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Chemical Engineering Research Activities

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Microbial Metabolic Engineering

Cellular activities are improved through the manipulation of enzymatic, transport, and regulatory functions of the cell with the use of recombinant DNA technology. Professor Cirino’s research focuses on the conversion of sugars to higher value chemicals and fuels through metabolic engineering in microorganisms. The metabolism of E. coli is being engineered to produce biocatalytic strains which maximize yields on reducing equivalents derived from the sugar metabolism to drive biocatalysis.

Biofuels from Algae and Cellulose

Dr. Curtis’s laboratory is developing bioreactor systems to grow algae to capture carbon dioxide from power plants to produce hydrocarbons and genetically engineer these pathways into other organisms. This project also involves the production of biodiesel fuel from the oils that the algae produce to float on the surface for light capture. Another area of research involves fermentation process design. With the incorporation of a patented plastic-lined fermentor, a low-cost fermentation system is used for the degradation of cellulosic biomass to produce ethanol.

Electrochemical Energy Storage and Conversion

Reaction mechanisms and compositional changes in catalysts can be determined with computational tools based on quantum-mechanics. These methods are the basis of Dr. Janik’s group for the studies of electrocatalysts used in the development of fuel cells. The electrocatalyst/fuel cell systems under investigation include:

  • Oxygen reduction cathodes for proton exchange membrane fuel cells
  • Borohydride oxidation anodes for direct borohydride fuel cells
  • Direct hydrocarbon utilization anodes for solid oxide fuel cells
  • Hydrogen evolution cathodes for microbial electrolysis cells

In addition to the electrocatlyst projects, this group addresses molecular motions of polymer electrolytes and the role in controlling ion transport in the development of lithium ion batteries.

Colloidal Device Fabrication

The Velegol lab is working to fabricate micron-sized, colloidal photoelectrochemical cells (CPECs) that can convert the energy from sunlight to an electrochemical fuel. There are numerous significant advantages in this area of research such as: inexpensive bottom-up fabrication methods, the production of a readily transportable electrochemical fuel, and the ease of installation in a final system.

Probing the building blocks of matter

Colloidal "nanoparticles" are 1 to 100 nanometers in size. Their small size gives them unique electronic, optical, and magnetic properties; and so these building blocks are expected to revolutionize products from computer chips to pharmaceuticals. Professor Matsoukas' group is studying how to use TiO 2 nanoparticles (atomic force microscope image shown) to increase reaction rates and reduce air pollution.

Remediating contaminated soil

Bacteria can be used to "digest" many soil contaminants, such as PCBs and toluene. Understanding bacterial adhesion is a critical link in using bacteria for remediation. Professor Velegol's group measures particle-particle forces with video microscopy and analytical equations, obtaining force resolutions of less than 1 piconewton. Measurements of these forces could lead to a better understanding of how lipopolysaccharides influence bacterial adhesion.

Catalyst Design and Synthesis

Professor Rioux’s group covers a wide range of catalytic research which is primarily concerned with the design of heterogeneous catalysts at the molecular level. This is accomplished through the use of organometallic approaches to assemble active sites with well-defined atomic connectivity, as well as the templating of porous structures around such active sites that possess potential molecular recognition properties. The catalytic research currently being investigated includes:

  • Design of molecular heterogeneous catalysts for energy applications
  • Nanostructured catalysts for high selectivity and reduction in energy intensification
  • Catalysts for the thermal and photochemical conversion of carbon dioxide
  • Development of time-resolved methods to understand heterogeneous catalytic reaction mechanisms and synthesis

Organic Solar Cells

Professor Gomez’s group is interested in developing structure-function relationships in organic solar cells through a combination of device testing with advanced characterization tools for soft materials, such as grazing-incidence X-ray diffraction and energy-filtered electron microscopy.