Pitt | Swanson Engineering
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Feb

Feb
22
2021

Undergraduate Ethan Arnold-Paine Wins De Nora Pitch Competition with PFAS Remediation System Idea

Chemical & Petroleum, Student Profiles

PITTSBURGH (Feb. 22, 2021) — When Ethan Arnold-Paine, an undergraduate studying chemical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, arrived virtually at the De Nora Student Pitch Competition and got a look at his competition, it shocked him. “A lot of them were grad students from really top-tier schools,” he said. “I was surprised to be up against them.” Still, when it came time to pitch his idea for a new PFAS remediation system, an idea being worked on in David Sanchez’s Sustainable Design Labs at the Swanson School of Engineering, he delivered—and he won. The competition took place on Nov. 13, 2020 as part of the 9th De Nora Symposium. De Nora, a company that develops and supplies electrode technologies and water disinfection and filtration systems, selected 17 students to pitch their research projects to a panel of expert judges in the field. The competition took the place of the symposium’s in-person poster sessions. Arnold-Paine’s pitch won first place across all categories. PFAS, or per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, are an emerging contaminant. They are a class of man-made chemicals valued for their non-stick properties and often used in food packaging, nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing and more. Troublingly, the compounds don’t break down naturally and accumulate in soil and water over time; there is evidence that exposure has adverse effects on human health. Arnold-Paine presented a closed-cycle PFAS remediation system that uses a fast-growing plant—such as bamboo or cattails—to absorb the PFAS from contaminated water as it’s run through a hydroponic system. After a growth cycle, the plants would be harvested and sent to a biomass furnace to be turned into char. The char then could be recycled as a filter bed in the system to absorb even more PFAS from the water, creating little waste. The system was first proposed by Sanchez and Carla Ng, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Pitt, in 2017 and was funded through a Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation Seed Grant. “The closed loop idea is what the judges were really interested in. The system we designed would create very little waste and wouldn’t use synthetic polymers for adsorption,” said Arnold-Paine. “Also, they were impressed by the system’s modularity. A small system could be used at home or in a business, but it can also be scaled up for use in the field at remediation sites.” Arnold-Paine’s pitched project is part of the Sanchez Lab’s larger focus on smart riversheds, ways to come up with techniques to track and treat contaminants in different water systems. “What Ethan pitched was a futuristic proposal to remediate one of these emerging contaminants, PFAS, which has captured a lot of attention,” said Gregg Kotchey, postdoctoral researcher in the Sanchez Lab. “There are more contaminants that we don’t even know about yet. Our work is to detect and remediate them as we discover them.” As a winner of the competition, Arnold-Paine received a cash prize as well as the opportunity to intern with De Nora. “For Ethan to be as poised and prepared as he was in the midst of such tough competition is a remarkable achievement,” said David Sanchez, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and assistant director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation at Pitt. “He was an excellent standard-bearer for our lab and the work we’re doing to sustainably clean up the environment, and I look forward to all the ideas and innovations he’ll surely bring to other lab projects and the field.”
Maggie Pavlick
Feb
17
2021

New Research from Pitt and Lubrizol Models Reaction to Improve Fuel and Lubricant Additive Production

Chemical & Petroleum

PITTSBURGH (Feb. 17, 2021) — Polyisobutenyl succinic anhydrides (PIBSAs) are important for the auto industry because of their wide use in lubricant and fuel formulations. Their synthesis, however, requires high temperatures and, therefore, higher cost. Adding a Lewis acid—a substance that can accept a pair of electrons—as a catalyst makes the PIBSA formation more efficient. But which Lewis acid? Despite the importance of PIBSAs in the industrial space, an easy way to screen these catalysts and predict their performance hasn’t yet been developed. New research led by the Computer-Aided Nano and Energy Lab (CANELa) at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, in collaboration with the Lubrizol Corporation, addresses this problem by revealing the detailed mechanism of the Lewis acid-catalyzed reaction using computational modeling. The work, recently featured on the cover of the journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, builds a deeper understanding of the catalytic activity and creates a foundation for computationally screening catalysts in the future. “PIBSAs are commonly synthesized through the reaction between maleic anhydride and polyisobutene. Adding Lewis acids makes the reaction faster and reduces the energy input required for PIBSA formation,” explained Giannis Mpourmpakis, the Bicentennial Alumni Faculty Fellow and associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at Pitt. “But the reaction mechanism has not been well understood, and there are not many examples of this reaction in the literature. Our work helps to explain the way the reaction happens and identifies Lewis acids that will work best.” This new foundational information will aid in the discovery of Lewis acid catalysts for industrial chemical production at a faster rate and reduced cost. “The alliance between the University of Pittsburgh and Lubrizol has been instrumental in demonstrating how Academia and the Chemical Process Industry can work together to produce commercially relevant results,” said Glenn Cormack, Global Process Innovation Manager at The Lubrizol Corporation. “Combining the knowledge and expertise of the Swanson School of Engineering and The Lubrizol Corporation allows both parties access to some of the best available computational and experimental techniques when exploring new challenges.” The research is one of many collaborations between Pitt and the Lubrizol Corporation, an Ohio-based specialty chemical provider for transportation, industrial and consumer markets. The alliance with Lubrizol, now in its seventh year, provides students with hands-on opportunities to experience how the knowledge and skills they’re developing are used in the chemical industry. At the same time, students gain world-ready knowledge how Pitt’s research helps improve Lubrizol’s processes and products. “Over the last few years, our partnership with Lubrizol has led to new, innovative ways for Lubrizol to make products and rethink their manufacturing processes,” said Steven Little, William Kepler Whiteford Endowed Professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. “We learn a tremendous amount from them as well, and all of these publications are evidence of an alliance that continues to grow.” The paper, “Computational Screening of Lewis Acid Catalysts for the Ene Reaction between Maleic Anhydride and Polyisobutylene,” (DOI: 10.1021/acs.iecr.0c04860 ) was published in the ACS journal I&EC Research. It was authored by Cristian Morales-Rivera and Giannis Mpourmpakis at Pitt and Nico Proust and James Burrington at the Lubrizol Corporation.
Maggie Pavlick

Jan

Jan
27
2021

A Better Way to Separate Isotopes

Chemical & Petroleum

PITTSBURGH (Jan. 27, 2021) — Imagine a bin full of basketballs, all the same size and color, differing only by a tenth of an ounce in weight. Separating the heavier basketballs would likely be a difficult and tedious task, even with the right equipment. This is similar to the problem of separating isotopes, such as oxygen-16 (16O) and oxygen-18 (18O); they have almost identical properties, so they are very difficult to separate. Isotopes like these are extremely valuable for a wide variety of applications like medical imaging and radiopharmaceuticals. This is the case with 18O, which makes up only 0.2 percent of the oxygen on earth. But generating pure 18O is very expensive, driving up the costs of medical applications. New research reported in Nature Communications introduces a novel way to separate oxygen isotopes that is less energy-intensive and expensive than conventional methods. An international team of researchers led by Shinshu University in Japan introduced a new method using a material made from carbon having subnanometer pores, making it much easier to isolate the heavier oxygen isotopes. “Oxygen molecules are relatively heavy, so adding one or two neutrons does not make a huge difference in weight. That makes them more difficult to identify and isolate,” explained Karl Johnson, William Kepler Whiteford Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering and co-author of the paper. “We discovered that when you crowd oxygen molecules together very tightly in a porous material, they self-organize in such a way that the difference is magnified, and it’s easier to separate them.” Current distillation-based methods are expensive and require a huge amount of energy, as they cool the gas until it forms a liquid and then boil off the oxygen molecules in very large distillation columns. The new method would instead use a porous material made from carbon in a relatively small adsorption column—a technology already widely used in industry—to separate the molecules. “It’s not a new technology, just a new material,” added Johnson, who noted the method is well-suited to industry use. Yury Gogotsi, Distinguished University and Bach Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Drexel University, who developed this sorbent known as carbide-derived carbon, highlighted the importance of this new material. “To be able to separate isotopes, one needs not only tune the pore size with sub-nanometer accuracy, but also make all pores of about the same size,” said Gogotsi. “This is nanotechnology in action. Johnson’s lab was charged with developing a theoretical explanation of the experiments performed by senior author Katsumi Kaneko, distinguished professor at Shinshu University in Japan. “This project has demonstrated the importance of fruitful collaboration for the creation of new science,” said Kaneko. “I’m delighted to have colleagues like Yury Gogotsi and Karl Johnson who can provide new materials and theoretical explanation of the separative adsorption behavior of subnanometer carbon pores for 18O2 and 16O2.” The paper, “Adsorption separation of heavier isotope gases in subnanometer carbon pores,” (DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-20744-6) was published in Nature Communications. Research was led by Shinshu University’s Sanjeev Kumar Ujjain and Katsumi Kaneko and is a collaboration between nine institutions, including Pitt.
Maggie Pavlick
Jan
22
2021

Air Force Provides More Than $300K to Accelerate Materials Research at Pitt

Chemical & Petroleum

PITTSBURGH (Jan 22, 2021) — The U.S. Air Force will provide $313,000 to the University of Pittsburgh for a broadband dielectric spectrometer through the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (DURIP). The acquisition was made by a five-faculty team led by Jennifer Laaser, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, and includes Susan Fullerton, Associate Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering. The new instrument, a Novocontrol Concept 80, will be used to measure the conductivity and dielectric properties of soft materials, which will help faculty at Pitt and surrounding universities conduct research ranging from ion gel materials for carbon capture to new materials for computing. “These types of soft materials are a rapidly growing research area at Pitt, and we are thrilled that the Air Force has decided to help us build up our characterization capabilities by funding our purchase of this instrument,” said Laaser. DURIP supports university researchers with the tools to perform cutting-edge research relevant to the Department of Defense. These research programs are supported by more than $1.9 of active grants from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation. At Pitt, the instrument will support the investigations of doubly-polymerized ionic liquids (Jennifer Laaser), ion dynamics in ion gels for carbon capture (Sean Garrett-Roe), electroadhesive ionomers (Tara Meyer), new materials for efficient conversion of mechanical and electrical energy (Geoffrey Hutchison), and ionomers for low-power computing (Susan Fullerton). “This instrument fills a huge gap in our ability to characterize the dielectric properties of the materials we use in our device research,” explained Fullerton. “We focus on new materials and approaches for low-power electronics, and the equipment provided by the DURIP will significantly accelerate our progress.”
Maggie Pavlick
Jan
13
2021

Breathing Easier with a Better Tracheal Stent

Bioengineering, Chemical & Petroleum, MEMS

PITTSBURGH (Jan. 13, 2021) — Pediatric laryngotracheal stenosis (LTS), a narrowing of the airway in children, is a complex medical condition. While it can be something a child is born with or caused by injury, the condition can result in a life-threatening emergency if untreated. Treatment, however, is challenging. Depending on the severity, doctors will use a combination of endoscopic techniques, surgical repair, tracheostomy, or deployment of stents to hold the airway open and enable breathing. While stents are great at holding the airway open and simultaneously allowing the trachea to continue growing, they can move around, or cause damage when they’re eventually removed. New research published in Communications Biology and led by the University of Pittsburgh is poised to drastically improve the use of stents, demonstrating for the first time the successful use of a completely biodegradable magnesium-alloy tracheal stent that avoids some of these risks. “Using commercial non-biodegradable metal or silicone based tracheal stents has a risk of severe complications and doesn't achieve optimal clinical outcomes, even in adults,” said Prashant N. Kumta, Edward R. Weidlein Chair Professor of bioengineering at the Swanson School of Engineering. “Using advanced biomaterials could offer a less invasive, and more successful, treatment option.” In the study, the balloon-expandable ultra-high ductility (UHD) biodegradable magnesium stent was shown to perform better than current metallic non-biodegradable stents in use in both in lab testing and in rabbit models. The stent was shown to keep the airway open over time and have low degradation rates, displaying normal healing and no adverse problems. “Our results are very promising for the use of this novel biodegradable, high ductility metal stent, particularly for pediatric patients,” said Kumta, who also holds appointments in Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, and the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “We hope this new approach leads to new and improved treatments for patients with this complex condition as well as other tracheal obstruction conditions including tracheal cancer.” The paper, “In-vivo efficacy of biodegradable ultrahigh ductility Mg-Li-Zn alloy tracheal stents for pediatric airway obstruction,” (DOI: 10.1038/s42003-020-01400-7), was authored by the Swanson School’s Jingyao Wu, Abhijit Roy, Bouen Lee, Youngjae Chun, William R. Wagner, and Prashant N. Kumta; UPMC’s Leila Mady, Ali Mübin Aral, Toma Catalin, Humberto E. Trejo Bittar, and David Chi; and Feng Zheng and Ke Yang from The Institute of Metal Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Maggie Pavlick
Jan
12
2021

“Bluetooth Bacteria” Wins a Gold Medal at iGEM 2020

Bioengineering, Chemical & Petroleum, Student Profiles

PITTSBURGH (January 12, 2021) … Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology have provided an invaluable connection to the workplace and the outside world as we remained sheltered at home in 2020. As part of a virtual research competition, a team of University of Pittsburgh undergraduates explored if a comparable equivalent to this ubiquitous technology could allow scientists to wirelessly manipulate cell behavior and control gene expression. The group pitched this idea for the 2020 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, an annual synthetic biology research competition in which teams from around the world design and carry out projects to solve an open research or societal problem. More than 250 teams participated in the organization’s first Virtual Giant Jamboree, and the Pitt undergraduate group received a gold medal for their project titled “Bluetooth Bacteria.” This year’s group was also one of three teams that were nominated for “Best Foundational Advance Project.”  This is the first time a Pitt iGEM team has been nominated for an award at the iGEM competition. The team included one Swanson School of Engineering student: Lia Franco, a chemical engineering junior. Other members included Sabrina Catalano, a senior molecular biology student; Dara Czernikowski, a senior biological sciences student; Victor So, a senior microbiology and English literature student; and Chenming (Angel) Zheng, a junior molecular biology student. “This sort of non-invasive technology could be used for timed drug release, synthetic organ and neuron stimulation, or even industrial applications,” Czernikowski said. “We first considered optogenetics, which uses light to manipulate cell behavior, but this strategy cannot target deep tissue without risky invasive methods so we needed to change our approach.” The team ultimately decided to attach magnetic nanoparticles to the surface of bacteria and stimulate them with an alternating magnetic field (AMF). The nanoparticles react to the AMF stimulation and dissipate heat, causing the temperature of the bacterium’s cytoplasm to rise. They then used a protein dimer to act as a “bio-switch” to control gene expression. “At lower temperatures, the protein dimers bind to a target DNA sequence and turn off gene expression, but at higher temperatures, heat causes the proteins to un-dimerize,” Catalano explained. “In its un-dimerized state, it can no longer inhibit gene expression, turning the system on. The change in temperature is controlled by the stimulation of magnetic nanoparticles with AMF, allowing wireless control of gene expression in bacteria.” The team hopes that there is therapeutic potential for their design but recognizes that they need to improve spatial control in order to match techniques like optogenetics. They would like to improve their design to use localized heating that could selectively target one bacterium or a specific region of the cytoplasm. They plan to continue development during the upcoming semester. “The iGEM competition is a unique experience where undergraduates take charge and develop and execute their own research idea, with close mentorship from a set of faculty mentors,” said W. Seth Childers, assistant professor of chemistry at Pitt and one of five faculty advisors for the Bluetooth Bacteria team. “This year’s team worked hard under the stress of a pandemic to bring together engineering and biology concepts to consider how one could wirelessly control a bacterium.” Another unique aspect of their project is the “Bluetooth Bacteria Podcast” – a casual and conversational podcast that seeks to educate the general population on topics and current developments in synthetic biology. “One of our main project goals was effective science communication,” said Catalano. “Because COVID-19 limited our ability to teach synthetic biology in person, we thought it would be fun to make a podcast as it is accessible to a wide audience. It gave us the opportunity to hear from iGEM teams all over the world, including France, London, and India.” The team published two episodes every week, and they are available on Apple Podcast or Spotify. The other faculty advisors include Alex Deiters, professor of chemistry; Jason Lohmueller, assistant professor of surgery and immunology; Jason Shoemaker, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering; and Sanjeev Shroff, Distinguished Professor and Gerald E. McGinnis Chair of Bioengineering. # # # The team was sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh, Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, Pitt’s Department of Bioengineering, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, Open Philanthropy, Integrated DNA Technologies, TWIST Bioscience, GenScript, Ginkgo Bioworks, Benchling, Revive & Restore, SnapGene, MathWorks, New England BioLabs Inc., and Promega. Photo caption: (from left) Sabrina Catalano, Dara Czernikowski, Lia Franco, Victor So, and Chenming (Angel) Zheng.

Jan
5
2021

Defining the Future of Chemical Engineering

Chemical & Petroleum

PITTSBURGH (Jan. 5, 2021) — Two professors in the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering are featured in a special “Futures” issue of the AIChE Journal. Research from Giannis “Yanni” Mpourmpakis and John Keith, associate professors of chemical and petroleum engineering, is featured in the special issue that highlights the research of emerging scholars in chemical engineering. “Much of the future of chemical engineering lies in computational chemistry, and John and Yanni are at the forefront of this research,” said Steven Little, William Kepler Whiteford Endowed Professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. “It’s no surprise that they were featured in this exciting special issue.” Computational Screening for Catalysts Catalysts are important in the production of industrial chemicals. Experimentally finding sites on atoms for catalysts to bind, however, is an arduous and costly endeavor. Research from the lab of John Keith analyzes errors in alchemical perturbation density functional theory (APDFT), a method that uses a computer model to screen atoms for hypothetical catalyst sites more quickly and with lower cost than trial-and-error experiments in a lab. The researchers used machine learning to correct the prediction errors that occurred in the program, resulting in more than 500 times more hypothetical alloys than the previous model. Their research provides a recipe for developing other machine learning-based APDFT models. The paper, “Machine Learning Corrected Alchemical Perturbation Density Functional Theory for Catalysis Applications,” (DOI: 10.1002/aic.17041) was authored by Charles D. Griego, Lingyan Zhao, Karthikeyan Saravanan, and John Keith. Understanding Zeolites Zeolites are porous, aluminosilicate materials that are used for an array of applications in the chemical industry, including separations, catalysis, and ion exchange. Despite their widespread use, zeolite growth is still not well understood. Featured research led by Giannis Mpourmpakis’s CANELa lab at Pitt uses density functional theory calculations to understand the thermodynamics of oligomerization, which constitutes the initial stage of zeolite growth. The researchers were able to determine that the growth of aluminosilicate systems is energetically more preferred than their pure silicate counterparts and elucidate the effect of different cations on these energetics. They also suggest that the formation of small complexes at the initial growth steps can have a significant impact on the final zeolite structure. Understanding how zeolites form is central to controlling their final structure, such as pore size distribution and chemical composition, since these properties determine to a large extent their overall application behavior. The paper, “Understanding Initial Zeolite Oligomerization Steps with First Principles Calculations,” (DOI: 10.1002/aic.17107) was authored by Emily E. Freeman and Giannis Mpourmpakis from Pitt, James J. Neeway and Radha Kishan Motkuri from the Pacific Northwest National Lab; and Jeffrey D. Rimer from the University of Houston. This work is funded by the Department of Energy, Nuclear Energy University Program and the computations were performed in Pitt’s Center for Research Computing.
Maggie Pavlick