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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $1.2 million, three-year grant to four professors in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering for a project that has potential to advance the frontiers of 3-D printing. Drs. Charles Sing, Ying Diao, Damien Guironnet, and Simon Rogers intend to create a platform for designing advanced materials that allows makers to tune the structure and function of a material on-the-fly.

Not long after arriving on campus, the team of investigators, each an assistant professor with a different research background and set of skills, got together to brainstorm what intriguing challenges they could solve together. Take camouflage. Camouflage is only effective as long as the person wearing it remains crouched in the jungle or standing by a sand dune in the desert. What if you had a material that could provide camouflage in many different environments, and you control how it works? Chameleons change color by adjusting skin structure at nanometer-length scales. Could humans design something similar with advanced materials processing?

“What we’re talking about is making a device, an object, instrument, from ostensibly the same material. It has different properties in different parts of the material,” Rogers said. Imagine a Lego brick that has one transparent wall, but the brick is made from all the same material. There’s one material with different properties, and the maker controls the material’s properties.

The project has two overarching goals: develop a screening method for versatile, 3-D printable block copolymer materials, which are two or more different polymer chains linked together; and screen to optimize flow-based tuning of morphology in 3-D printed materials. That entails testing their hypothesis that tuning the flow in 3-D printing will allow for on-the-fly or on-demand manipulation. Insights gained from their research could have potential applications in camouflage, antireflection coatings, metamaterials and displays.

Professors Ying Diao, Damien Guironnet, Charles Sing and Simon Rogers

For this project, each faculty member brings a distinct set of skills and expertise. Charles Sing, who works in molecular simulation and theory, will provide what he described as a treasure map. His research will guide the synthesis that occurs in the lab of Damien Guironnet, the self-described “cook.” Because Sing will be predicting some of the molecule’s properties beforehand, Guironnet will be able to synthesize the molecules that will make the polymers with the unique structure needed for the process.

From there, the material is handed over to Simon Rogers and members of his lab, who carefully control different flow conditions and investigate how the structures reorganize. Rogers then feeds information gleaned from his experiments and analysis to Ying Diao’s group. Diao will take the novel molecule and, with the knowledge of how this material reacted to Rogers’ experiments, she will attempt to make a functional material using 3-D printing.

Rogers then feeds information gleaned from his experiments and analysis to Ying Diao’s group. Diao will take the novel molecule and, with the knowledge of how this material reacted to Rogers’ experiments, she will attempt to make a functional material using 3-D printing.

“One key issue we’re interested in is the assembly, how to direct the assembling of the materials because it’s critical to the function,” Diao said. “In this case, we’re interested in the photonic properties. Can we potentially make camouflage using this functional material by assembling the material into highly ordered structures? We’ll be able to sensitively modulate the structure over length scales predicted by Charles Sing.”

What they’re doing could be called a “high-risk, high-reward” type of project, Diao said, because proposing to physically change structure on the fly is a fairly new idea. “The challenge is, how the assembly of this novel class of materials respond to flow is previously unknown. Flow-directed 3D printing is also not demonstrated before and requires significant innovation to realize,” she said.

Faculty anticipate discoveries and some surprises along the way because the material they’ll be working with is new and the process, called non-equilibrium processing, is still a relatively new concept, they said.

The grant comes from the NSF’s Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future (or DMREF) program, which specifically funds projects that aim to develop advanced materials quickly and at a fraction of the cost.

What makes the project unique is each investigator has a role to play in each other’s research. Due to the iterative, multi-project investigator structure, there will be a lot of coordination involved and each faculty member will need to understand results from their colleagues to be able to apply it to their own research.

“It’s an exciting challenge,” Guironnet said. “We get the opportunity to understand each other’s work to increase the impact of our own research. And at the same time, I get to extend my expertise as well,” he said.

What’s also unique about the group is that each investigator is an assistant faculty member. They all joined the department within about a year of each other.

“Because we’re new professors, there’s been a focus on building our own reputations, our own lab expertise. This is our moment to do something bigger than that, and that is extremely exciting,” Sing said.

Thanks to the NSF funding, faculty also plan to expand their outreach projects in computation, characterization and synthesis, via the Girls’ Adventures in Math, Engineering and Science (GAMES) summer camp and the St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy, which exposes underrepresented elementary students to STEM fields.

More information about the grant can be found here.


Congratulations to Dr. Ying Diao, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and graduate student Zahra Shamsi. Both were honored by the School of Chemical Sciences for their teaching excellence in the 2016-2017 school year.

“The award recognizes the entire scope of our educational efforts, from course development to in-class instruction. Excellence in teaching is not only intellectually satisfying, but our instructional efforts immeasurably strengthen our research mission,” said Dr. Jonathan Sweedler, director of the School of Chemical Sciences.

Dr. Ying Diao

Diao, a Dow Chemical Company Faculty Scholar, pursues fundamental understanding and control of molecular assembly processes to advance innovations in printed electronics for energy and healthcare. She joined the department in 2015 and earned her PhD from MIT and her BS from Tsinghua University.

Other faculty recipients of the award for 2016-2017 include So Hirata and Christian Ray from the Department of Chemistry.

Zahra Shamsi

Zahra Shamsi is a 3M Fellow and member of Dr. Diwakar Shukla‘s research group. She earned her BS and MS from the Sharif University of Technology in 2014 and joined the department in 2015.

Other graduate students who received the award include Nels Anderson, Emily Geddes, and Yusef Shari’ati from Chemistry.

Congratulations, everyone!

When it comes to efficiency, sometimes it helps to look to Mother Nature for advice – even in technology as advanced as printable, flexible electronics.

Researchers at the University of Illinois have developed bio-inspired dynamic templates used to manufacture organic semiconductor materials that produce printable electronics. It uses a process similar to biomineralization – the way that bones and teeth form. This technique is also eco-friendly compared with how conventional electronics are made, which gives the researchers the chance to return the favor to nature.

from bottom right, clockwise: Ying Diao, professor of chemical and bimolecular engineering; Diwakar Shukla, professor of chemical and bimolecular engineering; Chuankai Zhao, graduate student; and Erfan Mohammadi, graduate student.
Illinois researchers have developed a new dynamic template that could be critical to the advancement of printable electronics technology. From bottom right, clockwise: Ying Diao, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Diwakar Shukla, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Chuankai Zhao, graduate student; and Erfan Mohammadi, graduate student.

Templating is used for making near-perfect semiconductors to enhance their electronic properties, or to modulate the spacing between atoms for better electronic properties. These templates help to properly align the atoms of semiconductor materials, typically silicon or germanium, into the form that is needed.

However, this conventional methodology only works well for rigid nanoelectronic devices. The larger, more disordered organic polymer molecules needed to make flexible electronics cannot arrange around a fixed template.

In a new report in the journal Nature Communications, chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Ying Diao, graduate student Erfan Mohammadi and co-authors describe how the biomineralization-like technique works.

In nature, some biological organisms build mineralized structures by harvesting or recruiting inorganic ions using flexible biologic polymers. Similarly, the templates Diao’s group developed are made up of ions that reconfigure themselves around the atomic structure of the semiconductor polymers. This way, the large polymer molecules can form highly ordered, templated structure, Diao said.

This highly ordered structure overcomes the quality control issues that have plagued organic semiconductors, slowing development of flexible devices.

“Our templates allow us to control the assembly of these polymers by encouraging them to arrange on a molecular level. Unlike printing of newspapers, where the ordering of the ink molecules does not matter, it is critical in electronics,” Diao said.

The manufacturing process that can use these dynamic templates is also eco-friendly. Unlike conventional semiconductor manufacturing methods, which require temperatures of about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit and produce a significant amount of organic waste, this process produces little waste and can be done at room temperature, cutting energy costs, Diao said.

“Our research looks to nature for solutions,” Diao said. “In nature, polymers are used to template ions, and we did the opposite – we use ions to template polymers to produce flexible, lightweight, biointegrated electronics at low cost and large scale.”

Other co-authors of this work include graduate student Ge Qu and postdoctoral scholar Fengjiao Zhang of chemical and biomolecular engineering; professor Jian-Min Zuo and graduate student Yifei Meng of materials science and engineering; and professor Jianguo Mei and graduate student Xikang Zhao of Purdue University.

The U. of I., the National Science Foundation, the United States Department of Energy and the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program supported this research.

By Lois Yoksoulian, Physical Sciences Editor, University of Illinois News Bureau; 217-244-2788;

To reach Ying Diao, call 217-300-3505;

The paper “Dynamic-template-directed multiscale assembly for large-area coating of highly-aligned conjugated polymer thin films” is available from the U. of I. News Bureau.

Dr. Ying Diao, Assistant Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois, has been chosen to take part in the National Academy of Engineering’s 23rd annual U.S. Frontiers of Engineering symposium.

The academy invites engineers ages 30 to 45 who are performing exceptional engineering research and technical work in a variety of disciplines to attend the event. Participants—from industry, academia, and government—were nominated by fellow engineers or organizations.

Diao, a Dow Chemical Company Faculty Scholar, pursues fundamental understanding and control of molecular assembly processes to advance innovations in printed electronics for energy and healthcare. She joined the department in 2015 and earned her PhD from MIT and her BS from Tsinghua University.

Ying Diao - professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering
Dr. Ying Diao

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to join a very diverse group of outstanding young engineers in the U. S. Frontiers of Engineering symposium! Attending this symposium at the early stage of my career will help define my research trajectory, broaden my perspective beyond one discipline, and inspire me to work on cross-cutting engineering challenges to make a real impact,” she said.

The 2017 Frontiers of Engineering symposium will be hosted by United Technologies Research Center in East Hartford, Conn., on September 25-27, and will cover cutting-edge developments in four areas: Mega-Tall Buildings and Other Future Places of Work, Unraveling the Complexity of the Brain, Energy Strategies to Power Our Future, and Machines That Teach Themselves.

“The Frontiers of Engineering program brings together a particularly talented group of young engineers whose early-careers span different technical areas, perspectives and experiences,” said NAE President C. D. Mote, Jr. in a written statement. “But when they come together in this program, their mutual excitement is palpable, and a process of creating long-term benefits to society is often initiated.”

Sponsors for the 2017 U.S. Frontiers of Engineering are The Grainger Foundation, Microsoft Research, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, National Science Foundation, and Cummins.

The mission of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) is to advance the well-being of the nation by promoting a vibrant engineering profession and by marshalling the expertise and insights of eminent engineers to provide independent advice to the federal government on matters involving engineering and technology. The NAE is part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, an independent, nonprofit organization chartered by Congress to provide objective analysis and advice to the nation on matters of science, technology, and health.

A small, thin square of an organic plastic that can detect disease markers in breath or toxins in a building’s air could soon be the basis of portable, disposable sensor devices. By riddling the thin plastic films with pores, University of Illinois researchers made the devices sensitive enough to detect at levels that are far too low to smell, yet are important to human health.

In a new study in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, professor Ying Diao’s research group demonstrated a device that monitors ammonia in breath, a sign of kidney failure.

Fengjie Zhang, postdoc (left) and Ying Diao, professor of chemical and biological engineering
Fengjie Zhang, postdoc (left) and Ying Diao, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer.

“In the clinical setting, physicians use bulky instruments, basically the size of a big table, to detect and analyze these compounds. We want to hand out a cheap sensor chip to patients so they can use it and throw it away,” said Diao, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Illinois.

Other researchers have tried using organic semiconductors for gas sensing, but the materials were not sensitive enough to detect trace levels of disease markers in breath. Diao’s group realized that the reactive sites were not on the surface of the plastic film, but buried inside it.

“We developed this method to directly print tiny pores into the device itself so we can expose these highly reactive sites,” Diao said. “By doing so, we increased the reactivity by ten times and can sense down to one part per billion.”

For their first device demonstration, the researchers focused on ammonia as a marker for kidney failure. Monitoring the change in ammonia concentration could give a patient an early warning sign to call their doctor for a kidney function test, Diao said.

Fengjie Zhang, postdoc (left)
Postdoctoral researcher Fengjie Zhang.

The material they chose is highly reactive to ammonia but not to other compounds in breath, Diao said. But by changing the composition of the sensor, they could create devices that are tuned to other compounds. For example, the researchers have created an ultrasensitive environmental monitor for formaldehyde, a common indoor pollutant in new or refurbished buildings.

The group is working to make sensors with multiple functions to get a more complete picture of a patient’s health.

“We would like to be able to detect multiple compounds at once, like a chemical fingerprint,” Diao said. “It’s useful because in disease conditions, multiple markers will usually change concentration at once. By mapping out the chemical fingerprints and how they change, we can more accurately point to signs of potential health issues.”

Diao’s group collaborated with Purdue University professor Jianguo Mei on this work.

By Liz Ahlbert Touchstone, University of Illinois News Bureau

: To contact Ying Diao, call 217-300-3505; email

The paper “Solution-Processed Nanoporous Organic Semiconductor Thin Films: Toward Health and Environmental Monitoring of Volatile Markers” is available online. DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201701117

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.

More information and images:

“Girls Rock!”

“Yes we do!”

Before their morning lecture and again in the afternoon before they make catalysts, a group of high school girls respond to the traditional call-out for participants in the GAMES (Girls’ Adventures in Mathematics, Engineering and Science) Camp.

GAMES Camp is a weeklong program designed to provide academically talented high school girls with opportunities to explore a variety of engineering and scientific fields. Several different tracks are offered in addition to chemical engineering, such as bioengineering, computer science, aerospace engineering, and others.

Soon-to-be high school senior Allison Cvec had planned to apply to the University of Illinois this fall and was considering majoring in chemical engineering. But she was on the fence. Before she made a decision, she figured she’d spend a week at the camp this summer to learn about what the field entails.

By the end of her first day at GAMES Camp in Chemical Engineering, she texted her dad, “This is what I want to do.”

“I absolutely love it. I’m all in now,” she said about Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois.

The first days of the camp entailed learning about optimization and mass production, playing computational games, learning about catalysis and surface chemistry and nanoparticles for drug delivery, creating shower gel, extracting DNA and much more. In addition to spending time on campus, the group also tours regional chemical plants. It’s a week packed with lectures and lab time and culminates with a closing ceremony.

“I am amazed at how creative, knowledgeable and curious the girls are,” said Assistant Professor Ying Diao, who joined the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering faculty in January this year. She shared with the girls her knowledge about crystal types, how crystals are born and the science behind chocolate, specifically cocoa butter, which crystallizes into several different crystal forms.

“I felt the unquenchable thirst for knowledge in them which makes me full of hope for future gender equality in science and technology,” Diao said.

The event also energized and excited Diao’s ChBE students, who assisted the girls in their lab activities, she said.

Among the current ChBE students who helped with the camp were Molly McGiles and Elizabeth Sanders. Both attended GAMES camps when they were in high school and said the camp provided opportunities for meeting other young women in engineering and learning more about what they wanted to study in college.

“It helped me find my niche,” said Sanders, who is now a sophomore majoring in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. The camp also brought the two of them together and they are now working on their own STEM outreach project which they hope to launch this summer.

The chemical engineering camp is led by Lecturer Dr. Jerrod Henderson and Ricky Greer, a K-12 education specialist, with help from faculty and current students. This year’s group has 24 students from Illinois, Texas, Michigan, and other states.

“It is fantastic that the department sponsors this meaningful event for the high school girls every year,” Diao said.

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