Xiao Su: In pursuit of novel technologies for advanced separations and process intensifications

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. 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.

Assistant Professor Xiao Su joined the department in January 2019.
Xiao Su

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.

Developed by Su at MIT, these functionalized electrodes are used for water purification of organic contaminants. Photo credit: Felice Frankel/Melanie Gonick/MIT
Developed by Su at MIT, these functionalized electrodes are used for water purification of organic contaminants. Photo credit: Felice Frankel/Melanie Gonick/MIT

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.”

International roots

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.”

An important aspect of Su’s research program is the diverse set of tools used in investigating the materials and chemicals. These range from advanced techniques such as in-situ transmission electron microscopy and spectrocsopy, to computational screening and engineering modeling.
An important aspect of Su’s research program is the diverse set of tools used in investigating the materials and chemicals. These range from advanced techniques such as in-situ transmission electron microscopy and spectrocsopy, to computational screening and engineering modeling.

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.