he learned not only how to conduct research, but also how to advise and teach students.
Illinois research portfolio
Flaherty joined the Illinois faculty in early 2013.
“I was really impressed by the large number of young faculty, how collegial they were, and the amount of collaborative work performed at Illinois. I liked the idea of working with them. And overall, it’s a welcoming campus,” he said.
Because Flaherty and his group members are engaged in intensive, experimental research and they require infrastructure and resources, he appreciates the advantages of being housed in the School of Chemical Sciences. This connection provides access to machine, glass, and electronics shops as well as to interdisciplinary labs and staff members who work with students to build unique instruments and new skills.
Since 2013, the group has grown to include 13 graduate and undergraduate students and one postdoctoral fellow as of Spring 2018.
“Our challenge is to reduce the amounts of energy consumed and harmful waste created when we create the functional molecules needed for consumer products like plastics, resins, and building materials. Most companies recognize these problems and would prefer to adopt new, more efficient catalytic methods,” Flaherty said.
But many of the alternatives are not currently economical. He said there needs to be a better understanding of how to control the chemistry, as well as how to create new and more effective catalysts and processes that require lower capital expenses and less energy.
“As one example, our group is developing materials and strategies to directly activate molecular oxygen from air and to create hydrogen peroxide inexpensively, because these reactions would enable selective oxidations in industrial chemistry.” Both approaches avoid the environmental risks and drawbacks of current processes, he said.
About two-thirds of the research in the Flaherty lab centers around this area. Their work entails trying to understand how reactions proceed and how to use their understanding of the mechanism to engineer new materials. From there, Flaherty said the goal is to develop design rules for next generation catalysts.
“We need to build concepts that provide specific hypotheses related to surface and materials chemistry and then test these ideas to expand our understanding. Doing so involves classical reaction engineering and also detailed kinetic and spectroscopic experiments,” he said.
The group uses these methods to identify crucial reactive species in these complex networks, to characterize their structure, their coordination structure, and to figure out how they can design materials that modify their stabilities to encourage the right reaction pathway.
The group has also been active in trying to convert alcohols, lipids, and furanic molecules (all derived from biomass) into chemicals. Because petroleum is inexpensive now, biomass conversion is more economically appealing if it produces valuable chemicals in addition to fuels.
“One of the challenges we first tackled was how hydrodeoxygenation chemistry occurred in these cyclic oxygenated molecules from biomass,” he said.
In collaboration with researchers from the University of Florida, the group figured out the mechanism for this chemistry on related metal and ceramic catalysts.
“We used insight from classical kinetic experiments and computational catalysis to hypothesize that differences in the types of products formed were caused by how the surfaces of nanoparticles binds reactive species.”
But there was no way to directly prove that because of the limits of spectroscopic techniques. The lab had to come up with a new methodology.
“We are working on a series of papers that shows how the binding configurations of small molecules relate to the chemical selectivity of these reactions at surfaces. We can see direct changes in the structure of reactive intermediates and relate kinetics of surface and fluid phase processes. We wouldn’t be able to do this without this powerful method for interrogating surface chemistry, particularly in liquids or at high pressures,” Flaherty said.
On the horizon
Lab members have begun using this methodology to understand the dynamic changes of metal containing zeolites, a nanoporous material, for reactions that convert to alcohols, which are important platform chemicals that can be used to produce many other products.
“If we could convert methane into methanol directly, we could turn abundant natural gas into valuable chemicals. And if we can do it in one step, it will cost less and reduce carbon emissions,” Flaherty said.
“The longstanding challenge has been trying to understand how these particular catalysts perform this chemistry selectively. The spectroscopic techniques we have developed will allow us to watch how metal atoms come together, activate oxygen molecules (which is a difficult part of this process), and then use that oxygen to form methanol. There are many things that are not understood about this system, and exploring this area will be exciting.”
In other areas, the group has figured out how to manipulate and control complex reaction networks that couple ethanol from biomass fermentation into mixtures of fuels and valuable chemicals. This can be done by controlling a number of different attributes of the catalysts, including the strength of surface acid sites and hydrogen bonding interactions near the catalytic center. They’re now looking to understand how to control this chemistry by incorporating different transition metals into the structure of zeolites.
Since the lab was first established, Flaherty and his students have participated in a number of research collaborations on campus and across the country. They are involved with the U of I’s Energy Biosciences Institute (leading to collaborations with BP and Shell) and now the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI), a new Department of Energy research center on campus. These collaborations on the production of chemicals from biomass and the direct synthesis of hydrogen peroxide from its elements have been helpful for not only supporting impactful research but also for educating students, he said. More recently, they are initiating a collaboration with Dow Chemical through its University Partnership Initiative on a project to develop catalysts and processes to selectively convert biomass-derived chemicals into monomers for functional materials with improved properties.
Looking ahead, Flaherty said the lab will continue to tackle the chemistry of complex systems that are relevant for industrial chemical production.
A lot of catalysis research looks at model systems because they are relatively simple and researchers can glean fundamental information through simple measurements, he said. But for Flaherty it has been rewarding to study complicated systems and to figure out how all the different components fit together.
“Combining our relatively powerful and unique spectroscopic capabilities together with the more traditional kinetic approaches has been a rewarding strategy. We can investigate systems that were previously considered intractable,” he said.
“Decades of previous work in this field have led to important discoveries in heterogeneous catalysis. Now, the questions that remain will require increasingly sophisticated tools and approaches to understand what’s happening at the surface.”