Paul Kenis

Paul Kenis: At the crossroads of engineering and the sciences

This profile originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Mass Transfer, the magazine for alumni and friends of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois. For a listing of all our faculty members, please visit our directory or explore the department’s research pages for overviews of our groundbreaking research programs.

Dr. Paul Kenis
Paul Kenis

From his early work in supramolecular chemistry to new advances in carbon dioxide reduction, most of Dr. Paul Kenis’ research has had a common theme: applying chemical engineering principles to address challenges in energy and biology.

Kenis, the William H. and Janet G. Lycan Professor and head of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, oversees a diverse research portfolio. His initiatives have often involved Illinois colleagues from a variety of fields, such as biology and chemistry. His projects have spanned the globe and included peers from Singapore, France, and the International Institute for Carbon-Neutral Energy Research (I2CNER) at Kyushu University in Japan. His work also often involves collaborations with companies such as Dow Chemical and AbbVie.

“I like to do research that has a somewhat direct impact on society. There are a few exceptions, but most of our efforts are applied in nature or focus on unravelling disease-related biology,” he said.

Kenis joined the University of Illinois Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in 2000 and became head of the department in 2011. Since landing at Illinois, he has received a number of accolades, including being appointed a University Scholar and a Beckman Fellow. He has received teaching and advising awards from the School of Chemical Sciences and the College of Engineering.

Kenis research group 2016
Dr. Paul Kenis and his research group in Fall 2016.

In recent years he and his research group have become known around the world for their scholarship and research in electrochemical reduction of carbon dioxide to valuable intermediates such as carbon monoxide and ethylene for the production of synthetic fuels or other chemicals. They have published results in journals such as Nature Communications and written often-cited review articles on the current status and remaining challenges of CO2 utilization research.

In addition to being a leader in electrochemical CO2 reduction, he is active in three other areas: (1) Microfluidic Crystallization such as crystallization of proteins and subsequent on-chip x-ray data collection, or to identify suitable solid forms of candidate drugs; (2) Microreactor Technologies for efficient synthesis of radiopharmaceuticals or anisotropic nanoparticles for lighting applications; and  (3) Biological Study Platforms to investigate antibiotic susceptibilities of bacteria, to study tumor cell behavior in low-oxygen environments, and to study protein folding related to Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

From the Netherlands to the United States

Kenis and advisors
Dr. Paul Kenis with his advisors in Fall 2007, on the occasion of the retirement of David Reinhoudt. From left: postdoc advisor Dr. George Whitesides, Harvard University; PhD advisor Dr. David Reinhoudt, Twente University; Kenis; and undergrad advisor Dr. Roeland Nolte, Radboud University Nijmegen.

Kenis’ scholarly interests and research pursuits have always been diverse, spanning biology to materials and mechanical engineering. As a child growing up in the Netherlands, he enjoyed taking apart devices like coffee machines and radios. In high school he gravitated toward physics and chemistry and when it came time to choose a university, he decided to pursue chemistry at Radboud University in Nijmegen.  As an undergraduate he conducted a year of research on supramolecular model systems for metalloproteins with Professor Roeland Nolte. While at Radboud, he discovered his love of research and decided to pursue his PhD degree in Chemical Engineering with Professor David Reinhoudt at the University of Twente. There he studied supramolecular materials for optical data storage applications.

“We studied thin films of so-called molecular materials and applied all kinds of spectroscopy, imaging, and other characterization techniques to unravel structure-property relationships. I learned a lot about these different techniques as well as how to synthesize these molecules and polymers,” he said.

After obtaining his PhD, Kenis received a postdoctoral fellowship from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research to join the lab of Professor George Whitesides, a leader in supramolecular chemistry, at Harvard University. At Harvard, instead of diving further into supramolecular chemistry, he transitioned into microfluidics.

“At that time, the field of microfluidics was in its infancy, so everything we did was fascinating, unexpected and new!” he said.

Kenis’ work there led to several publications in high-impact journals, including one in Science in which he reported the ability to fabricate microscale structures inside sub-millimeter capillaries, which was akin to building a ship in a bottle. As a result of this success, his intended one-year postdoc lasted almost three years.

“Nolte, Reinhoudt, and especially Whitesides taught me to think outside of the box, and how to choose which problems to solve by asking questions like, ‘Who will care?’ The interdisciplinary and exploratory nature of those three labs provided the critical basis for my success at Illinois.”

Early collaborations at Illinois

Kenis joined the Illinois faculty in 2000 as an assistant professor; he was recruited by then-department head Chip Zukoski. What stood out to him at Illinois was its culture of collaborative, interdisciplinary research occurring among faculty of different departments.

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Electrolyzer flow cell for and schematic for carbon dioxide reduction to different products.

Together with two Illinois colleagues—retired ChBE Professor Rich Masel and late Mechanical Science and Engineering Professor Mark Shannon—Kenis started to pursue all kinds of microchemical systems type of research. One project looked at microfuel cells and another focused on microreactors for hydrogen generation. In his first five years at Illinois, he also developed membrane-less fuel cells, that instead of a membrane use laminar flow to keep the anode and cathode compartments separated. This concept was commercialized by a startup company, INI Power Systems.

His collaborations and projects expanded into several more areas, such as protein crystallization with Chip Zukoski and other Illinois faculty, and cell biology with Deborah Leckband, Rex Gaskins, and others at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology.

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Early Illinois work: Membrane-less fuel cells.

“My research program is quite broad and is sitting at the crossroads of engineering and all the sciences. We know enough about chemistry and biology to apply engineering concepts such as transport phenomena to them. From a research point of view, we can pursue exploratory research on chemical or biological problems without the risk of ending up outside the boundaries of the chemical engineering discipline,” he said.

Leading CO2 reduction research

At Illinois, Kenis has always been active in electrocatalysis, first with a focus on fuel cells. Then about a decade ago that research led to carbon dioxide reduction via electrolysis, which basically resembles running a fuel cell in reverse. On a Friday afternoon in 2009, one of Kenis’ students (Devin Whipple, PhD ’11) switched a catalyst from platinum to tin and ran the fuel cell in reverse. It worked: formic acid was being formed!

This approach of using CO2 as a feedstock reduces atmospheric CO2 emissions, and offers a path to chemicals that are typically derived from fossil fuels. It can also be an efficient means of storing otherwise wasted renewable electricity from intermittent sources at times when supply exceeds grid demand.

“We were one of the first ones to pursue electrochemical CO2 reduction at the time,” he said. “We also quickly realized that converting CO2 to CO or ethylene would be much more interesting, be it for the production of synthetic fuels (Fischer-Tropsch) or other chemicals. Finding catalysts that selectively steer exactly towards the C2 products like ethylene and ethanol is one of biggest challenges we are facing now.”

The Kenis research group has become a well-known leader in this area. Together with collaborators Andrew Gewirth from Chemistry at Illinois and Professors Nakashima, Yamauchi, Fujikawa, Fujigaya, and Lyth from I2CNER in Japan, his group has developed some of the world’s most active and selective catalysts and electrodes for the production of CO and ethylene. Most recently the group, with researchers at I2CNER and Rice University, showed how simple, cheap, nitrogen-doped carbon materials are adept at catalyzing carbon dioxide into a mixture of hydrocarbons.

“The question is, how to turn such a promising result into a technology that can help to reduce atmospheric CO2 emissions while at the same time we reduce our dependence on dwindling fossil fuel reserves?” Kenis said. “Indeed, companies such as Siemens have taken notice and have started to test this CO2 electrolysis technology at pilot plant scale, based on our experimental results as well as the techno-economic analyses we performed in collaboration with colleagues from Illinois and Japan!”

New, expanded partnerships

Kenis has always partnered with industry to address their problems. In recent years, a number of major long-term partnerships have developed. For example, for about a decade his group worked with AbbVie to develop microfluidic screening tools to identify suitable solid forms for pharmaceutical formulation. A new project looks at recrystallization of active pharmaceutical ingredients in pills, to ensure their stability on the shelf.

Meanwhile, Dow Chemical continues to support his efforts to develop continuous flow microreactor technology for the synthesis of anisotropic semiconductor nanoparticles that may find application in lighting and display technology. And most recently, Shell has started to sponsor his research on CO2 valorization in a significant way.

Other exciting projects currently underway include a “lung on a chip” effort funded by the National Institutes of Health. Kenis, Deborah Leckband in ChBE and Professor Cathy Murphy from the Department of Chemistry are interested in understanding the effects of nanoparticles on lungs. Kenis’ role in this project is to create a microfluidic platform that recreates the periodically expanding and contracting endothelial epithelial membranes responsible for oxygen uptake in our lungs.

In addition to receiving funding from corporate partnerships and federal agencies, some of Kenis’ research is funded by his endowed professorship established by the late William H. and Janet G. Lycan, both graduates from Illinois.

“This type of unrestricted support through legacy gifts from alumni truly helps to pursue interdisciplinary research ideas before they are ready for external funding,” he said.

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Polymicrobial model system of E.coli and P.aeruginosa in microfluidic chip for antibiotic susceptibility testing.

The diversity of his research is also reflected in the diversity of destinations among his PhDs (40+ by now) upon graduation. Many have gone into industry, to companies like DuPont, BP, Dow, 3M, UOP, P&G, and Intel, several to smaller energy or biotech companies, while others have joined academia, including Penn State, U Mass – Amherst, and MIT.

Also common to his research projects is the frequent involvement of undergraduate researchers. Many have been listed as co-authors on papers. Undergraduates not only bring an extra set of hands, they also bring more enthusiasm to the lab, he said. Working in a lab provides undergrads with hands-on, team-based project experience, and it helps them determine if they want to pursue graduate school.

A few of Kenis’ former undergraduate researchers—Jason Goodpaster (BS ’08) at the University of Minnesota and Brian Boudouris (BS ’04) at Purdue—are now on the faculty at leading universities.  Others have gone into industry, with some, rapidly assuming leadership roles, like Ajay Virkar (BS ’05) who is now the Chief Technology Officer at C3Nano.

“Seeing your graduates go out and be successful is very rewarding. Without a doubt, their achievements will vastly exceed my lifetime accomplishments here at Illinois!”

Outside of work, Kenis continues to play soccer both indoor and outdoor in local leagues to stay fit. He and his partner Professor Mary Kraft travel annually to places such as Yellowstone National Park, Costa Rica, and Alaska in search of wildlife in its natural habitat. He also likes mountaineering, and has climbed Mt. Rainier in Washington, Mt. Whitney in California as well as Mont Blanc and others in Europe in recent years.

“Being in nature, away from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives a few times a year is very refreshing and allows me to recharge my battery and to think about what challenges to pursue next.”