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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

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.

Della Perrone Photography

Della Perrone Photography



On May 14, 2017, 139 seniors graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering, four students received their master’s and five received their doctoral degrees. This year’s convocation was especially notable because the department invited graduate students to the ceremony. Following tradition, faculty advisors placed doctoral hoods over the heads of graduate students, marking their students’ successful completion of the program.

Dr. Elmer Dougherty delivered this year’s convocation remarks. A Kansas native, Dr. Dougherty earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas in 1950 and his MS and PhD degrees from the University of Illinois in 1951 and 1955, all in Chemical Engineering. As a graduate student, he studied under the legendary Professor Harry Drickamer. After graduate school, he worked at Esso and Dow (where he wrote his first computer program in 1955), as well as Union Carbide and Chevron.  Along the way he also formed two software companies.

Della Perrone Photography
Dr. Elmer Dougherty

In 1971, Dr. Dougherty joined academia and became a Chemical Engineering Professor at the University of Southern California. He retired from USC in 1995. He continues to be involved in his company, Maraco, an oil and gas software development firm that he established in 1979. He has consulted around the globe and he has written over 50 technical papers. A distinguished member of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, he received its prestigious Cedric Ferguson Medal. In 2006, the University of Kansas Chemical Engineering Department inducted him into its Alumni Hall of Fame.

In his address, Dougherty told students that their integrity is a “badge of dependability and trust.”

“If you remember nothing else I say today, remember this. If your boss asks you a question and you do not know the answer, do not, I repeat, do not babble gibberish. Say, ‘I don’t know. But I’ll find out. When do you need the answer?’”

Dougherty advised students to continue honing their communication skills and to express ideas simply and concisely. He also told them that every day of their professional life, “a jury of your peers and superiors is judging you.”

“Before you act, remember your physics, chemistry, and engineering. Does it compute? If it doesn’t, reboot. You only succeed if you get things done, but you must consider the risk,” he said.

Della Perrone Photography

In his speech Dr. Dougherty also reflected on his time on campus and the excellent teachers he had, including chemical engineering giants James Westwater, Harry Drickamer, and Tom Hanratty.

“Go out and make your mentors proud of the results of this slice of their life’s work,” he advised.

Feng Sheng Hu, dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, said students should be immensely proud of themselves for having succeeded in one of the most rigorous programs on campus, one with a longstanding record of excellence, home to award-winning teachers and researchers working at the forefront of their disciplines. As members of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, they are also joining a community of more than 160,000 alumni around the world, graduates who have distinguished themselves in business, medicine, research, and many other areas.

“Be a force for good and a strong advocate for your alma mater,” he said.

Department Head Dr. Paul Kenis said he and fellow faculty and staff wished students success in their pursuits and best of luck in their personal and professional lives. He also urged them to stay in touch with the department and he looked forward to hearing news of their accomplishments.

A reception was held in a tent on Centennial Plaza, between Noyes Laboratory and the Chemistry Annex.

Della Perrone Photography
May 14, 2017 Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Convocation. Photo by Della Perrone.
Della Perrone Photography
May 14, 2017 Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Convocation. Photo by Della Perrone.
Della Perrone Photography
May 14, 2017 Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Convocation. Photo by Della Perrone.
Della Perrone Photography
May 14, 2017 Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Convocation. Photo by Della Perrone.
Della Perrone Photography
May 14, 2017 Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Convocation. Photo by Della Perrone.
Della Perrone Photography
May 14, 2017 Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Convocation. Photo by Della Perrone.


In recent years the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering has offered tutoring for students who would like to improve their understanding of course material in an open, informal setting. This year, Shell is supporting the program.

“This program is a tremendous resource to those students who wish for extra help beyond the regular discussion sections and TA office hours,” Department Head Dr. Paul Kenis said.  “Already we hear anecdotes from some of our recent alumni that this program was key in them successfully obtaining their chemical engineering degree. We are grateful to Shell for supporting this valuable program!”

Shell Tutors
Shell recruiters met with ChBE tutors in Fall 2016.

The Shell Tutoring Program in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering offers peer tutoring to any student taking core ChBE courses. The goal of the program is to strengthen students’ knowledge of course subject matter and to increase retention of students who may be struggling with required courses, said Kay Moran, the department’s Academic Programs Specialist. It’s also not uncommon for high-achieving students to seek tutoring to improve their understanding of course material, she said. The tutoring program also helps students who want to transfer into the chemical engineering undergraduate program.

Shell tutoring 2“With state funding in decline and budget cuts on the horizon, donations like these are needed more than ever before,” Moran said.

The program’s slogan is “ChBE students helping students.” Depending on needs, the department hires 10 to 18 students per semester to work as tutors. If more students request tutoring, more peer tutors are hired. About 30 to 50 students receive tutoring services per semester.

Tutors hired by the department are ChBE students who have excelled in their ChBE classes and meet strict department qualifications. Students who work as tutors hone their leadership, judgement, and communication skills and increase their own understanding and knowledge of the subject matter.

Shell tutoring 1“We are grateful for the opportunity to sponsor such a promising program,” said Chris Beuerle and Andrew Lee, Shell leads for engineering recruitment at the University of Illinois. “These student tutors are developing strong leadership skills for their futures as they grow as effective mentors, while their peers are able to learn from them to excel in a field with ample opportunities to make a difference. This type of collaborative environment and the level of dedication put forth by all those involved aligns with Shell’s values. It is just one example of why Shell continues to count U of I among its core schools to find talent,” they said.

As a supporter of the program, Shell representatives have opportunities to meet with the department’s outstanding students throughout the year. As tutors, students also build competence in skills, such as leading small groups, which are beneficial to future employers.

Tutoring is provided each semester for core ChBE courses: CHBE 221: Principles of Chemical Engineering; CHBE 321: Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics; CHBE 421: Momentum and Heat Transfer; and CHBE 424: Chemical Reaction Engineering.

More information.

Congratulations to our December graduates!

The Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering held a convocation ceremony on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016, for its December graduates. The ceremony featured Illinois Chemical Engineering alumnus George P. Nassos, who received his bachelor’s degree in 1961.

The Chicago native graduated from Austin High School and attended the University of Illinois at Navy Pier (now UI-Chicago) before transferring to Urbana-Champaign. After earning his BS in Chemical Engineering from Illinois, he went on to earn his MS and PhDs in Chemical Engineering from Northwestern University.

Winter convo 4
Dr. George Nassos (BS ChemE ’61) with Dr. Paul Kenis

Dr. Nassos worked for International Minerals & Chemical Corp. (IMC) for 16 years, during which he earned an MBA from Northwestern. He advised graduates who are interested in business and  pursuing MBAs to do so while working so they can apply what they learned in class to their jobs.

After earning his MBA, he served as an adjunct professor in Loyola University Chicago’s MBA program until IMC transferred him to its European subsidiaries. Living and working in Europe was one of the best decisions he made, Dr. Nassos recalled in his convocation speech. It was in Europe where his interest in energy and the environment developed as he saw how Germany and other countries had already adapted technologies such as escalators that power on and off in response to users stepping on and off them.

After his time with IMC, Dr. Nassos worked for Chemical Waste Management, the hazardous waste subsidiary of Waste Management, where he developed treatment and disposal technologies such as fuel pellets from non-recyclable waste.

Next he pursued his interest in teaching at the graduate business school level. Dr. Nassos was named director of the top-ranked MS in Environmental Management & Sustainability program at the Illinois Institute of Technology Stuart School of Business. He taught the sustainability capstone course and authored the textbook, Practical Sustainability Strategies: How to Gain a Competitive Advantage. Dr. Nassos managed the program until he retired in 2011.

Currently he is principal of George P. Nassos & Associates, a consulting company focusing on environmental sustainability and renewable energy. Dr. Nassos also is president of Sustainable Energy Systems, which markets a new onsite waste-to-energy technology.

When people ask him if he’s retired or still working, “I say, ‘yes,’” Nassos said, prompting laughs at the ceremony.

“I still have my health, energy and passion for what I’m doing,” he told the audience.

Dr. Nassos urged the new graduates to have passion for what they’re doing and to remember they’re “only on this earth for so much time.”

“Time is your most valuable asset. Make the most of it.”

Graphene quantum dots may offer a simple way to recycle waste carbon dioxide into valuable fuel rather than release it into the atmosphere or bury it underground, according to new research published by an international collaboration of scientists.

“If we can convert a sizable fraction of the carbon dioxide that is emitted, we could curb the rising levels of atmospheric CO2 levels which have been linked to climate change,” said Paul Kenis, William H. & Janet G. Lycan Professor and Head of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois.

N-doped dots.1
Nitrogen-doped graphene quantum dots seen under a transmission electron microscope prove to be adept at catalyzing carbon dioxide into complex hydrocarbons, according to University of Illinois and Rice University scientists. (Credit: Ajayan Group/Rice University)

The findings are detailed this week in Nature Communications.

The project brought together the expertise of Kenis, an authority in electrochemical systems for carbon dioxide conversion and fuel cells, and Pulickel Ajayan of Rice University, a pioneer in the development of nanostructured materials for applications in energy storage, nanoelectronics, imaging, and sensors. The team also included graduate and undergraduate students, plus researchers from the Institute for Carbon-Neutral Energy Research in Japan, the Shanghai Institute of Microsystem and Information Technology and the Saudi Basic Industries Corp.’s U.S. offices.

Nitrogen-doped graphene quantum dots (NGQDs) are an efficient electrocatalyst to make complex hydrocarbons from carbon dioxide, they reported. At Ajayan’s and Kenis’ labs, researchers turned the greenhouse gas into small batches of ethylene and ethanol. Although they don’t entirely understand the mechanism yet, the researchers found NGQDs were as efficient as copper, which has been widely tested as a catalyst to reduce carbon dioxide into liquid fuels and chemicals. NGQDs keep their catalytic properties longer, they found.

“It is surprising that the activity of the metal-free catalyst is as good as the state-of-the-art copper catalyst. This is a good example of how research into CO2 utilization, converting carbon dioxide into usable products, has benefitted from a collaboration involving researchers from all over the world,” said Sichao Ma, a member of Kenis’ research group who received his PhD in Chemistry in July 2016. Ma is currently a senior scientist at Opus 12, Inc. Ma and fellow co-lead author Jingjie Wu, postdoctoral researcher at Rice, connected at an AIChE conference in 2012 and launched the project in 2014.

In lab tests, the material proved able to reduce carbon dioxide by up to 90 percent, and convert 45 percent into either ethylene or alcohol, comparable to copper electrocatalysts.

“I think what we found is fundamentally interesting, because if we can extract and convert carbon dioxide at the source, it may be a good way to solve some of our problems,” said Ajayan, the Benjamin M. and Mary Greenwood Anderson Professor in Engineering. Atmospheric carbon dioxide rose above 400 parts per million earlier this year, the highest it’s been in at least 800,000 years, as measured through ice-core analysis.

Graphene quantum dots are atom-thick sheets of carbon atoms that have been split into particles about a nanometer thick and just a few nanometers wide. Nitrogen atoms introduced to the dots attach at various points, enabling varying chemical reactions when an electric current is applied and a feedstock like carbon dioxide is introduced.

“Carbon is typically not a catalyst,” Ajayan said. “One of our questions is why this doping is so effective. When you put nitrogen into the graphitic lattice, there are multiple positions. Each of these positions, depending on where nitrogen sits, should have different catalytic activity. So it’s been a puzzle, and though people have written a lot of papers in the last five to 10 years on doped and defective carbon being catalytic, the puzzle is not really solved.”

“Our findings suggest that the pyridinic nitrogen sitting at the edge of graphene quantum dots leads the catalytic conversion of carbon dioxide to hydrocarbons,” Wu said. “The next task is further increasing nitrogen density to help increase the yield of hydrocarbons.”

Dr. Paul Kenis, William H. and Janet G. Lycan Professor and Department Head, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois

In related research published in ChemSusChem, Kenis and colleagues reported the characterization of a N-doped carbon nitride catalyst for electrochemical reduction of carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide (which is used by the chemical industry to manufacture a variety of chemicals) in an electrochemical flow cell. The pyrolyzed carbon nitride and multiwall carbon nanotube composite outperformed silver, which has been the catalyst of choice for CO production. That project involved Andrew Gewirth, Professor of Chemistry from the University of Illinois, former UI graduate students Huei-Ru Molly Jhong and Claire Tornow, as well as Stephen Lyth and Bretislav Smid from the Institute for Carbon-Neutral Energy Research, Fukuoka, Japan.

Research into the electrochemical reduction of CO2 into useful chemicals should be of interest to a variety of industries, most notably energy companies, which produce CO2, but also chemical companies looking to become less reliant on fossil fuels in their processes.

“To test the various catalysts, we use electrolysis cells at lab scale. Electrolysis is already being performed at scale for other purposes, for example for the production of chlorine from sodium chloride. It has just not been done for CO2 reduction yet,” Kenis said.

Co-lead authors of the Nature Communications paper are Jingjie Wu of Rice University, Sichao Ma of the University of Illinois and the Institute for Carbon-Neutral Energy Research, and Jing Sun of the Shanghai Institute of Microsystem and Information Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Co-authors are Paul Kenis and graduate student Byoungsu Kim of the University of Illinois and the Institute for Carbon-Neutral Energy Research; Jake Gold, Raymond Luo and Aaron Yu, undergraduates in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois; Lingyang Zhu, spectroscopist at the University of Illinois; Pulickel Ajayan and Chandra Sekhar Tiwary of Rice; Nitin Chopra and Ihab Odeh of the Saudi Basic Industries Corp., Sugar Land, Texas; Robert Vajtai, a senior faculty fellow in materials science and nanoengineering at Rice; Jun Lou a professor of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice, and Guqiao Ding of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

To reach Paul Kenis, email

Written by the University of Illinois and Rice University.

Congratulations to graduate students Elizabeth Horstman and Yifu Zhang, winners of the School of Chemical Sciences’ annual Science Image Challenge! Horstman is a member of Dr. Paul Kenis’ research group and Zhang is a member of Dr. Ying Diao’s group.

Feathers of AutumTheir image is called “Feathers of Autumn.”

“Needles, spherulites, and dendrites are observed in this image of ellipticine, a pharmaceutical used to treat cancer, grown by solution shearing on a polymer substrate. The multitude of crystal morphologies resembles the diversity in color and shape of feathers in autumn.” The image coloring was slightly enhanced.

The winners will be celebrated at the SCS VizLab Open House from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 15, in 151 Noyes Lab.

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