Pitt | Swanson Engineering
News Listing

May

May
11
2021

Engineering Catalysts That Turn Seawater into Fuel

Chemical & Petroleum

PITTSBURGH (May 11, 2021) — What if aircraft carriers could rely on the most abundant of local resources—seawater—to fuel the planes on board? Thanks to seawater-to-fuel technology that has been in development for several years, scientists are able to use the onboard nuclear reactor and harness the carbon dioxide and hydrogen from seawater to create a liquid fuel that can power a jet engine. The technology would allow aircraft carriers to remain in continuous operation and avoid relying on tanker ships to replenish their fuel. However, designing catalysts that can effectively create jet fuel from these common compounds is a difficult and costly process. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Rochester seek to improve this process in a project that recently received $300,000 from the Department of Defense Office of Naval Research. The project, led by the University of Rochester’s Marc Porosoff and Pitt’s Giannis Mpourmpakis, will refine a crucial step in the seawater-to-fuel process, making it more energy efficient, safer, and scalable. The first step of fuel synthesis is converting the carbon dioxide (CO2) extracted from seawater into carbon monoxide (CO). Last summer, the team successfully demonstrated that molybdenum carbide catalysts efficiently and reliably convert CO2 to CO, achieving this critical first step in turning seawater into fuel. The newly funded project will expand on the previous work, seeking to further hydrogenate the carbon monoxide into usable fuels using Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. “Our goal with this project is to tune hydrocarbon selectivity during the hydrogenation of a mixture of CO and CO2,” said Porosoff, who is an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Rochester and principal investigator of the project. “To do that, we’ll design, synthesize and test bimetallic, zeolite-based catalysts that selectively hydrogenate CO and create specific compounds, like olefins and heavier hydrocarbons, that can be used as fuels.” Zeolites—minerals that contain aluminum and silicon—are commonly used as commercial catalysts. The researchers expect that catalysts based on zeolites and bimetallic particles will result in enhanced activity, selectivity and stability in the seawater-to-fuel application. The catalysts offer several other benefits, as well: They avoid reliance on expensive and rare precious metals and are highly tunable, meaning that researchers can control the acid-base properties to stabilize the desired reaction. Mpourmpakis, associate professor of chemical engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering and co-PI on the project, leads the Computer-Aided Nano and Energy Lab (CANELa), which specializes in using theory and computation to investigate the physicochemical properties of nanomaterials for applications in catalysis, green energy generation and storage, and materials engineering. To test their hypothesis, Porosoff and Mpourmpakis will use computational modeling and machine learning to identify the characteristics of catalysts most likely to achieve their goal: the selective hydrogenation of CO in a mixture of CO and CO2, limiting unwanted reactions that make less useful compounds like methane. “This work will combine computational and experimental approaches to hopefully result in significant time, energy and cost savings over conventional experimental approaches,” said Mpourmpakis, who is also the Bicentennial Alumni Faculty Fellow at Pitt. “These control experiments are essential for the design of an integrated, modular system, and enable the implementation of the ‘seawater to fuel’ process in a way that is safe and efficient for the U.S. Navy.” The two-year project is titled “Selective CO Hydrogenation Over Bimetallic Nanoparticles” and began on April 1st 2021.
Maggie Pavlick

Apr

Apr
28
2021

William Federspiel Receives the 2020-2021 Marlin Mickle Outstanding Innovator Award

Bioengineering, Chemical & Petroleum

PITTSBURGH (April 28, 2021) ... The current COVID-19 pandemic has not only shaken the healthcare industry but also delivered more than a year of social and economic disruption across the globe. During this time, innovators at the University of Pittsburgh quickly adapted their research to meet new safety standards and managed to tackle the effects of the pandemic. On April 22, the Innovation Institute recognized Pitt faculty, students and staff who thrived, despite these unprecedented circumstances, at its 2020-2021 Celebration of Innovation. William Federspiel, John A. Swanson Professor of Bioengineering, received the Marlin Mickle Outstanding Innovator Award for his consistent dedication to achieving societal impact through commercial application of his research. This prestigious award honors Professor Mickle, a Pitt innovator who holds the University record for invention disclosures filed, patents issued, and startups formed. “I am honored and thankful to be this year’s recipient of the Marlin Mickle Innovation Award. I’m also humbled knowing many of the past recipients of this award,” said Federspiel, who also holds appointments in chemical engineering, the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, critical care medicine, and the Clinical Translation Institute. “This award has personal meaning for me. I always knew Marlin to be a scholar and an innovator, but through conversation, I recognized that he was the ultimate gentleman and extremely humble.” Federspiel directs the Medical Devices Laboratory wherein clinically significant devices are developed for the treatment of pulmonary and cardiovascular ailments by utilizing engineering principles of fluid flow and mass transfer. He is also a co-founder of ALung Technologies, a Pittsburgh-based medical device company, at which he now serves as head of the scientific advisory board. Among Federspiel’s innovations is the Hemolung® Respiratory Assist System (RAS), a minimally invasive device that does the work of the lungs by removing carbon dioxide from the blood. During the coronavirus pandemic, the device received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for COVID-19. “It is an amazingly rewarding experience to develop technologies that help save lives,” Federspiel said. “[ALung Technologies] did an amazing job creating the Hemolung RAS system that was seeded in my laboratory. “Last year we experienced the beginning of a once in a lifetime pandemic. While I was already proud that the Hemolung RAS device was in FDA clinical trials for approval, I was ecstatic when I learned the company sought and obtained EUA authorization from the FDA to treat severe COVID-19 patients,” he added. “Obviously, these are circumstances I would have never envisioned 25 years ago when I joined Pitt. It came from the hard work of many individuals both at the University and the company.” Click here to watch Dr. Federspiel’s acceptance speech. To date, 97 COVID-19 patients have been treated using the Hemolung® RAS device, and the company has experienced increased demand as a result of the pandemic. Federspiel has developed additional artificial lung platforms that combine fiber technology with cellular and biomolecular components to create biohybrid artificial lung tissue and bioactive hollow fibers. Some of his other innovations include a membrane and particle-based blood purification devices for use in critical care settings; improved transport models for drug delivery from nanoparticles and microparticles; and oxygen depletion devices for blood storage systems that will extend the shelf life of red cell units and deliver red cells of higher efficacy and lower toxicity for transfusion therapy. “Although publication is one of the core activities of academia, the ultimate goal of bioengineering research is to make a real-world impact, e.g., improve health care. Bill has dedicated his career to translating novel research findings into improved treatments of cardiopulmonary diseases – this is perhaps his highest contribution,” said Sanjeev Shroff, Distinguished Professor and Gerald E. McGinnis Chair of Bioengineering. During his time at Pitt, Federspiel has submitted 32 invention disclosures, been issued 14 patents, and has had his work licensed 11 times. He is an elected Fellow of several prestigious professional organizations such as the National Academy of Inventors, the Biomedical Engineering Society, the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, and the American Society for Artificial Internal Organs. In 2019, he received the Carnegie Science Award for Life Sciences. # # #

Apr
26
2021

University of Pittsburgh’s Anna C. Balazs elected to National Academy of Sciences

Chemical & Petroleum, Diversity

PITTSBURGH (April 26, 2021) … Anna C. Balazs, an award-winning University of Pittsburgh Distinguished Professor in the Swanson School of Engineering, has added one of the nation’s top honors to her portfolio. The National Academy of Sciences announced today that Balazs is among its 120 newly elected members, recognizing distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Balazs, who also holds the John A. Swanson Chair of Engineering in the Swanson School’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, is internationally recognized for her theoretical and computational modeling of polymers. For the past decade, her research has focused on mimicking biological processes in polymeric materials which could contribute to the advancement of soft robotics or “squishy robots.” “Throughout her career, Anna has advanced the field of materials and computational modeling, and we are so proud that the National Academy of Sciences has bestowed her with this honor,” said James R. Martin II, U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering. “Her research has built the foundation for future materials and their use in ways that even only a decade ago were science fiction. She has fulfilled the passion of every engineer – to create new knowledge that one day will benefit the human condition. I congratulate her on this exceptional achievement and look forward to one day celebrating with her in person.” Balazs, a fellow of the American Physical Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the Materials Research Society, has also received some of the leading awards in her field, including the Royal Society of Chemistry S F Boys - A Rahman Award (2015), the American Chemical Society Langmuir Lecture Award (2014), and the Mines Medal from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (2013). In 2106 she was named the first woman to receive the prestigious Polymer Physics Prize from the American Physical Society. “The Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh could not be more proud of Anna’s selection to the National Academy of Science, which is one of the highest honors bestowed upon a U.S. scientist,” noted Steven R. Little, Department Chair of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. “There is no one more deserving than Anna. She has envisioned (and continues to envision) the materials that future generations will use to create a better world, and she continues to lead scientists to make these materials a reality. She is a role model to our faculty and our students. Her work in her field is truly unparalleled in its breadth, quality and impact.” This year’s NAS member cohort includes 59 women, the most elected in a single year. “The historic number of women elected this year reflects the critical contributions that they are making in many fields of science, as well as a concerted effort by our Academy to recognize those contributions and the essential value of increasing diversity in our ranks,” said National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt in the announcement. Anna C. Balazs (second from left) presents her Provost Inaugural lecture on 13 September 2018, recognizing her Distinguished Professorship. To her left is Chancellor Patrick Gallagher; from her right is Provost Ann Cudd and Dean James R. Martin II. (Photo: Aimee Obidzinski) ### About Dr. Balazs Prior to joining the University of Pittsburgh in 1987, Anna C. Balazs held a postdoctoral position in the Department of Polymer Science and Engineering at the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Balazs' research involves theoretical and computational modeling of the thermodynamic and kinetic behavior of polymer blends and composites. She is also investigating the properties of polymers at surfaces and interfaces. Her awards and recognitions include the Polymer Physics Prize (2016); S. F. Boys-A. Rahman Award from the Royal Society of Chemistry’s (RSC) Faraday Division (2015); ACS Langmuir Lecture Award (2014); Greater Pittsburgh Women Chemists Committee Award for Excellence in the Chemical Sciences (2014); Fellow, Materials Research Society (2014); South Dakota School of Mines’ Mines Medal (2013); Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry (2010); Donaldson Lecturer, University of Minnesota (2007); Honoree, “Women in the Material World,” Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania (2006); Maurice Huggins Award of the Gordon Research Conference for outstanding contributions to Polymer Science (2003); Visiting Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford University (2000 – 2001; 2007- 2008); Special Creativity Award, National Science Foundation, (1999-2001); Fellow, American Physical Society (1993); and Invited Participant, National Academy of Sciences' 6th Annual Frontiers of Science Symposium (November 3-5, 1994). About the National Academies The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is a private, non-profit society of distinguished scholars. Established by an Act of Congress, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the NAS is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology. Scientists are elected by their peers to membership in the NAS for outstanding contributions to research. The NAS is committed to furthering science in America, and its members are active contributors to the international scientific community. Approximately 500 current and deceased members of the NAS have won Nobel Prizes, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, founded in 1914, is today one of the premier international journals publishing the results of original research. The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Academy of Medicine (NAM, formerly the Institute of Medicine) -- were founded under the NAS charter in 1964 and 1970, respectively. The three Academies work together as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation and conduct other activities to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions. The National Academies also encourage education and research, recognize outstanding contributions to knowledge, and increase public understanding in matters of science, engineering, and medicine.  The National Academies' service to government has become so essential that Congress and the White House have issued legislation and executive orders over the years that reaffirm its unique role.

Apr
14
2021

Making a PAWS-itive Impact

Chemical & Petroleum

When CEO and founder of Pawprint Oxygen Blake Dubé (ChemE ’17) scrolled past a news story about pet oxygen masks from high schooler Carley Deery, he had to do a double take. A 17-year-old from Des Moines had raised more than $2,000 to provide pet oxygen masks in her local community. This emergency treatment is all too familiar to Dubé, who co-founded Aeronics -- a company that provides portable oxygen technology for consumer, veterinary, and medical applications. The group later created the brand Pawprint Oxygen after an acquaintance lost a pet to respiratory complications, en route to a veterinary hospital. Impressed with Deery’s entrepreneurial spirit and passion for animal rescue, Dubé decided to reach out. “We saw an opportunity to amplify her work and reach even more pets by donating $10,000 worth of pet oxygen masks to her cause,” he said. “We're a small company, and our team's average age is only a few years older than Carley. That's why this opportunity was so special -- to be able to join a cause that matches our own mission while supporting another young change-maker means a lot to us.” Deery was originally inspired by a story from her father, a Des Moines firefighter who rescued and resuscitated a puppy from a house fire. When she saw the impact animal oxygen masks can make in emergency situations, she raised both money and awareness for this treatment. Her GoFundMe campaign resulted in raising enough for nearly half of the 50 masks that were distributed, in collaboration with the Animal Rescue League (ARL) of Iowa, among ten fire departments in the Des Moines area. They will expand this effort with the donation from Pawprint Oxygen. “The plan for the additional masks currently is to reach out across Iowa with an emphasis on rural or small town volunteer fire departments who struggle for equipment,” said Tom Colvin, CEO of the Animal Rescue League of Iowa. “The ARL is occasionally on the receiving end of pets from fires so our veterinary staff will want to keep a few on hand as well.” Deery’s effort also caught the eye of Drew Barrymore, who hosts a popular daytime talk show. “Carley's work with the Animal Rescue League of Iowa shows what an impact young people can make,” Dubé added. “When she saw the difference that these masks can make for pets involved in house fires, she took action.” # # #
Leah Russell and Maggie Pavlick
Apr
9
2021

Controlled Release Society to Present Pitt’s Steven Little with Distinguished Service Award

Bioengineering, Chemical & Petroleum

PITTSBURGH (April 9, 2021) … The Controlled Release Society (CRS) has announced that University of Pittsburgh Professor Steven R. Little will receive its Distinguished Service Award at its virtual annual meeting this July 25-29. Little, the William Kepler Whiteford Endowed Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, is internationally recognized for his research in drug delivery systems that mimic the body’s own mechanisms of healing and resolving inflammation.This is Little’s third honor from CRS; in 2018 he received the society’s Young Investigator Award, and in 2020 was elected to its College of Fellows for “outstanding and sustained contributions to the field of delivery science and technology over a minimum of ten years.”“Dr. Little's leadership of the focus groups of the Controlled Release Society has been transformational for the society as a whole,” said nominator Justin Hanes, the Lewis J. Ort Professor of Ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “I have never seen the young rising superstars of our field so engaged in the CRS, and their engagement is key to the long-term success of this remarkable scientific society. Dr. Little has also been a highly valued member of the CRS board of directors.  He is a visionary and a natural leader. We are so grateful to him.”Rather than traditional drug treatments that are distributed throughout the entire body, Little’s controlled release research focuses on time-released microcapsules that target specific cells on site. In 2020, Little published a groundbreaking discovery of a new immunotherapy system that mimics how cancer cells invade the human immune system and thereby reduces the risk of transplant rejection. He has also made advancements to the fundamentals of delivery science with predictive models enabling rational design of drug delivery systems, leading to the founding of Qrono Inc., a specialty pharma company in Pittsburgh.“The CRS is a tremendous organization, and I am extremely humbled by this recognition. A large number of people sacrificed so much of their time to achieve the positive changes that this award is recognizing. I am very confident that I speak for all of these people when I say how rewarding it is for all of us to see the next generation of scientists and engineers being recognized for what they do and having a way to exercise their own leadership in this world-class organization.”More About Dr. LittleDr. Steven Little is a William Kepler Whiteford Endowed Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, Bioengineering, Pharmaceutical Sciences, Immunology, Ophthalmology, and the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. He received his PhD in Chemical Engineering from MIT in 2005, with his thesis winning the American Association for Advancement of Science's Excellence in Research Award. Researchers in Dr. Little’s Lab focus upon therapies that are biomimetic and replicate the biological function and interactions of living entities using synthetic systems. Areas of study include bioengineering, chemistry, chemical engineering, ophthalmology, and immunology, and the health issues addressed include autoimmune disease, battlefield wounds, cancer, HIV, ocular diseases, and transplantation. Dr. Little currently has 10 provisional, 2 pending, and 5 issued patents.Dr. Little has been recognized by national and international awards including the Curtis W. McGraw Research Award from the ASEE, being elected as a fellow of the BMES and AIMBE, a Carnegie Science Award for Research, the Society for Biomaterials' Young Investigator Award, the University of Pittsburgh's Chancellor's Distinguished Research Award, being named a Camille Dreyfus Teacher Scholar, being named an Arnold and Mabel Beckman Young Investigator, and being elected to the Board of Directors of the Society for Biomaterials. In addition, Dr. Little's exceptional teaching and leadership in education have also been recognized by both the University of Pittsburgh's Chancellor's Distinguished Teaching Award and a 2nd Carnegie Science Award for Post-Secondary Education. Dr. Little was also recently named one of Pittsburgh Magazine's 40 under 40, a “Fast Tracker” by the Pittsburgh Business Times, and also one of only five individuals in Pittsburgh who are “reshaping our world” by Pop City Media. About the Department of Chemical and Petroleum EngineeringThe Swanson School’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering serves undergraduate and graduate engineering students, the University and industry, through education, research, and participation in professional organizations and regional/national initiatives. Active areas of research in the Department include Biological and Biomedical Systems; Energy and Sustainability; and Materials Modeling and Design. The faculty holds a record of success in obtaining research funding such that the Department ranks within the top 25 U.S. Chemical Engineering departments for Federal R&D spending in recent years with annual research expenditures exceeding $7 million. ###

Apr
8
2021

15 Pitt Students Earn NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

Bioengineering, Chemical & Petroleum, MEMS, Student Profiles

Reposted from Pittwire. Click here to view the original story. Fifteen Pitt graduate students have been selected for the 2021 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), which recognizes outstanding graduate students who are pursuing full-time research-based master's and doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The prestigious award provides three years of support for the graduate education of individuals who have demonstrated their potential for significant research achievements in STEM or STEM education. Its overall goal is to recruit individuals into STEM fields and to broaden participation of underrepresented groups in science and engineering. Since its inception in 1952, the GRFP has supported more than 60,000 graduate students nationwide. The NSF expects to award 1,600 Graduate Research Fellowships overall. Fellows are provided a $34,000 stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance each year. Pitt’s 2021 awardees are: Max Franklin Dudek, life sciences—computationally intensive research Zachary Egolf, engineering—systems engineering Hannah C. Geisler, engineering—biomedical engineering Marcela Gonzalez-Rubio, engineering—bioengineering Sarah Clarkson Griffin, engineering—bioengineering Pete Howard Gueldner, engineering—bioengineering Elijah Hall, geosciences—hydrology Sara Jaramillo, psychology—cognitive psychology Caroline Iturbe Larkin, engineering—computationally intensive research Jennifer Mak, engineering—biomedical engineering Karen Y Peralta Martinez, life sciences—organismal biology Kevin Pietz, engineering—bioengineering April Alexandra Rich, life sciences—genomics Paul Anthony Torrillo, chemistry—computationally intensive research Carissa Siu Yun Yim, engineering—chemical engineering In addition, nine Pitt students were recognized with honorable mentions: Marissa Nicole Behun, engineering—bioengineering Emily Kaye Biermann, physics and astronomy—astronomy and astrophysics Gabriella Gerlach, life sciences—bioinformatics and computational biology Emily Anne Hutchinson, psychology—developmental psychology Kayla M. Komondor, life sciences—developmental biology Rachael Dawn Kramp, life sciences—ecology Patrick John Stofanak, engineering—mechanical engineering Madeline Torres, life sciences—microbial biology Darian Yang, life sciences—biophysics "It is very exciting that, once again this year, University of Pittsburgh students have been recognized by the National Science Foundation for their excellent work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. That the country’s oldest fellowship program supporting STEM applauds the fine accomplishments of Pitt's students is as impressive as it is inspiring," said Joseph J. McCarthy, vice provost for undergraduate studies and interim dean of the University Honors College. "I sincerely congratulate this year's honorees." The University offers guidance for students who want to prepare strong applications for these and other awards. “Students in the Swanson School of Engineering successfully compete every year for NSF GRFP awards, which is a testament to their academic excellence and hard work,” said bioengineering professor Patrick Loughlin. “It is also a testament to the decade-long workshop and efforts by Swanson School faculty to assist graduate students in preparing competitive fellowship applications.” Loughlin said the Swanson School is joining forces with the University Honors College to expand its efforts with an eye toward further increasing the number of Pitt NSF GRFP recipients. Pitt Honors scholar-mentor Joshua Cannon said the Honors College’s program includes workshops throughout the summer and early fall, numerous past successful applications to read and learn from, advice on how to structure essays, and detailed reading and reviewing of essays. Awardee Marcela Gonzalez-Rubio said she felt overwhelmed as she started her NSF GRFP proposal. “Not because I didn't feel ready, but because as a graduate student it was my first time applying for such a competitive and prestigious grant. “I knew I needed mentorship, advice and new sets of eyes to provide an objective perspective on my proposal as I wanted it to be the best possible,” Gonzalez-Rubio said. “In my advisor, lab mates, fellow grad students and Pitt's Honors College prep program I found everything that I was looking for and I will be forever thankful for their support in helping me achieve what I consider to be my career's most important milestone so far.” Said honorable mention honoree Emily Bierman, "The application process allowed me to really envision what I wanted my graduate school experience to look like. After taking time to think deeply about what brought me to where I am today and what I want to accomplish, I feel much more grounded as a graduate student. Pitt's prep program really helped me through that self-reflection. The GRFP application is quite daunting, but I didn't have to do it alone." Swanson School recipients for the 2021 award include: Zachary Egolf, a mechanical engineering graduate student, works to develop a nonlinear control scheme for distributive control of robotic swarms. This controller will allow for robust tracking of randomly moving targets. (PI: Vipperman) Hannah Geisler, a bioengineering undergrad, performed research to investigate the fluid-handling capabilities of a 3D-printed peristaltic pump for application in cell-free protein synthesis systems. The overarching goal of the project was to design a microfluidic system capable of controlled, rapid SARS-COV-2 protein synthesis for downstream production of protein-based COVID-19 assays and therapeutics. (PI: Ruder) Marcela Gonzalez-Rubio, a bioengineering graduate student, studies how humans learn new ways of walking by using a split-belt treadmill where participants move each of their legs at different speeds. She is interested in quantifying their perception of leg movements once they adjust their walking patterns to this novel environment. (PI: Torres-Oviedo) Sarah Griffin, a bioengineering graduate student, studies the biomechanics and shoe-rung mechanics of ladder climbing to describe the factors affecting slip risk. The overall goal is to develop new knowledge that can be implemented in the workplace to reduce ladder slip and fall risk. (PI: Beschorner) Pete Gueldner, a bioengineering graduate student, uses novel experimental and computational techniques to analyze the biomechanics of abdominal aortic aneurysms. The central goal is to reduce the risk of patients by leveraging artificial intelligence tools on large clinical imaging datasets which will aid in the improvement of  the clinical standards as well as overall patient health. (PI: Vorp) Jennifer Mak, a bioengineering graduate student, develops innovative stroke rehabilitation strategies, involving the use of augmented reality (AR), encephalography (EEG), robotics, and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). The overarching goal is to address post-stroke sensory processing issues like neglect as well as motor impairments. (PI: Wittenberg) Kevin Pietz, a bioengineering undergraduate, performed research that involved engineering stem cell-derived pancreatic islets using alginate encapsulation and islet-on-a-chip systems. The goal is to develop a long-term microphysiological culture system for studying type 2 diabetes. (PI: Banerjee) Carissa Yim, a chemical engineering undergraduate, aims to understand and improve energy efficiency in flow batteries through electrochemistry and molecular-scale structural simulations. This will enable researchers to better harness intermittent renewable energy and address climate change. (PI: McKone) Honorable Mentions Marissa Behun, a bioengineering graduate student, aims to better understand the way in which macrophage phenotypes change with age following a skeletal muscle injury. (PI: Brown) Patrick Stofanak, a mechanical engineering graduate student, works to better understand the impact that winds have on melting ice sheets and sublimation of snow in polar regions. Using fundamental thermal-fluid concepts and numerical simulation, he aims to improve our understanding of how these processes are contributing to sea level rise. (PI: Senocak) # # #
Kimberly K. Barlow, Communications Manager, Office of University Communications

Mar

Mar
18
2021

For Women’s History Month, Women in STEM Share Their Journeys

Bioengineering, Chemical & Petroleum, Civil & Environmental, Industrial, MEMS, Diversity

PITTSBURGH (March 18, 2021) — The path for women in STEM fields has historically been fraught with obstacles that their male counterparts may not have had to face. The path is a bit clearer today thanks to the women who walked it before: women like Rachel Carson, the marine biologist and environmentalist; Katherine Johnson, the space scientist who made the Apollo 11 flight possible; and Edith Clarke, the first professionally employed female electrical engineer in the U.S. On Wednesday, March 31, 2021, in celebration of Women’s History Month, a panel of women from the Swanson School of Engineering will discuss their own paths to success as women in STEM and higher education. The six faculty and staff members will discuss their journeys and lessons learned while building their fruitful careers. The panel, “My Journey, My Story: The Path to Success for Women in STEM and Higher Education,” is presented by the Swanson School of Engineering Office of Diversity. The discussion is open to all members of the Swanson School. You can find more information and RSVP here. PANELISTS: Xinyan Tracy Cui, Professor of Bioengineering Tracy Cui runs NTE Lab, where they investigate and develop tools that interface with the nervous system for neuroscience research or clinical diagnosis and therapies. One major thrust of the lab research is to understand and modulate neural tissue interactions with smart materials and biosensors—an effort that can be applied to several fields of research, including neural electrode/tissue interface, neural tissue engineering, implantable biosensors and drug delivery. The NTE Lab also designs advanced functional biomaterials and electrode devices that will intimately integrate with the host neural tissue. They simultaneously develop rigorous methods to comprehensively and accurately evaluate these novel materials and devices. Related news: $2.37M NIH Award to Deliver Improved Neural Recording Technology Katherinetarget="_blank" Hornbostel, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science On the way to renewable energy, there will still be a need for traditional power plants, like natural gas and coal, to keep the electrical grid stable during the transition. Katherine Hornbostel’s research focuses primarily on making those traditional energy sources cleaner through carbon capture technology. Her research group investigates materials for post-combustion carbon capture and direct air capture. Another project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program will model a novel plant that can capture more carbon dioxide from the air than it produces, making it carbon-negative. Related news: New Research Led by Pitt Analyzes Modeling Techniques for Carbon Capture Technology Gena Kovalcik, Co-Director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation The Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation (MCSI) focuses on sustainability initiatives and practices through the development and integration of curriculum, groundbreaking research, community outreach and innovation. Gena Kovalcik has led MCSI since 2003, when she joined as Codirector of Administration and External Relations. Kovalcik was also recently selected as Strategic Advisor to the Dean of the Swanson School of Engineering. In this new position, Gena will play an important role in helping to formalize and lead development of the Swanson School’s strategic processes and operationalizing its strategy across all units. In addition to her work at Pitt, Kovalcik serves as a member of the Allegheny County Green Action Team, which provides high-level, strategic input to Allegheny County officials to better support regional sustainability. She is also on the Board of Directors of the Pittsburgh Green Innovators. Related news: https://www.engineering.pitt.edu/MCSI/News/ Carla Ng, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering There are tens of thousands of industrial chemicals currently in commerce—the majority of which were not carefully evaluated to understand their toxicity, bioaccumulation potential, or persistence. As researchers continue to discover environmental contaminants, Carla Ng’s lab works to effectively screen these potentially dangerous substances. Ng’s group works at the intersection of biology and chemistry to understand and predict the fate of chemicals in the environment. They build and validate models for legacy and emerging chemicals at multiple scales, from molecules to organisms to global systems. Recent news: Mapping PFAS Contamination in Packaged Food Cheryl Paul, Director of Engineering Student Services and Graduate Student Ombudsperson In her dual role assisting undergraduates and as the school’s graduate Ombudsperson, Cheryl Paul provides support to engineering students as they navigate academic and life challenges. Additionally, Paul extensively consults with staff, faculty, and parents in situations where extra assistance is required. As a member of Pitt’s Campus Crisis Support Team, the Care & Resource Support group, & the LGBTQI+ Task Force, she is invested in leading the effort to improve student’s educational experiences with care & compassion. Paul’s work has been widely recognized by her peers. In 2013, she received the Chancellor’s Award for Staff Excellence for her work assisting student organizations.To honor this work, Pitt’s Fraternity and Sorority Life recently named the Cheryl Paul Professional Academic Mentor of the Year Award after her. Anne Robertson, William Kepler Whiteford Endowed Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Anne Robertson joined the University of Pittsburgh in 1995, where she was the first female faculty member in Mechanical Engineering. Her research is focused on understanding the relationship between biological structure and mechanical function of soft tissues with a particular focus on vascular tissues. She directs a multi-institution program on cerebral aneurysms that is supported by the NIH and served a four-year term as a standing member of the Neuroscience and Ophthalmic Imaging Technologies (NOIT) Study Section of the NIH. Robertson is founding Director of the Center for Faculty Excellence in the Swanson School of Engineering at Pitt, which takes the lead in developing and implementing programs to enhance the effectiveness of junior faculty in building outstanding academic careers. She was recently promoted to Associate Dean of Faculty Development so that she can expand this work to include recently promoted Associate Professors. Dr. Robertson is a strong supporter of diversity-related initiatives and in 2007, she received the Robert O. Agbede Faculty Award for Diversity in the Swanson School. Related news: Pitt and Mayo Clinic Discover New, Immediate Phase of Blood Vessel Restructuring After Aneurysm
Maggie Pavlick
Mar
16
2021

Pitt ChemE Researchers Design Active Materials for Self-regulating Soft Robots

Chemical & Petroleum

PITTSBURGH (March 16, 2021) … During the swarming of birds or fish, each entity coordinates its location relative to the others, so that the swarm moves as one larger, coherent unit. Fireflies on the other hand coordinate their temporal behavior: within a group, they eventually all flash on and off at the same time and thus act as synchronized oscillators. Few entities, however, coordinate both their spatial movements and inherent time clocks; the limited examples are termed “swarmalators”1, which simultaneously swarm in space and oscillate in time. Japanese tree frogs are exemplar swarmalators: each frog changes both its location and rate of croaking relative to all the other frogs in a group. Moreover, the frogs change shape when they croak: the air sac below their mouth inflates and deflates to make the sound. This coordinated behavior plays an important role during mating and hence, is vital to the frogs’ survival. In the synthetic realm there are hardly any materials systems where individual units simultaneously synchronize their spatial assembly, temporal oscillations and morphological changes. Such highly self-organizing materials are important for creating self-propelled soft robots that come together and cooperatively alter their form to accomplish a regular, repeated function. Chemical engineers at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering have now designed a system of self-oscillating flexible materials that display a distinctive mode of dynamic self-organization. In addition to exhibiting the swarmalator behavior, the component materials mutually adapt their overall shapes as they interact in a fluid-filled chamber. These systems can pave the way for fabricating collaborative, self-regulating soft robotic systems. The group’s research was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2022987118). Principal investigator is Anna C. Balazs, Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering and the John A. Swanson Chair of Engineering. Lead author is Raj Kumar Manna and co-author is Oleg E. Shklyaev, both post-doctoral associates. “Self-oscillating materials convert a non-periodic signal into the material’s periodic motion,” Balazs explained. “Using our computer models, we first designed micron and millimeter sized flexible sheets in solution that respond to a non-periodic input of chemical reactants by spontaneously undergoing oscillatory changes in location, motion and shape. For example, an initially flat, single sheet morphs into a three-dimensional shape resembling an undulating fish tail, which simultaneously oscillates back and forth across the microchamber.”The self-oscillations of the flexible sheets are powered by catalytic reactions in a fluidic chamber. The reactions on the surfaces of the sheet and chamber initiate a complex feedback loop: chemical energy from the reaction is converted into fluid flow, which transports and deforms the flexible sheets. The structurally evolving sheets in turn affect the motion of the fluid, which continues to deform the sheets. “What is really intriguing is that when we introduce a second sheet, we uncover novel forms of self-organization between vibrating structures,” Manna adds. In particular, the two sheets form coupled oscillators that communicate through the fluid to coordinate not only their location and temporal pulsations, but also synchronize their mutual shape changes. This behavior is analogous to that of the tree frog swarmalators that coordinate their relative spatial location, and time of croaking, which also involves a periodic change in the frog’s shape (with an inflated or deflated throat). “Complex dynamic behavior is a critical feature of biological systems,” Shklyaev says. Stuff does not just come together and stop moving. Analogously, these sheets assemble in the proper time and space to form a larger, composite dynamic system. Moreover, this structure is self-regulating and can perform functions that a single sheet alone cannot carry out.”“For two or more sheets, the collective temporal oscillations and spatial behavior can be controlled by varying the size of the different sheets or the pattern of catalyst coating on the sheet,” says Balazs. These variations permit control over the relative phase of the oscillations, e.g., the oscillators can move in-phase or anti-phase.“These are very exciting results because the 2D sheets self-morph into 3D objects, which spontaneously translate a non-oscillating signal into “instructions” for forming a larger aggregate whose shape and periodic motion is regulated by each of its moving parts,” she notes. “Our research could eventually lead to forms of bio-inspired computation – just as coupled oscillators are used to transmit information in electronics – but with self-sustained, self-regulating behavior.” Autonomous coupled oscillations of two active sheets. Two fully coated sheets are initially placed in symmetric locations about the patch. (Raj Kumar Manna) ### This work was supported by Department of Energy Grant DE-FG02-90ER45438 and the computational facilities at the Center for Research Computing at the University of Pittsburgh. 1KP O'Keeffe, H Hong, SH Strogatz. Oscillators that sync and swarm. Nature Communications, 8, 2017, 1504. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-01190-3

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