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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Congratulations to this year’s winners of the Graduate Research Symposium!

The annual research symposium for graduate students was held on Friday, October 27, 2017. The symposium allows graduate students to present their work in the form of either a poster or an oral presentation. James W. Westwater Professor Edmund Seebauer presented the awards.

In the poster competition, Charles Young won first place with “The Rheology of Semidilute Polymer Solutions.” Young is a member of Assistant Professor Charles Sing’s research group. Pei-Chieh Shih was awarded second place with “Iridium-based Pyrochlores for Efficient Oxygen Evolution Reaction in Acid.” Chieh is a member of Richard C. Alkire Professor Hong Yang’s research group.

Prof. Seebauer awards first place to Charles Young for the poster competition.
Prof. Seebauer awards first place to Charles Young for the poster competition.


Prof. Seebauer awards second place to Pei-Chieh Shih for the poster competition.

In the oral competition, Dylan Walsh won the first place award with “Topology Control of Bottlebrush Polymers.” Walsh is a member of Assistant Professor Damien Guironnet’s research group. Saurabh Shukla came in second with “How Multiple Molecular Motors Transport Cargo in Cells.” He is a member of Physics Professor Paul Selvin’s research group. Thao Ngo won third place with “Studying the Durability of Pt-based Electrocatalysts for Oxygen Reduction Reaction Using in situ X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy.” Ngo is a member of Dr. Yang’s research group.

Prof. Seebauer awards Dylan Walsh first place for the oral presentation.
Prof. Seebauer awards Saurabh Shukla second place for the oral presentation.
Prof. Seebauer awards Thao Ngo third place for the oral presentation.

Thanks to this year’s judges: Dr. Qingjun Meng (PhD ’04, Higdon) with BP; Dr. Meredith Sellers (PhD ’10, Seebauer) with Exponent Consulting; Dr. Josh Tice (PhD ’07, Kenis) with Scientific Device Laboratory; and Dr. Gregory Underhill, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Illinois.

This year’s research symposium judges included Dr. Qingjun Meng, Dr. Josh Tice, and Dr. Meredith Sellars. Not pictured: Prof. Greg Underhill.

Dr. Qingjun Meng is currently the Simulation Team Lead in Refining Technology and Engineering of BP. He received his BS and MS in Chemical Engineering and Polymer Science from Tsinghua University in China.  He then joined the PhD program at Illinois and received his degree in 2004, under the supervision of Professor Jonathan Higdon. After graduation, he started his career at BP Petrochemicals Technology in Naperville, IL, and later on moved to Refining Technology and Engineering. Meng has been mostly involved in Computational Fluid Dynamics, process modeling in petrochemicals and refining, and operator training simulators.

Dr. Meredith Sellers is a Managing Engineer in the Materials and Corrosion Engineering Practice of Exponent, Inc. In her capacity as a technical consultant at Exponent, she aids clients with materials analysis and incident/accident investigation, particularly as they relate to oil and gas pipelines, chemical process safety, and integrated circuit fabrication. Her research expertise lies in the synthesis and characterization of nanostructured materials for microelectronics and energy storage devices. Sellers earned her BS from Cornell University and PhD in Chemical Engineering from Illinois. Prior to joining Exponent, she was a postdoctoral researcher at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center – Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (ERDC-CERL).

Dr. Joshua Tice received a BS in Chemistry from the University of Chicago in 2005 and a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Illinois in 2012. During his time in academia, he focused on studying microfabrication and applications thereof – including chemical synthesis, diagnostics, and protein crystallization. After a year working at Intel, Dr. Tice took a position as a Product Development Engineer at Scientific Device Laboratory. There, he heads the R&D division, pushing to make microfluidic technology a commercial reality.

Dr. Gregory H. Underhill is an Assistant Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Illinois. Dr. Underhill received his PhD from Northwestern University, with his doctoral research focused on the mechanisms controlling the tissue recruitment of T lymphocytes and the functional characteristics of antibody secreting plasma cells. Dr. Underhill completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia’s laboratory at MIT, where he worked to develop and apply engineered cell culture platforms towards the study of cell functions. His current research is focused on studying cellular fate decisions, including the tissue development and engineering of the liver. These efforts are at the interface of cell and developmental biology, genomics, biomaterials, and microfabrication.


When a mine tailings dam burst in Brazil in November of 2015, it unleashed a wave of toxic red mud that traveled 55 miles to the sea, wiping out villages along the way and killing 17 people.

A tailings dam stores wastes from mining operations, and there are at least two major failures of these dams every year, said David Boger (MS, ’64; PhD ChemE, ’66, Westwater). Boger has built his career studying the flow of liquids, and he has done the basic science behind innovative ways to store toxic tailings dam waste safely, going a long way to preventing similar disasters around the world.

Boger is a worldwide leader in rheology, the science of the movement of fluids, and a landmark fluid he developed even carries his name—Boger Fluids. For a career dedicated to safety and science, he has earned a 2017 College of LAS Alumni Achievement Award.

Boger spent his entire career working in Australia, but he grew up in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, where he was much more interested in sports—basketball, baseball, and soccer—than science.

“I grew up in a small town and was lucky if I ever met a chemical engineer,” he said .

However, Boger was good in chemistry, so a high school teacher advised him to go into chemical engineering, which he did at Bucknell University. He went on to receive his master’s in 1964 and his doctoral degree in 1966, both from Illinois. At that time, he said the employment situation for chemical engineers “was perhaps the best it’s ever been,” and he received job offers from all of the companies at which he had applied.

With so many options before him, Boger said, “People thought I was crazy” when he chose to take a position as a professor on the other side of the world at Monash University on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia.

“I thought Australia might just be the last English-speaking frontier, so I went,” he said . It was a dreamland for an outdoorsman like Boger, who describes himself as a “fanatical fisherman.” He also did a lot of hiking in the mountains on the east coast of Australia, where he and a friend from New Zealand “would just walk into nowhere.”

Monash was a new university when he started there, and it had excellent resources for studying rheology, so that’s what Boger wound up researching, even though he didn’t know anything about it initially.

At the time, he said, some of the scientists in rheology were predicting the movement of fluids that no one could observe, while others were observing things that no one could predict.

“So I naively believed we could bridge the gap between the two groups,” he said.

This led him to develop what became known as Boger Fluids, which flow like liquids but also behave like an elastic solid, depending on how stress is applied to the fluid. Boger Fluids, which he developed in the mid 1970s, successfully bridged the gap, becoming a model system for studying the complex flow behavior of solid-like fluids and profoundly impacting the fields of fluid mechanics and rheology.

“Of course, I was lucky enough to have someone famous pick up on this fluid and give it my name,” he said , referring to Ken Walters, a renowned research professor in rheology. “Once something is named after you, they think you’re important.”

Boger left Monash University for the University of Melbourne in 1982 but continued to work in rheology. Meanwhile, friends at Imperial Chemical Industries recommended that he work with the Alcoa Corporation in tackling the problem of red mud. In western Australia, Alcoa was processing bauxite into alumina, which created red mud that they stored in tailings dams—huge aboveground lagoons. However, tailings dams were known to leak and, in catastrophic situations, sometimes failed.

Boger’s team did the basic science behind a system in which the red mud was dewatered. After dewatering, the paste-like material was pumped through a pipeline and spread out on the ground to dry—rather than being stored in liquid form in a dam. This process not only was safer and more environmentally friendly, but it saved Alcoa millions of dollars because it allowed them to recover sodium hydroxide, a reagent.

However, not all mining operations are trying to recover such things as sodium hydroxide, so for them there is less economic incentive to use the dry-stacking approach for toxic waste. Therefore, even though the science and technology is there to minimize the problem of dam failures, the question is who will pay. That’s why the risk of tailings dam disasters continues.

Boger also served as a consultant for BHP, the largest mining company in the world, and this work has taken him to many exotic places, such as Papau New Guinea, where he also found time for fishing in Lake Murray, landing his biggest fish ever—a New Guinea black bass weighing 42 pounds.

Boger has been lauded with all types of awards, one of them being Australia’s prestigious Prime Minister’s Prize. In addition, he is proud of becoming, in 2005, a Fellow of the Royal Society in England, an organization that goes back over 300 years. Most recently, in 2017, he was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in the United States.

Boger is now retired, although it took three tries to do it. His first retirement came in 2007, but the University of Melbourne convinced him to return. He then retired for a second time in 2009, but it was Monash University’s turn to lure him back to work, and he stayed until his third and final retirement in 2015.

But his consulting work has continued because he sometimes still testifies in court cases concerning tailings dams in the United States, Australia, and Canada.

Tailings dams stir up a lot of political controversy over who pays for damages and how to prevent disasters, as well as questions about accounting practices and environmental issues. But Boger sees his role as purely scientific.

As he puts it, “I just put the facts out there and say, ‘Come on, guys, we should do a better job.’”

Written by Doug Peterson

Understanding various chemical reactions and transport phenomena from the molecular and electronic level; designing new synthetic pathways for radical forms of materials and medicines; characterizing and rationalizing the behavior of matter far away from equilibrium—these are just a few of the grand scientific and engineering challenges that the newest research group in the Beckman Institute aims to tackle.

By bringing together various research efforts across campus and leveraging outstanding resources at Illinois, such as the Computational Science and Engineering (CSE) program and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), the group plans to lead large-scale research efforts in the area of computational molecular science that would be beyond the capability of an individual research group.

The Computational Molecular Science (CMS) Group has been established within the Molecular and Electronic Nanostructures research theme at the Beckman. Yang Zhang, a professor of nuclear, plasma, and radiological engineering, is named the founding group leader.

Along with Zhang, the other nine faculty members of the group include Charles Schroeder and Charles Sing of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; Narayana Aluru, of the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering; Paul Braun, Andrew Ferguson, and Kenneth Schweizer, of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering; and Martin Gruebele, So Hirata, Nancy Makri, of the Department of Chemistry.

“Our goal is to consolidate campus-wide expertise on computational molecular science to facilitate interdisciplinary research in several strategic areas at the Beckman Institute and Illinois, and eventually establish a world-leading thrust in the frontier of theory-driven computational molecular science,” Zhang said.

CMS is profoundly interdisciplinary. It embodies physics, which underpins the underlying fundamental principles; chemistry, which both explores higher-level emergent principles and creates novel synthetic routes of remarkable organic, inorganic, bio-molecular building blocks that can self-assemble to structures with unique properties; and molecular biology and medical science, which are imperative to improve our health and quality of life.

“This group is an intellectual powerhouse with ambitious aspirations to advance important problems in molecular design thinking. Their activities cut across a number of experimental projects in the institute and so, wisely, the new CMS group integrated key experimentalists into its faculty roster,” said Jeff Moore, director of the Beckman Institute.

“The unique aspect of the CMS group is the emphasis of statistical and quantum mechanical theories-driven method development and applications,” said Zhang. “Through these computations, our ambition is to significantly extend our understanding of the equilibrium and non-equilibrium properties of matter from the molecular and electronic level, along with the creation of simulation, visualization, and analysis software packages that would become the golden standards in the field of CMS.”

The research topics of the CMS group include first-principle and semi-empirical methods, large-scale molecular dynamics simulations, advanced rare event sampling techniques, intelligent coarse graining and dimensionality reduction, and big data analysis – all targeted to advance molecular science. The impact of the work is amplified through close collaborations with experimentalists, synthetic chemists, materials scientists, and engineers.

The CMS group will synergistically collaborate with other groups, such as the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics and the Autonomous Materials Systems groups, at Beckman Institute.

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

Extracting DNA from strawberries.

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

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

Using enzymes to clean.

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

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

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

Learning how the pump equipment works.

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

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

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

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

Congratulations to alumnus Fikile Brushett, PhD ’10, who was featured among C&EN’s “Talented Twelve,” an annual compilation of rising stars who are tackling some of the toughest scientific challenges facing the world today.

Brushett earned his PhD in 2010; his advisor was Paul Kenis, William H. and Janet G. Lycan Professor and Department Head. Brushett is currently on the Chemical Engineering faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where his research group’s mission is to develop transformative electrochemical technologies that enable a sustainable energy economy.

C&EN called Brushett a “baron of batteries.” He was included on the list for combining chemistry and modeling to advance energy storage devices. When asked to provide advice for young scientists, Brushett shared the following quote.

“The most interesting and important problems exist at the interface of multiple disciplines. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and to step outside your comfort zone,” he said.

Read more about Brushett in C&EN.

Curious students, from grade schoolers to high schoolers, packed Loomis Laboratory to learn about a variety of chemical engineering applications as part of the 97th Engineering Open House. They learned about everything from cyclone separators to homemade chapstick and they sampled the always popular liquid nitrogen ice cream.

Engineering Open House was held March 10-11, with over 250 exhibits and several design competitions.  The theme for this year’s Engineering Open House is Illuminate New Horizons.

Congratulations to ChBE students involved in winning exhibits: “Oil Spills and Ferrofluidity,” which won third place in the Go Green (Sustainability) category; “Edible Liquids & Photolithography,” which won third place in the Best Freshman Exhibit; and “Illuminate Your Mind,” which won third place in the Illuminate New Horizons presented by ExxonMobil category.


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