Pitt | Swanson Engineering

Join With Us In Celebrating Our 2020 Graduating Class! 


The Chemical and Petroleum Engineering department at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering was established in 1910, making it the first department for petroleum engineering in the world. Today, our department has over 40 expert faculty (tenure/tenure-stream/joint/adjunct), a host of dedicated staff, more than 20 state-of-the-art laboratories and learning centers, and education programs that enrich with strong fundamentals and hands-on experience.

Chemical engineering is concerned with processes in which matter and energy undergo change. The range of concerns is so broad that the chemical engineering graduate is prepared for a variety of interesting and challenging employment opportunities.

Chemical engineers with strong background in sciences are found in management, design, operations, and research. Chemical engineers are employed in almost all industries, including food, polymers, chemicals, pharmaceutical, petroleum, medical, materials, and electronics. Since solutions to energy, environmental, and food problems must surely involve chemical changes, there will be continued demands for chemical engineers in the future.

Read our latest newsletter below



Sep
16
2020

Projects Led by Pitt Chemical Engineers Receive more than $1 million in NSF Funding

Chemical & Petroleum

PITTSBURGH (Sept. 16, 2020) — Two projects led by professors in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering have recently received funding from the National Science Foundation. Lei Li, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at Pitt, is leading a project that will investigate the water wettability of floating graphene. Research over the past decade by Li and others has shown that water has the ability to “see through” atomic-thick layers of graphene, contributing to the “wetting transparency” effect. “This finding provides a unique opportunity for designing multi-functional devices, since it means that the wettability of an atomic-thick film can be tuned by selecting an appropriate supporting substrate,” said Li. “Because the substrate is liquid, one can control the wettability in real-time, a capability that would be very useful for water harvesting of moisture from the air and in droplet microfluidics devices.” The current project will use both experimental and computational methods to understand the mechanisms of wetting transparency of graphene on liquid substrates and demonstrate the real-time control of surface wettability. Li and his co-PIs Kenneth Jordan, Richard King Mellon Professor and Distinguished Professor of Computational Chemistry at Pitt and co-director of the Center for Simulation and Modeling; and Haitao Liu, professor of chemistry at Pitt, received $480,000 for the project titled, “Water wettability of floating graphene: Mechanism and Application.” The second project will develop technology to help enable the widespread adoption of renewable energy, like solar and wind power. James McKone, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at Pitt, is collaborating with researchers at the University of Rochester and the University at Buffalo to develop a new generation of high-performance materials for liquid-phase energy storage systems like redox flow batteries, one of McKone’s areas of expertise. The project, “Collaborative Research: Designing Soluble Inorganic Nanomaterials for Flowable Energy Storage,” received $598,000 from the National Science Foundation, with $275,398 designated for Pitt. McKone’s team will investigate the molecular properties of soluble, earth-abundant nanomaterials for use in liquid-phase battery systems. These batteries are designed to store massive amounts of electricity from renewable energy sources and provide steady power to the grid. “Unlike the batteries we normally think of in phones and laptop computers, this technology uses liquid components that are low-cost, safe and long-lasting,” said McKone. “With continued development, this will make it possible to store all of the new wind and solar power that is coming available on the electric grid without adding a significant additional cost.” McKone is collaborating with Dr. Ellen Matson, Wilmot Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of Rochester, and Dr. Timothy Cook, Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University at Buffalo.
Maggie Pavlick
Aug
20
2020

A Blueprint for Greener Catalysis

Chemical & Petroleum

PITTSBURGH (Aug. 20, 2020) — Platinum, rhodium, and other precious metals are used as catalysts that make modern life possible, from the catalytic converters in cars to the production of many useful chemicals. These metals are stable and strong, but they are a very limited and expensive resource. Data scientists have estimated that all the platinum ever mined in the world amasses to just about 9,800 metric tons, a volume that would fit within just three standard semi-truck trailers. That is why researchers around the world, including John Keith at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, are looking to nature for ways to use far more earth-abundant metals (EAMs), like iron, instead. “Humans have developed portfolios of rare metals that work in industrial catalysis, but nature has its own portfolios of biological enzymes that use complex combinations of EAMs,” said Keith, who is an R.K. Mellon Faculty Fellow in Energy and associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering. “When we decipher nature’s blueprints for catalysis based on EAMs, we can engineer new EAM-based catalysts to dramatically reduce the cost and environmental footprint of industrial processes needed for making materials, medicines, fuels and chemicals.” The U.S. Department of Energy brought together a team of international experts in catalysis, including Keith, to write an authoritative review to lay the groundwork for the discovery of cheaper, quicker and more sustainable catalysts. That review article was recently published in Science, one of the top-ranked scientific journals in the world. The article discusses the background, advances, and promising outlook of bio-inspired EAM catalysis. More research will be needed to better understand how industrial processes can be developed to run in less harsh conditions that EAM catalysts require. Keith is an expert in computational chemistry, which uses computer simulations of atoms rooted in the laws of quantum mechanics, and this field is considered a key to progress in EAM catalysis development. Researchers in the Keith Lab use computational chemistry to rapidly explore and deeply analyze hypothetical catalysts that otherwise are too slow or expensive to test in the lab. A recent research compilation featured in Interface, a quarterly magazine of The Electrochemical Society, described the lab’s approach for predicting novel electrocatalysts. “Catalyst development historically has been based on trial and error experimentation, and that becomes a problem when each trial can take months of time and cost huge sums of money,” said Keith. “When experimentation is teamed with state-of-the-art computational modeling, researchers can be thousands of times as productive. With that framework in place, we can focus on much harder questions like, how do we optimize the right ensemble cast of chemicals, materials, and reaction conditions for safer, more profitable, and more environmentally sustainable industrial processes?” The article, “Using nature’s blueprint to expand catalysis with Earth-abundant metals” (doi: 10.1126/science.abc3183), was led by R. Morris Bullock, director of the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and was coauthored by 18 researchers representing 18 institutions and laboratories. ### Graphic credit: Nathan Johnson, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Maggie Pavlick
Aug
11
2020

Investigating a Thermal Challenge for MOFs

Chemical & Petroleum

PITTSBURGH(Aug. 11, 2020) — To the naked eye, metal organic frameworks (MOFs) look a little like sand. But if you zoom in, you will see that each grain looks and acts more like a sponge—and serves a similar purpose. MOFs are used to absorb and hold gases, which is useful when trying to filter toxic gases out of the air or as a way to store fuel for natural gas- or hydrogen gas-powered engines. New research led by an interdisciplinary team across six universities examines heat transfer in MOFs and the role it plays when MOFs are used for storing fuel. Corresponding author Christopher Wilmer, William Kepler Whiteford Faculty Fellow and assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, coauthored the work with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Virginia, Old Dominion University, Northwestern University, and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe, Germany. The findings were recently published in Nature Communications. “One of the challenges with using MOFs for fuel tanks in cars is that you have to be able to fill up in a few minutes or less,” explains Wilmer. “Unfortunately, when you quickly fill these MOF-based tanks with hydrogen or natural gas they get very hot. It’s not so much a risk of explosion—though there is one—but the fact that they can’t store much gas when they’re hot. The whole premise of using them to store a lot of gaseous fuel only works at room temperature. For other industrial applications you face a similar problem - whenever gases are loaded quickly the MOFs become hot and no longer work effectively.” In other words, for MOFs to be useful for these applications, they would need to be kept cool. This research looked at thermal transport in MOFs, to explore how quickly they can shed excess heat, and the group found some surprising results. “When you take these porous materials, which to begin with are thermally insulating, and you fill them with gas, it appears that they become even more insulating. This is surprising because usually, empty pockets like those in insulation or double-paned windows provide good thermal insulation,” explains Wilmer. “By taking porous materials and filling them, thereby removing those gaps, you would expect the thermal transport to improve, making it more thermally conductive. The opposite happens; they become more insulating.” To reach their conclusion, researchers conducted two simultaneous experiments using two different methods and MOFs synthesized in two different labs. Both groups observed the same trend: that the MOFs become more insulated when filled with adsorbates. Their experimental findings were also validated by atomistic simulations at Pitt in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University. “Our work indicates potential challenges ahead for the use of MOFs outside of research labs, but that is a necessary step in the process,” says Alan McGaughey, professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon. “As these materials advance toward broad, real-world usage, researchers will need to continue investigating once-overlooked properties of these materials, like thermal transport, and find the best way to use them to fit our needs.” The paper, “Observation of Reduced Thermal Conductivity in a Metal-Organic Framework,” (DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-17822-0) was published in Nature Communications. Coauthors include Hasan Babaei (Pitt), Mallory E. DeCoster (UVA), Minyoung Jeong (CMU), Zeinab M. Hassan (KIT), Timur Islamoglu (Northwestern), Helmut Baumgart (Old Dominion), Alan J. H. McGaughey (CMU), Redel Engelbert (KIT), Omar K. Farha (Northwestern), Patrick E. Hopkins (UVA), Jonathan A. Malen (CMU), and Christopher E. Wilmer. ### AcknowledgementsH.B. and C.E.W. gratefully acknowledge support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), awards CBET-1804011 and OAC-1931436, and also thank the Center for Research Computing (CRC) at the University of Pittsburgh for providing computational resources. J.A.M. gratefully acknowledges support from the Army Research Office, grant W911NF-17-1-0397. A.J.H.M. gratefully acknowledges support from the NSF, award DMR-1507325. O.K.F. gratefully acknowledges support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, HDTRA1‐18‐1‐0003. P.E.H. appreciates support from the Army Research Office, Grant. No. W911NF-16-1-0320. Financial support by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) within the COORNET Priority Program (SPP 1928) is gratefully acknowledged by E.R. and He.B. (Helmut Baumgart). Z.M.H. acknowledges financial support from the Egyptian Mission Foundation. We would also like to thank Ran Cao for collecting additional PXRD data for this study.
Maggie Pavlick, Senior Communications Writer
Aug
5
2020

Sustainable Chemistry at the Quantum Level

Chemical & Petroleum

PITTSBURGH (August 5, 2020) … Developing catalysts for sustainable fuel and chemical production requires a kind of Goldilocks Effect – some catalysts are too ineffective while others are too uneconomical. Catalyst testing also takes a lot of time and resources. New breakthroughs in computational quantum chemistry, however, hold promise for discovering catalysts that are “just right” and thousands of times faster than standard approaches. University of Pittsburgh Associate Professor John A. Keith and his lab group at the Swanson School of Engineering are using new quantum chemistry computing procedures to categorize hypothetical electrocatalysts that are “too slow” or “too expensive”, far more thoroughly and quickly than was considered possible a few years ago. Keith is also the Richard King Mellon Faculty Fellow in Energy in the Swanson School’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. The Keith Group’s research compilation, “Computational Quantum Chemical Explorations of Chemical/Material Space for Efficient Electrocatalysts (DOI: 10.1149.2/2.F09202IF),” was featured this month in Interface, a quarterly magazine of The Electrochemical Society. “For decades, catalyst development was the result of trial and error – years-long development and testing in the lab, giving us a basic understanding of how catalytic processes work. Today, computational modeling provides us with new insight into these reactions at the molecular level,” Keith explained. “Most exciting however is computational quantum chemistry, which can simulate the structures and dynamics of many atoms at a time. Coupled with the growing field of machine learning, we can more quickly and precisely predict and simulate catalytic models.” In the article, Keith explained a three-pronged approach for predicting novel electrocatalysts: 1) analyzing hypothetical reaction paths; 2) predicting ideal electrochemical environments; and 3) high-throughput screening powered by alchemical perturbation density functional theory and machine learning. The article explains how these approaches can transform how engineers and scientists develop electrocatalysts needed for society. “These emerging computational methods can allow researchers to be more than a thousand times as effective at discovering new systems compared to standard protocols,” Keith said. “For centuries chemistry and materials science relied on traditional Edisonian models of laboratory exploration, which bring far more failures than successes and thus a lot of wasted time and resources. Traditional computational quantum chemistry has accelerated these efforts, but the newest methods supercharge them. This helps researchers better pinpoint the undiscovered catalysts society desperately needs for a sustainable future.” ### About John Keith Dr. Keith is an associate professor and R. K. Mellon Faculty Fellow in Energy in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. He obtained a BA degree from Wesleyan University (2001) and a PhD from Caltech (2007). He was an Alexander von Humboldt postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ulm (2007-2010) and later an associate research scholar at Princeton University (2010-2013). Keith is an expert in applying a wide range of computational quantum chemistry methods to understand molecular scale phenomena across broad areas of science and engineering. He has more than 65 research publications and was the recipient of a U.S. National Science Foundation CAREER award. From 2019-2020, he was funded by the U.S. and Luxembourg science foundations as a visiting researcher at the University of Luxembourg, where he studied state of the art chemical physics and atomistic machine learning methods.

Jul
29
2020

Engineering a Carbon-Negative Power Plant

Chemical & Petroleum, MEMS

PITTSBURGH (July 29, 2020) — As renewable power generation increases, conventional energy sources like natural gas, coal, and nuclear power will still be required to balance the nation’s energy portfolio. Traditional power plants will not, however, need to produce as much energy as they do now, leaving them to sit idle some of the time. Katherine Hornbostel, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, and her team received $800,283 in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Flexible Carbon Capture and Storage (FLECCS) program to design a natural gas/direct air capture hybrid plant that will take advantage of those idle periods. The proposed design will not only eliminate carbon emissions from the power plant when it is producing electricity for the grid but will also capture carbon from the atmosphere during idle periods, ideally making the plant carbon negative. “We still have a large fleet of natural gas and coal plants in our country. As we add renewables, which provide intermittent energy, we’ll still need those fossil power sources to make sure the grid is consistently powered,” explained Hornbostel. “The FLECCS funding call asks how we can make those fossil sources cleaner and even use them to improve air quality.” For the project, Hornbostel will partner with Glenn Lipscomb, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Toledo; Debangsu Bhattacharyya, professor of chemical engineering at West Virginia University; and Michael Matuszewski, founder of Aristosys LLC in Venetia, PA. The team has proposed a system design that integrates natural gas with two carbon capture technologies: a membrane system that captures carbon dioxide (CO2) from the plant’s exhaust, and a sorbent system that will absorb leftover CO2 from the exhaust and CO2 from the air outside. During normal operations, the hybrid plant will capture about 99 percent of the CO2 it generates; during off-peak hours, the plant will use its power to run the carbon capture systems to remove CO2 from the air. “This is a very exciting and important project, and I’m pleased – but not surprised – to see this innovative research is being undertaken in Pittsburgh,” said Congressman Mike Doyle. “The world must achieve net-zero carbon emissions in a few short decades, or the impact on the environment and our society will be devastating. It’s essential that, as we make the transition to carbon-free energy, we also make efforts like this to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants that use fossil fuels – and explore technology that could reduce the carbon already in our atmosphere. ARPA-E is playing a critical role in promoting groundbreaking research on all aspects of energy production and consumption, and I strongly support its important work.” The highly competitive ARPA-E FLECCS Program awarded $11.5 million in Phase 1 funding to 12 projects that develop carbon capture and storage processes. Hornbostel will be the second in the Swanson School to receive an ARPA-E award, following Assistant Chair of Research and Professor of Chemical Engineering Robert Enick. “ARPA-E grants are very prestigious and are only awarded to the most innovative applications that propose high impact projects,” said David Vorp, associate dean for research and John A. Swanson Professor of Bioengineering. “Dr. Hornbostel and her team will use this FLECCS funding to address several important gaps in the field, and we could not be prouder of her for winning this award.”
Maggie Pavlick

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