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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ChemE Undergraduates Take Their Research to Italy

Chemical & Petroleum, Student Profiles

PITTSBURGH (July 31, 2018) … University of Pittsburgh undergraduates Erin Hunter and Nicholas Waters traveled to Lucca, Italy this summer to present at the 2018 Gordon Research Seminar (GRS) on Biointerface Science. Both students presented work from their past year of research with Tagbo Niepa, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering. Niepa, who was co-chair of the GRS on Biointerface Science, knew it was uncommon for undergraduates to attend this meeting but thought that Hunter and Waters might benefit from the experience. “Erin and Nick are impressive undergraduates with a strong academic record and scientific curiosity,” said Niepa. “They were the first students to join my new lab at Pitt and demonstrated a strong dedication, high level of maturity, and responsibility for the tasks I assigned them. It was my personal goal to provide them with this prestigious and eye-opening experience; and I was extremely delighted that GRC made a special exception allowing these emerging researchers to present their work alongside experts in the field of Biointerface Science.” Waters, a junior chemical engineering student, was granted a travel award by Pitt’s University Honors College to support his participation in the conference. His research focuses on understanding how bacteria interact with fluid interfaces. “We work with Alcanivorax borkumensis, an oil-degrading bacteria that is capable of emulsifying the oil and water phases by interacting with the oil-water interface,” said Waters. “This work is significant because the findings could help us better understand how to use bacteria for bioremediation of crude oil spills and/or microbial enhanced oil recovery from the ground.” After Niepa joined in the Swanson School in 2017, Waters was quick to contact him for research opportunities. He said, “I got involved in this work simply by reaching out to Dr. Niepa when he was first hired. I started working with him last fall semester and spent a lot of time helping set up his lab and learning the full capabilities of his instruments.” One year later, Waters has now collected enough data that will likely lead to a publication in the near future. Regarding the conference, he said, “I greatly enjoyed being able to meet and discuss my work in a professional setting and receive high-level feedback from others working in similar fields.” Hunter, a junior chemical engineering student, also spent her sophomore year in Niepa’s lab. Her research focuses on examining microbial dynamics in artificial confinements, referred to as microbial nanocultures. “Because of the amount of competition among species in a sample, traditional methods of culturing -such as using a flask- can be ineffective,” explains Hunter. “For example, a sample from the mouth contains an abundance of species, and in order to see growth from all species present, we must use a nanoculture.” “We can isolate and examine the individual bacterial species when we take a few milligram sample that we swabbed and encapsulate into smaller 5-7 nanoliter capsules,” said Hunter. “The goal of my research is to show that by using this process, it is now possible to study and collect data on these previously ‘unculturable species.’” Hunter believes that the Gordon Research Seminar was a valuable experience that helped guide her academic and research career. “It is helpful to learn about other people’s studies because it can inspire new ideas for your own research,” she said. “With Nick and I being the only undergraduate students there, it was nice to talk to current PhD students about their paths to graduate school.” In the fall of 2018, Waters will return to Niepa’s lab to continue his research, and Hunter will start a yearlong internship with McNeil Consumer Healthcare. “Whenever someone recalls the first undergraduate participation at the international GRS on Biointerface Science, they will remember these two Pitt ChemE undergrads. Their outstanding presentations initiated high-level conversations and promoted our work in the space of microbial interactions with solid or fluid interfaces.” said Niepa. “Erin and Nick are a testament to Pitt’s commitment to preparing its students for global scientific leadership” ###


A Foundation for Future Founders: The Swanson School Empowers a New Generation of Entrepreneurs

All SSoE News, Chemical & Petroleum, Electrical & Computer, MEMS, Student Profiles

.pullquote-feature { width: 50%; border-top: 1px solid #151414; border-bottom: 1px solid #151414; margin-left: auto; margin-right: auto; display: block; } With a 95–97 percent job placement rate for graduates over the past three years1, the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering provides a well-manicured path for those traveling from Benedum Hall to the halls of Fortune 500 companies. At an increasing rate, students who embrace risk and uncertainty for the sake of innovation are also finding the tools they need at the Swanson School to carve their own paths to success. Aspiring entrepreneurs can attend networking opportunities, compete for seed money, and receive one-on-one mentoring from experienced entrepreneurs and educators right on campus. There were 23 startups originating from the University of Pittsburgh in the 2017-18 fiscal year, a 53 percent increase from the previous year. In the spring of 2017, two of those companies—one with a tomato-picking robot and the other with nanoparticle-filled oxygen tanks—took their first steps off the Pitt campus and into the startup world. “Engineering students are adept at solving real-world problems. That is why so many of the students we have participating in our entrepreneurship programs and competitions come from the Swanson School. They want to see their ideas translated into new products and services that advance the state of the art and improve people’s lives,” said Babs Carryer, Director of the Big Idea Center for student entrepreneurship at the Pitt Innovation Institute. “We know we’re undertaking a good amount of risk, but knowing that there is a whole industry that needs the product we are building helps mitigate that. At the end of the day, there always is risk, but for me, to not do this would lead to regrets. We are all about solving the problem.” --Brandon Contino, CEO at Four Growers, Pitt ECE ‘17 Four Growers team: Brandon Contino (left) and Dan Chi (right). Instead of taking a traditional route upon graduation, two recent University of Pittsburgh graduates have taken a risk on a project cooked up during their undergraduate studies in the Swanson School of Engineering. Brandon Contino (ECE ‘17) and Dan Chi (MEMS ‘18) have spent the past year tirelessly promoting their startup, Four Growers, in a series of competitions, and their most recent success will take them to Silicon Valley where they will be among the leading minds of innovation and technology. Brandon and Dan met while working in the lab of David Sanchez, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Pitt. The two collaborated on different projects involving hydroponics, a method of growing plants in a water-based, nutrient rich solution. Growing increasingly interested in this method of farming, the pair visited a hydroponic tomato greenhouse in Chicago where they learned of a pressing problem facing the industry. Brandon explained, “More than 50% of the tomatoes consumed in the US are grown in greenhouse farms, but the industry is facing an issue with labor. After talking to the farmers, we discovered that there are shortages in the availability and reliability of the labor force, and we wanted to find a solution through robotics and automation.” This spurred the creation of Four Growers. Brandon and Dan planned to develop a product that provides reliable harvesting year-round for greenhouse farms. Creating a startup is a high risk, high reward endeavor, but Brandon and Dan had faith in their idea. “After speaking with other greenhouses about the industry, we learned that labor was a common problem, and when you have a strong need, clearly defined from your future customer, it really helps to lower the risk,” said Brandon. Confident in their mission, the Four Growers team developed a robotic tomato harvesting device for commercial greenhouses that can efficiently find and pick ripe tomatoes off the vine. The robot’s decision making is controlled by an algorithm that uses cameras and a neural network trained to find the proper fruit. A robotic arm and custom gripper enable the robot to harvest the tomatoes without damaging them. Additionally, their device provides analytics to the growers to help improve profitability. Creating the product is only one step towards entrepreneurial success; getting your product to market requires a bit of business acumen. Brandon and Dan believe they have benefitted from their past experiences at Pitt. During Brandon’s undergraduate years, he served as president of multiple organizations including Pitt Engineering Student Council, the Robotics and Automation Society, and the Panther Amateur Radio Club. Dan created the Hydroponics Club in Dr. Sanchez’s lab, was a member of Engineers for a Sustainable World, and acted as fundraising director of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers. These experiences have introduced them to aspects of leadership and management applicable to their new executive roles. The Four Growers team has also taken advantage of various entrepreneurial programs and resources like Pitt’s Innovation Institute and Carnegie Mellon University’s Project Olympus, which have both provided valuable mentorship and contacts. Brandon said, “The connections we’ve made along the way have played a large role in our success. We’ve been able to discuss business aspects of the company with our mentors and advisors, and their expertise and guidance have refined our ability to operate both the technical and business sides of Four Growers.” Hydroponic tomato greenhouse. Photo credit: Shutterstock. The journey, however, has not been entirely smooth sailing. “Creating and running a business has a steep learning curve, and Dan and I have been drinking from the fire hose for a while now,” said Brandon. “One of our biggest hurdles has been financing. While Dan finished his degree, we decided to bootstrap and as a hardware company, it takes money to iterate on a product. Initially, we just didn’t have much funding so we had to spend a lot of time searching for lower cost options or workarounds, which slowed some of our technical development.” To overcome this setback, Brandon and Dan have spent the past year trying to raise funds through a series of competitions. Their first success was with Pitt’s Randall Family Big Idea Competition where they won first place and $25,000 to help launch their idea. Then they took second place and $10,000 against some of the most innovative students from the 15 Atlantic Coast Conference schools at the ACC InVenture Prize competition. Their last event took them to Texas where they became one of the first two Pitt teams to compete in the prestigious Rice Business Plan Competition and made it to the semi-finals. With funds starting to accumulate and Dan’s graduation imminent, they looked for the next step towards success and applied to Y Combinator, a highly competitive startup accelerator in Mountain View, California whose alumni include Airbnb, Dropbox and reddit. Four Growers was accepted as one of 90 teams and will receive $120,000 in exchange for 7 percent equity position in their company. Brandon and Dan will travel back and forth between greenhouse farms, Pittsburgh, and Silicon Valley for three months during the summer and receive intensive training to refine their business and prepare pitches to investors. Four Growers has successfully completed autonomous tomato harvesting inside greenhouses with their device and plan to have a beta prototype in operation by December 2018. Brandon and Dan’s entrepreneurial spirit and passion for sustainable farming helped lead them down this career path. The team looks forward to the challenges ahead and hopes to reap the harvest of a successful business. Brandon said, “We know we’re undertaking a good amount of risk, but knowing that there is a whole industry that needs the product we are building really helps mitigate that. At the end of the day though there always is risk, but for me, to not do this would lead to regrets. We are all about solving the problem.” “I don’t think this could have happened at another university without these kind of resources. Once I dug into something and realized someone at my age could actually do this and find the support—all the support that’s out there—it really propelled the business into reality, and it became the thing I knew I wanted to do.” --Blake Dubé, CEO and Co-Founder at Aeronics Inc., Pitt ChemE ‘17 Aeronics team: Alec Kaija (left), Blake Dubé (middle), Mark Spitz (right). With his sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh nearing an end, the last thing Blake Dubé (ChemE ’17) was looking to do was start a business. “I didn’t just breeze through the first two years of college,” he recalls. “It took a lot of work focusing on my classes and learning about chemical engineering. It wasn’t like I decided to start a business because I was looking for a bigger challenge.” Nearly three years later, Blake has won about a dozen startup competitions, he has a product scheduled to go to market this year, and he works full-time as CEO of the company he co-founded, Aeronics, Inc. Back in the spring of 2015, the only thing Blake was looking for was a lab to do summer research. After a visit to the ninth floor of Benedum Hall, Blake started research in the lab of Chris Wilmer, assistant professor of chemical engineering and himself an entrepreneur. Dr. Wilmer and his team were researching ways to use nanomaterials to improve gas storage, transportation, and safety in the many industries kept aloft by gas. Blake spent his time in the lab running computer simulations to find the best nanomaterial configurations for maximizing gas storage without the high levels of heat and pressure caused by putting too much gas into too small a container. “I realized gas storage was such a broad field and started wondering where I could make a difference in the three months I would be working in the lab,” says Blake. “Most of the focus seemed to be on energy sources like methane and hydrogen, and there wasn’t as much work being done with oxygen. I started to think about how better oxygen storage could make an impact.” The following semester, Blake enrolled in ChE 314: Taking Products to Market taught by Eric Beckman, Distinguished Service Professor of Chemical Engineering and co-director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation at Pitt. Dr. Beckman, who had co-founded his own business for commercializing technology, guided students through the process of turning ideas into marketable products. When Blake showed an interest in applying his lab research to the class, Dr. Wilmer suggested he enter the Randall Family Big Idea Competition, a university-wide innovation challenge. Everyday Oxygen prototype. The Randall Family competition takes place from February to March each year and awards $100,000 in prizes to Pitt students working on interdisciplinary teams to bring product ideas to market. Blake recruited teammates Alec Kaija, a PhD candidate in Dr. Wilmer’s lab, and Mark Spitz, a kinesiology and exercise science student and long-time friend of Blake from their hometown of York, Pa. Dr. Wilmer served as the team’s faculty advisor. “We started the Randall Family competition with the idea of fitting oxygen and the materials from Dr. Wilmer’s lab in a soda can. By the end of it, we actually had plans for a viable product, and since we won the grand prize, we had money to get started,” says Blake. The team won first place and the grand prize of $25,000 to get their company up and running. Blake, Mark, and Alec became co-founders of the startup Aeronics and went on to win several more competitions. By the spring of 2017, Aeronics had claimed more than $120,000 in prize money. While Blake and Mark were getting fitted for their graduation robes, they were measuring up the odds of successfully running their own business. “BASF, the largest chemical producer in the world, offered me a full-time job before I graduated. It would have been a great way to start my career. Around the same time, Aeronics was incorporated,” he says. “When you’re an entrepreneur at the university, before you graduate is different than after you graduate. Now you better make it work. The pressure is on.” Fortunately, Aeronics handles pressure well. Their prototype could store about three times as much oxygen as a standard portable oxygen tank at the same pressure. Still considering a more traditional career path, Blake consulted with Steve Little, the chair of the chemical engineering department, for advice. Dr. Little had been helping Aeronics navigate some of the issues with starting a private company at a university. “I remember asking Dr. Little for advice because he had experience starting his own business. He helped us a lot throughout the beginning stages, but he said to me, ‘I can give you all the advice you want, but sooner or later you’re just going to have to do it to find out if it will work,’” says Blake. One year later, Aeronics has completed two startup accelerator cohorts, found its own lab space to operate, and developed a product called Everyday Oxygen, which stores three times the oxygen as competitors’ cans. Everyday Oxygen is available for pre-order on their website and will be ready to ship in the fall. Looking back, Blake says he liked most of his experiences with research, internships, and studying chemical engineering at Pitt in general. He didn’t dream of becoming an entrepreneur as a kid, but now that he’s running his own business, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else. “I don’t think this could have happened at another university without these kind of resources. Once I dug into something and realized someone at my age could actually do this and find the support—all the support that’s out there—it really propelled the business into reality, and it became the thing I knew I wanted to do,” he says. ### 195 to 97 percent job placement rate over the past three years, http://www.engineering.pitt.edu/Friends-Giving-Administration/Office-of-the-Dean/Quick-Facts/
Leah Russell (Four Growers feature) and Matt Cichowicz (Aeronics feature)

ChemE’s Giannis Mpourmpakis named “Emerging Investigator” by ACS Journal of Chemical & Engineering Data

Chemical & Petroleum

PITTSBURGH (July 12, 2018) … The American Chemical Society (ACS) Journal of Chemical & Engineering Data named Giannis Mpourmpakis, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, an “Emerging Investigator” in a special issue of the publication. The issue highlights work from researchers at the forefront of their discipline. Mpourmpakis leads the Computer-Aided Nano and Energy Lab (CANELA) where his group researches the physicochemical properties of nanomaterials with potential applications in diverse nanotechnological areas ranging from energy generation and storage to materials design and catalysis. Mpourmpakis contributed his paper “Understanding the Gas Phase Chemistry of Alkanes with First-Principles Calculations” (DOI: 10.1021/acs.jced.7b00992) to the ACS special issue. “Alkanes are molecules commonly found in petroleum and shale gas,” explained Mpourmpakis. “Their conversion to higher-value chemicals involves high temperature conditions that often result in the production of gas-phase radical species, which are very reactive and difficult to track in experiments.” “This work utilizes very accurate computational chemistry calculations to explain the reaction preference of alkyl radicals under experimental conditions,” continues Mpourmpakis. “The generated reaction data can be used to optimize processes for the conversion of alkanes to olefins, which are important building blocks for the production of plastics.” With the cost of olefins growing due to the high demand for its associated chemicals and plastics and the low abundance of its common resource, Mpourmpakis  believes the findings may provide valuable insights towards more efficient production. This research was supported by the Doctoral New Investigator award given to Mpourmpakis by the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Funds. (Read the SSoE press release about this award) “I am very honored to be named an Emerging Investigator and have our work highlighted in this special issue of the journal,” said Mpourmpakis. “This accomplishment belongs to the very talented students that I am fortunate to work with in our lab.” Another achievement from this journal article is the work done by Jonathan Estes, a chemical engineering junior who was first author on the publication. Mudit Dixit, a postdoctoral researcher in Mpourmpakis’ lab, co-authored the article. “Jonathan did a phenomenal job in calculating thermochemical and kinetic data for a wide range of hydrocarbon species and their associated reactions,” said Mpourmpakis. “These involved hundreds of computationally demanding calculations that were performed on supercomputing facilities at Pitt’s Center for Research Computing. This is a great accomplishment for an undergraduate researcher.” Click here to view the Emerging Investigators Special Issue. ###


Chemical Science Features Stunning Artwork from John Keith’s Lab

Chemical & Petroleum, Student Profiles

PITTSBURGH (July 3, 2018) … The back cover of Royal Society of Chemistry journal Chemical Science featured an artistic depiction of research from the laboratory of John Keith, assistant professor of chemical engineering and R.K. Mellon Faculty Fellow in Energy at the University of Pittsburgh, into a simple and effective way of modeling chemical reactions in solutions. Yasemin Basdogan, a PhD student in Dr. Keith’s lab, designed the back cover image, which shows several molecules reacting in a cross-shaped container slowly filling with a liquid. She says, “The red cross in the cover art symbolizes the medical red cross that you see on ambulances. Our model is like a paramedic team that comes with an ambulance: it’s a quick fix that can be really effective.” Their study titled “A paramedic treatment for modeling explicitly solvated chemical reaction mechanisms” (DOI: 10.1039/C8SC01424H) analyzed a very complex chemical system called the Morita-Baylis Hillman reaction. Previous modeling studies have traditionally struggled to explain subtle details of this reaction (DOIs: 10.1021/ja5111392, 10.1039/C7CP06508F), but Basdogan and Dr. Keith brought improvements to the modeling that allows better understanding of these types of chemical reactions that will impact areas of chemical engineering and chemistry. “I’m particularly interested in how characterizing chemical reactions can help improve our understanding of the human body,” Basdogan explains. “By understanding catalysts working in solution we get closer to understanding how enzymes catalyze chemical reactions in your body. We need to first understand fundamental reactions before we can understand the even more complex systems.” Basdogan developed the image for the back cover using tools and skills she learned in a course at the Swanson School of Engineering taught by Assistant Professor Chris Wilmer called ChE 3460 Advanced Scientific Visual Communication. The course teaches how to use modeling and animation tools such as GIMP, Inkscape, and Blender and the Python programming language to create professional quality artwork based on students’ research. “This cover art was my final project for the Advanced Scientific Visual Communication class,” says Basdogan. “Dr. Wilmer helped me throughout every step of the art project.” Chemistry World, a monthly chemistry news magazine published by the Royal Society of Chemistry, featured Basdogan and Dr. Keith’s work with a feature story titled “Errors in continuum solvent models unraveled at last.” The author Hannah Kerr writes: "[Basdogan and Keith] showed that continuum solvent models do not describe local solvation effects very well. This can lead to mechanistic steps like proton shuttling and charge transfer being modelled poorly. As an alternative, [the researchers] developed a strategy that can be carried out by anyone with a general grasp of quantum chemistry.” In the article, Dr. Keith also highlighted Basdogan’s efforts to complete the study: “‘What I first thought would be 6–12 months of work ended up being far more challenging. Fortunately, I had a very talented 1st year PhD student, Yasemin Basdogan, who stayed focused and never quit on the project – or me!,’ says Keith." "Basdogan adds, “This manuscript is my sixth publication, but it has a special place in my heart because it is the first work that I completed mostly myself in the Keith Group, and I learned a lot of things along the way.” Basdogan is now in her third year as a PhD student. She said she would like to stay in academia after completing her PhD to become a professor. The Pitt Center for Research Computing contributed computing resources. ###
Matt Cichowicz, Communications Writer

ChemE Graduate Student Alexandra May Receives Willem Kolff Award at ASAIO Annual Meeting

Bioengineering, Chemical & Petroleum, Student Profiles

PITTSBURGH (June 19, 2018) …The American Society for Artificial Internal Organs (ASAIO) selected Alexandra May, a chemical engineering graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, as a finalist for the Willem Kolff Award at its 64th annual meeting. The award, named after the late Dutch physician who invented the original artificial kidney, recognizes the top abstracts at each annual meeting. May is a graduate student in the Swanson School of Engineering’s Cardiovascular Bioengineering Training Program and works in the Medical Devices Laboratory under the direction of William Federspiel, a William Kepler Whiteford Professor of Bioengineering at Pitt. The lab develops clinically significant devices for the treatment of pulmonary and cardiovascular ailments by utilizing engineering principles of fluid flow and mass transfer. May’s research focuses on the development of the Pittsburgh Pediatric Ambulatory Lung (P-PAL), an artificial lung device developed to bridge pediatric acute or chronic lung failure patients to transplant. The P-PAL integrates the blood pump and gas exchanging hollow fiber membrane bundle into a single compact unit and provides 70 percent to 90 percent of the patient’s oxygenation needs. The compact design of the P-PAL provides children with increased mobility pre-transplant, a factor which has been shown to improve post-transplant outcomes. The ASAIO Annual Meeting was held June 13-16, 2018 in Washington, D.C. May’s abstract titled Acute in vivo Performance of a Pediatric Ambulatory Artificial Lung was awarded second place out of approximately 300 accepted abstracts, and she presented her work during the conference’s opening general session. “Alex deserves this recognition,” said Federspiel. “She is an extremely hard worker and devoutly dedicated to our mission of improving the lives of kids with respiratory failure.” ###

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