Pitt | Swanson Engineering

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

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

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

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Oct
23
2018

Bridges of Opportunity

Chemical & Petroleum

For the past two years, faculty from the Swanson School’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering have been involved with the return of the AIChE Annual meeting to Pittsburgh. Although the conference was last in Pittsburgh only six years ago, Pittsburgh and the western Pennsylvania region have since experienced a sea change in energy research and industry. The vast Marcellus and Utica shale deposits, which were finally made accessible through hydrofracturing technology, have created the potential for another energy and manufacturing boom in a region built upon legacies of coal, iron, steel and nuclear power. The impact of this evolution was not lost on the AIChE Meeting Program Co-Chairs – Dr. Karl Johnson, the William Kepler Whiteford Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at Pitt; and Cliff Kowall, Senior Technical Fellow in the Process Development Department and the Corporate Engineer at The Lubrizol Corporation in Wickliffe, Ohio. Since the formation of a strategic research partnership between the Department and Lubrizol in 2014, Johnson and Kowall have developed a greater philosophical understanding of academic-industrial partnerships. In particular how they not only benefit the organizations as a whole but also the regional economy and region’s workforce development. Kowall’s more than four decades in industry informed his AIChE conference session, “What the Heck Happened? Past, Present & Future Disruptions to the Chemical/Fuels Business”. Similarly, “The Future of Energy in the Region, Nation, and World” session co-chaired by Dr. Johnson is inspired by the Pittsburgh region’s history and new future in energy research and development.“From the very beginning, AIChE challenged us to develop sessions with a regional appeal and with a voice to the changes in the chemical engineering workplace,” Kowall said. “Although I’m looking at it from an industry perspective and Karl from an academic perspective, Pittsburgh presents a distinctive picture of how disruption – both bad and good – creates socioeconomic change and how a region learns to not only adapt from it but to better prepare for future occurrences.”The co-chairs have a long history in the region: Dr. Johnson has been a professor at Pitt since 1995, joining the university not long after the collapse of Pittsburgh’s steel industry, and Kowall has been in the chemical industry for more than four decades. The two agree that industrial disruptions have shaped how academia, industry, and the workforce react to seismic shifts in the economy. Today the role of energy diversification is leading that change. “Having AIChE back in Pittsburgh is a great way to highlight the evolution of the energy industry and the Pittsburgh economy,” Dr. Johnson says. “We’re at a very exciting time not only as chemical engineers but also as a country where the energy landscape has been upended just in the last decade. The national labs are still vital for exploring how we can revolutionize the industry – indeed, Pitt and many of the universities in the tri-state region are close partners with the National Energy Technology Laboratory here.“The alliances built between researchers like myself and companies like Lubrizol are identifying new opportunities to exploit those energy technologies and potentially spin them off into new areas of applied research that we couldn’t do individually.”Pittsburgh has long been the poster child for the impact of industrial revolution and disruption. The city and the surrounding ten-county region once boasted one of the largest manufacturing industries in the world. However, an inability to predict disruption – more advanced and economical steel manufacturing developed overseas, as well as an over-reliance on one industry – cratered the regional economy in the 1980s. This also led to massive depopulation as workers left for opportunity elsewhere, while those just entering the workforce also had to relocate after graduating to find employment. But since then, the region’s public-private partnerships have helped to build a more robust and diverse economy supported by industries from higher education and healthcare to energy, advanced manufacturing and finance. Kowall explains that Pittsburgh learned from that previous disruptions how manage recovery and has now better prepared itself for the next disruption created by the tremendous growth of the shale energy and manufacturing industry. “In my session, my colleagues and I will talk about how these changes shaped our careers and really made us take a second, third, and even fourth look at how we need to adapt,” Kowall, who also teaches at the Swanson School, says. “There is always a lot of angst, but also a lot of opportunity if you pay attention, do your homework and try to anticipate what the next disruption might be and how you can take advantage of it. I think we, as chemical engineers, have greater flexibility than most to make this adjustment.”Dr. Johnson adds that these disruptions have also shaped the nature of higher education in the classroom, the lab and the field. “The history of our department truly shows the impact of energy on our curriculum and our research,” Dr. Johnson says. “Ours was the first petroleum engineering program in the world in 1910. Later, we branched into polymers, materials and molecular science to the point where petroleum was almost a footnote. But today, my colleagues and I have a stronger and broader focus on energy, from carbon sequestration and catalysis to improved hydrofracturing and storage technologies.” “The growth of the shale industry in this region just in the last couple years is indicative of that. Currently the downstream opportunities are located along the Gulf, where that industry was born, so we’re shipping the resources we harvest here for use in manufacturing elsewhere,” Dr. Johnson notes. “But Shell is now building just north of the city what will be the largest ethane cracker in the U.S., if not the world. This means that we as chemical engineers will have the opportunity to exploit those resources locally, giving our students greater opportunity for careers in industry or as entrepreneurs.” Dr. Johnson and Kowall say that the experiences and opportunities discussed at both of their AIChE sessions are relevant for tomorrow’s chemical engineering student but even more so for today’s seasoned professional. “I have always had a deep belief in continuing education,” Kowall says. “Really, none of these disruptions should be surprises, so it’s important for us to teach the next generation how to identify the impact and how to prepare. These disruption events are the ultimate opportunity for growth.”“This is an exciting time to be a chemical engineer,” Dr. Johnson adds, “and I hope our colleagues from around the world can learn in Pittsburgh not only what the future brings, but how we can help our students and Institute members to learn to benefit from it.”

Oct
23
2018

Memo to Moms

Chemical & Petroleum

With a philosophical focus on research and recognition, international academic conferences often overlook the needs of participants attending with family, especially those who may have an infant to nurse. At the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) conference in Pittsburgh this October, University of Pittsburgh Assistant Professor Susan Fullerton is drawing upon her experience as a mother at past conferences to make this gathering more accommodating for nursing mothers and families.Often struggling to find proper nursing stations at conferences when she was a new mom, Dr. Fullerton plans to increase the visibility and quality of such stations at the up-coming conference: “I’m a mother of two, and I’ve attended many conferences while nursing. It’s important to me as General Arrangements Chair to have this accommodation ready and welcoming to new mothers.” Though often not available or haphazardly put together, proper nursing stations are easy to implement. They consist simply of a sizeable yet private room that contains only a few items: a refrigerator, water, and breast milk storage bags. Dr. Fullerton explains the dilemma facing new mothers who do not have access to appropriate nursing accommodations: “If there is no resource at the venue that is comfortable and reasonably private and has what you need, then you return to your hotel room which could be far away. Then you miss a big portion of the technical conference. It’s a penalty to a lactating mother when it’s actually really straight forward for organizers to provide the resources to allow nursing moms to both attend to their newborns and participate in the conference.” In addition to providing a proper space, Dr. Fullerton stresses the importance of advertising the availability of a lactation room. “One of my biggest issues when I’ve gone to conferences that do provide nursing stations is an inconvenient location that is difficult to find, and when you do find it there’s a line because it’s the only facility available.” Dr. Fullerton plans to make all attendees aware of these rooms and their accessibility well before the conference begins to encourage new mothers, who may otherwise be deterred, to attend. “We are fortunate to have a fantastic Mother’s room in a central location at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center – the second floor just outside of Hall B. Graciously, the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh will sponsor the supplies in the room.”  However, even with a proper, well-advertised room, Dr. Fullerton stresses that the nursing attendees still miss a significant amount of technical content while they are pumping. On average, a nursing mother must pump every two to three hours for about 20 to 30 minutes per session. This averages out to nursing attendees missing about one hour of the conference per day, or a total of five hours per conference. To keep nursing mothers engaged in the conference, Dr. Fullerton would eventually like to provide them with a way to Skype into talks. She points out that this concept is not novel as she equates it to “cry-rooms” in church, which have been around for decades. Dr. Fullerton also hopes to make the conference more accommodating to participants attending with families. Since the conference takes place the week of Halloween, Dr. Fullerton plans to arrange trick-or-treating for those families that want to take part. In the future, Dr. Fullerton would also like to facilitate onsite childcare. Though it cannot be arranged for the upcoming meeting, Dr. Fullerton understands the struggle to find childcare during a conference: “It’s much easier to choose not to attend and skip the conference for a year or two than it is to identify legitimate, safe, local daycare in a town you’re unfamiliar with.” Though these childcare accommodations are often provided at conferences, they have never been implemented before at AIChE. When asked why Fullerton said: “I think it’s a pipeline issue. People like myself (new mothers) just haven’t risen in the ranks to make change…yet.”Fellow faculty member and AIChE board member Karl Johnson commented, “I think it’s just great what she is doing. I was the general arrangements chair a few years ago, and I never even thought of making the changes she is making.” Dr. Fullerton responded, “That makes sense – if you haven’t had this need you might never think of it! I can say that with absolute certainty because prior to having children I would have never thought of this.” A scientist at heart, she explained her lack of data on the matter: “I’ve now been a mother for five years, so prior to that I wasn’t paying attention to these issues. Even now, I really only have five years of data - or rather maternal experience.”  While women remain underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce and STEM careers are still not widely perceived as family-compatible, Dr. Fullerton is making strides to change these statistics and perceptions through the changes she will make at the upcoming AIChE conference. “We’re in a transition period. Accommodations for nursing mothers was unheard of not very long ago. Now it’s not plentiful, but it’s emerging. I think AIChE can really make a splash by making improvements in this area.”
Author: Kelsey Sadlek MSChE ‘18
Oct
18
2018

You've Probably Never Heard of MOFs, but...

Chemical & Petroleum

Eighty years ago, few people in the world had heard of plastics. But in 1939, after its debut at the New York World’s Fair, one type of plastic—nylon—became a household word in less than a year. While nylon took the stockings market by storm, the transition to plastics becoming ubiquitous in clothing and beyond—in kitchenware, electronics, building materials, medicine and more—would take decades. We now know that plastics literally became the material that defined the 20th century. Looking ahead, metal organic frameworks (MOFs) are poised to be the defining material of the 21st century. While this group of 3-D nanocrystalline structures is still in its early days, its commercial adoption is rapidly accelerating. You have probably never heard of MOFs, but 50 years from now, we believe, they will be an ever-present part of human life just as plastics are today. Read the full article at Scientific American. The molecular structure of IRMOF-1, one of the most studied MOFs (Image: Kutay Sezginel)
Christopher Wilmer, Benjamin Hernandez and Omar K. Farha
Oct
3
2018

Stepping toward a Smaller Carbon Footprint

Chemical & Petroleum

PITTSBURGH (October 3, 2018) … Burning fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas releases carbon into the atmosphere as CO2 while the production of methanol and other valuable fuels and chemicals requires a supply of carbon. There is currently no economically or energy efficient way to collect CO2 from the atmosphere and use it to produce carbon-based chemicals, but researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering have just taken an important step in that direction.The team worked with a class of nanomaterials called metal-organic frameworks or “MOFs,” which can be used to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and combine it with hydrogen atoms to convert it into valuable chemicals and fuels. Karl Johnson, the William Kepler Whiteford Professor in the Swanson School’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, led the research group as principal investigator. “Our ultimate goal is to find a low-energy, low-cost MOF capable of separating carbon dioxide from a mixture of gases and prepare it to react with hydrogen,” says Dr. Johnson. “We found a MOF that could bend the CO2 molecules slightly, taking them to a state in which they react with hydrogen more easily.”The Johnson Research Group published their findings in the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) journal Catalysis Science & Technology (DOI: 10.1039/c8cy01018h). The journal featured their work on its cover, illustrating the process of carbon dioxide and hydrogen molecules entering the MOF and exiting as CH2O2 or formic acid—a chemical precursor to methanol. For this process to occur, the molecules must overcome a demanding energy threshold called the hydrogenation barrier.Dr. Johnson explains, “The hydrogenation barrier is the energy needed to add two H atoms to CO2, which transforms the molecules into formic acid. In other words, it is the energy needed to get the H atoms and the CO2 molecules together so that they can form the new compound. In our previous work we have been able to activate H2 by splitting two H atoms, but we have not been able to activate CO2 until now.”The key to reducing the hydrogenation barrier was to identify a MOF capable of pre-activating carbon dioxide. Pre-activation is basically preparing the molecules for the chemical reaction by putting it into the right geometry, the right position, or the right electronic state. The MOF they modeled in their work achieves pre-activation of CO2 by putting it into a slightly bent geometry that is able to accept the incoming hydrogen atoms with a lower barrier. Another key feature of this new MOF is that it selectively reacts with hydrogen molecules over carbon dioxide, so that the active sites are not blocked by CO2. “We designed a MOF that has limited space around its binding sites so that there is not quite enough room to bind CO2, but there is still plenty of room to bind H2, because it is so much smaller. Our design ensures that the CO2 does not bind to the MOF but instead is free to react with the H molecules already inside the framework,” says Dr. Johnson. Dr. Johnson believes perfecting a single material that can both capture and convert CO2 would be economically viable and would reduce the net amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. “You could capture CO2 from flue gas at power plants or directly from the atmosphere,” he says. “This research narrows our search for a very rare material with the ability to turn a hypothetical technology into a real benefit to the world.”The Pitt Center for Research Computing contributed computing resources. ### About the Johnson Research GroupThe Johnson Research Group at the University of Pittsburgh uses atomistic modeling to tackle fundamental problems over a wide range of subject areas in chemical engineering, including the molecular design of nanoporous sorbents for the capture of carbon dioxide, the development of catalysts for conversion of carbon dioxide into fuels, the transport of gases and liquids through carbon nanotube membranes, the study of chemical reaction mechanisms, the development of CO2-soluble polymers and CO2 thickeners, and the study of hydrogen storage with complex hydrides.  About Dr. JohnsonKarl Johnson is an Associate Director of the Center for Research Computing and a member of the Pittsburgh Quantum Institute. He received his B.S. and M.S. in chemical engineering from Brigham Young University, and PhD in chemical engineering with a minor in computer science from Cornell University.
Matt Cichowicz, Communications Writer
Oct
2
2018

Vouching for Vonnegut

Chemical & Petroleum

PITTSBURGH (October 2, 2018) … In Kurt Vonnegut’s sci-fi classic Cat’s Cradle, ice-nine is a substance capable of raising water’s melting point from 32 to 114.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Once in contact with water, it spreads instantly and indefinitely, leaving frozen oceans and chilling consequences in its wake. Luckily, as Vonnegut explains in the epigraph, ‘Nothing in this book is true.’ When he wrote the novel in 1963, he may have been right.Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have discovered the fantastic behavior of a liquid polymer capable of freezing water at room temperature. Beyond giving credence to Vonnegut’s prophetic imagination, the resulting mixture seemingly defies the second law of thermodynamics, which states that within an isolated system, entropy always increases.“When you mix two pure components together, the entropy (or the degree of disorder), always increases,” explains John Keith, assistant professor of chemical engineering and Richard King Mellon Faculty Fellow in Energy at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering. “That disorder almost always causes mixtures to have a lower freezing point than either of the components individually, not higher.”The mixture of salt and water, for example, freezes at lower temperatures than either salt or water individually. This quality makes salt well-suited for melting ice on roads and sidewalks in the winter. However, when a particular polymer—known as polyoxacyclobutane (POCB)— is mixed with water, it raises the mixture’s freezing point from 32 degrees Fahrenheit to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The researchers published their findings in the American Chemical Society (ACS) journal Macromolecules (DOI: 10.1021/acs.macromol.8b00239).The reaction is not altogether unprecedented. Mixing certain metals in specific proportions can create alloys that have higher melting points than the individual metals. Because alloys are comprised of at least two differently sized atoms, favorable combinations of atoms can weave together to make strong chemical bonds that counteract the second law of thermodynamics.“This behavior, in which the mixture melts higher than its components, is well-known in metals. But it is very unusual, among non-metals,” says Sachin Velankar, associate professor of chemical engineering at Pitt and expert in polymer science. “To the best of my knowledge, POCB seems to be the only substance to display this behavior with water.”POCB originally came to the university from chemical manufacturer DuPont as part of a research collaboration between the company and Professor Robert Enick, vice chair of research for the chemical engineering department. A graduate student working in Dr. Enick’s lab noticed the liquid polymer got cloudy when mixed with drops of water, but more curiously, the resulting combination—or “hydrate”—was a soft paste (similar to peanut butter) when a precise amount of water was added. Even more oddly, experiments on the material showed that well-ordered crystallites were forming between two liquids. Image of the polymer-water mixture turned upside-down to show its solid state. Credit: Swanson School of Engineering/Sachin Velankar Dr. Keith and colleagues used computer modeling to find a stable hydrate structure where water molecules thread themselves throughout the polymer to form hydrogen bonds that hold the material together like tiny zippers. “It takes less than an hour for the mixture to self-assemble at room temperature, and the final texture is like lip balm,” Dr. Keith says. The Pitt researchers scoured scholarly journals to find scientific references to hydrates of POCB, which was produced by DuPont in the late 2000s with the name “Cerenol” because it’s made from corn (a “cereal” grain). At first their search came up short, but a conversation with Eric Beckman , Distinguished Service Professor of chemical engineering and co-director of Pitt’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation , tipped them off to other names the polymer might have been called in the past. Shortly after, the Pitt researchers found that the hydrate structure had already been discovered by a team of Japanese researchers in the late 1960s. “The polymer goes by four or five names, and some are non-intuitive,” says Dr. Velankar. “After we found the previous studies, we realized that we had discovered an exciting facet of an old finding.” The Japanese team, using similar X-ray techniques as those interpreted by Watson and Crick to identify the double helix in DNA, had found similar hydrate structures by melting high molecular weight forms of the polymer that were solid at room temperature. That study , which also appeared in ACS Macromolecules in 1970, has gone relatively unnoticed in the five decades since its publication. The innovation from the Pitt researchers is that similar hydrates can form spontaneously with lower molecular weight forms of the polymer that are liquid at room temperature, thus eliminating the need for melting before mixing with water. “The polymer can also gently suck out humidity from the air naturally,” says Dr. Velankar. “We felt this behavior was a curiosity, but a very interesting one. Our research has been mostly a fundamental exploration of a very unusual phenomenon, but there are many potential applications to consider.” The Pitt Engineering researchers have already collaborated with Alexander Star in Pitt’s Department of Chemistry to coat a nanotube electrode with the polymer to turn it into a computer memory device. The ACS journal Chemistry of Materials published the results of the study ( DOI: 10.1021/acs.chemmater.8b00964). One of the potential applications will certainly not be a doomsday device like Vonnegut’s ice-nine because POCB cannot spread instantly or indefinitely throughout water sources. Instead of triggering the apocalypse, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh think discovering this polymer’s freezing behavior could herald new innovations. “Now that we know an example of a polymer-water mixture with these qualities, we can now search for other mixtures that might have other interesting properties,” says Dr. Keith. “I’m very optimistic that this is an exciting new class of crystalline materials that spontaneously form from mixtures of liquids.” ###
Matt Cichowicz, Communications Writer

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