Dr. Heidi Dierssen is Conducting Research to Improve Remote Sensing of Microplastics on the Ocean’s Surface

Heidi M. DierssenProfessor of marine sciences and geography, Heidi Dierssen, has received a nearly $577,000 grant from NASA to study better methods for remote sensing of surface microplastics using satellites. The project will involve a collaboration with a visual artist to advance community understanding of this problem.

Dierssen’s lab, Coastal Ocean Lab for Optics and Remote Sensing (COLORS), conducted previous research on the optical properties of microplastics, providing the necessary background information to determine the best approaches for remote detection. Understanding the optical properties of microplastics is the first step in determining whether satellites can detect and quantify floating microplastics from space.

Dierssen has assembled a diverse scientific team of experts from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Colombia University, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Terra Research Inc.

Read the full story from UConn Today

Professor Avinash Dongare Discusses Developments as part of ‘CREDDS’ and the UTC Professorship

Dr. Avinash Dongare
Dr. Avinash Dongare

Professor Avinash Dongare joined the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) at the University of Connecticut in 2012, almost a decade ago. Over these years, he has transitioned from an Assistant to an Associate Professor, been appointed to prestigious positions, expanded his research group, and collaborated with various institutions and organizations. Dongare has witnessed many changes in this past decade as part of the growth of the MSE Department. “MSE was a program in a joint department when I joined in 2012. Within a few months, the MSE department formed and has been accelerating ever since. Unfortunately, so did my receding hairline,” reflects Avinash.

Notably, the department has grown in the number of faculty, adding to the research diversity in materials at UConn. Dongare mentions that the MSE Department is “a young and dynamic department that provides creative and novel research platforms to many researchers, students and collaborators across the country. This growth reflects the excellent leadership and guidance of Professor Pamir Alpay, previous Department Head; Professor Bryan Huey, the current Department Head; Professor Steven Suib, the Director of the Institute of Materials Science; and Dean Kazem Kazerounian of the School of Engineering. Of course, the contributions of the staff and the students of the department form the foundations of the success.”

Over the years, Dongare’s innovative research has received recognition nationwide. He has expanded his research portfolio, increased the number of members of this research team, and taken new leadership roles. After receiving his tenure and being promoted to Associate Professor in 2018, Dongare’s recent success story includes the Center for Research Excellence on Dynamically Deformed Solids (CREDDS) funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA). CREDDS is one of four new Centers of Excellence at universities across the nation and received 12.5 million dollars over five years. Dongare serves as one of the four principal investigators as UConn partners with Texas A & M University (lead), University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Read the full Materials Science and Engineering story

Escape From the Endosome!

Nanotube Bundles
Nanotube bundles (yellow) containing RNA enter a cell. From left to right, the images show the endosomes (red) surrounding the nucleus (blue) of the cell begin to swell. Around the 3 hour mark, the endosomes burst and spill the RNA payload (green). The RNAs spread throughout the cell over the next two days (Contributed photo).

Most drugs are small. But large molecules could be enormously useful medicines—if we could only get them inside our cells. Now, a group of researchers in biomedical engineering – a shared department with the UConn School of Dental Medicine, School of Medicine, and School of Engineering – has developed a non-toxic way to do just that.

Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines have demonstrated just how useful large biomolecule drugs can be. Their vaccines are based on messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) which is a molecule hundreds of times bigger than a typical small-molecule drug.

Small molecules have it easy. They can slip into our cells undetected and do their work without fear of getting captured and digested by endosomes. Endosomes are like tiny bubble stomachs that envelope large molecules seeking entry to cells and digest them with acid.

UConn associate professor of biomedical engineering Yupeng Chen, his student Jinhyung Lee, and other members of his lab describe in the May 11 issue of PNAS a way to protect large biomolecule drugs by encasing them in a nanomaterial mimicking DNA. Nanomaterials are objects designed at the atomic scale; they’re usually only slightly larger than large molecules. The material Chen’s lab used is shaped like a bundle of sticks, where the sticks are tubes of DNA-like nanotubes. The DNA nanotube acts like a sponge for acid, sucking up the free hydrogen atoms in the acid that would otherwise do the damage, and tricking the endosome into pumping more and more water and acid inside of itself until it explodes.

Read the full UConn Today Story



MSE PhD Student Reflects on Industry Internship Across the World

(Left to right) Hiroyuki Kondo, Keigo Suzuki, and Thomas Moran. Kondo worked with Moran on the vacuum AFM system while Suzuki was Moran’s host

During his graduate research, Materials Science and Engineering PhD student Thomas Moran stepped out of his comfort zone and into the eastern hemisphere when he decided to pursue professional industry experience in Japan. With the help of his advisor, Department Head Bryan Huey, Moran was able to join the Japanese electronics manufacturer Murata as a Research and Development Intern.

Moran received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Union College in 2016. He realized his interest in materials science during this time. “I got involved in undergraduate research that dealt with materials, and by the time the research was ramping up, I took a Junior-level materials science course and from there I was hooked,” he says. He ended up pursuing a self-designed interdisciplinary minor which enabled him to focus his research on solar cell materials using atomic force microscopy (AFM).

Moran enjoyed his studies related to materials science so much that he decided graduate school was the next step. “I was pretty sure I wanted to pursue MSE, but while I had some research experience, I didn’t have a whole lot of coursework past the basics,” Moran says.

In 2016, he chose to officially continue his education at UConn. “I liked the industry connections, and the focus I saw being put on the MSE program,” he says. “I met Bryan on my accepted students’ visit, and with the combination of shared research interests and my experience with AFM as an undergrad, joining his group was a natural next step,” Moran said.

Read the full Materials Science and Engineering Story

Dr. Xueju Wang Receives Orr Early Career Award from ASME

Dr. Xueju "Sophie" Wang
Dr. Xueju “Sophie” Wang

Dr. Xueju “Sophie” Wang, Assistant Professor of Materials Science, has been selected to receive the 2021 American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Orr Early Career Award for “impactful contributions to the fundamental understanding of fracture mechanics of chemomechanically active materials and interfacial failure between hard and soft materials”.

The ASME ORR Early Career Award was established in 2004 as a Material Division award. The endowment supporting the award was made possible by a generous donation from the Orr family. The award recognizes early career research excellence in the areas of experimental, computational, or theoretical fatigue, fracture, or creep.

Dr. Wang joined the UConn faculty in the Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) Department in 2020. She received her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, completed her postdoctoral at Northwestern University, and is a former assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Her research interests include nanomechanics and micromechanics of advanced materials; energy storage and conversion; and flexible/stretchable/bio-integrated electronics.

Dr. Wang answered a few questions about her research for IMS News:

What is chemomechanics and how is it relative to your research around materials failure?
Chemomechanics of materials, as an exciting and fast-growing field, refers to the coupling between chemistry and mechanics in material systems like lithium-ion batteries (LIBs), the most popular energy storage devices for consumer electronics and electric vehicles. LIBs are composed of three major components: cathode, anode, and electrolyte. During the charging and discharging of a battery, the lithiation and delithiation processes may cause large volume changes (up to 400%) of the electrode material, especially for high-performance anode materials like silicon and germanium, which usually induces stress buildup and failure of the battery. The mechanical deformation of the electrode material, in return, affects the transport of lithium ions in the material and therefore charging and discharging of the battery. This called chemo-mechanical coupling or chemomechanics of the battery material, which is critically important to study in order to avoid mechanical failure and improve the battery performance for various applications.

What is the goal of your current research around the fracture mechanics of chemomechanically active materials and interfacial failure between hard and soft materials?
The goal is to address mechanical failure issues in material systems for applications from energy storage to biomedical devices. More specifically, I aim to improve the mechanical reliability of high-performance LIBs and all-solid-state batteries which replace the potentially flammable liquid electrolyte in conventional batteries with solid ones for improved safety. I also aim to facilitate the integration of flexible electronics with soft biology for health monitoring and disease treatment by addressing the interfacial failure between hard electronics materials and soft biological tissues.

What industries could possibly benefit from the results of your research and in what ways?
Electric vehicle companies such as Tesla can significantly benefit from improved battery performance because the research can potentially improve the mileage and reduce the cost of the vehicle. In addition, companies related to biomedical devices will benefit my research on hard/soft material interfaces due to its potential impact on improving the device performance.

What was your reaction to being notified that you are the recipient of this year’s ASME Orr Early Career Award?
I was very excited when I was notified that I was selected to receive the award because it is such a prestigious award to recognize early career research excellence. It is a great honor to be the recipient of the award and to receive recognition from the professional community.

You’re fairly new to UConn. How are you finding your experience so far?
Despite the pandemic, my experience has been great so far. I would like to thank the tremendous support from IMS, which made my transition to UConn much easier and my starting at UConn very quickly.

As a young woman researcher, do you have advice for young girls interested in STEM?
As a young woman researcher, I highly encourage young girls interested in STEM to explore this exciting and fast-growing field. When I was a young girl, I was always encouraged by my mom to explore beyond limits, which I have benefited from significantly and will benefit from for my lifetime. Now as a mom of a 5-year-old girl, I always encourage my daughter to explore what she is interested in exploring. Also, I shared my research with middle and high school students when I was a graduate student at Georgia Tech. I could feel the excitement of young girls in the STEM field, but they may need more guidance and courage to enter this field. As a faculty member, I plan to continue to dedicate part of my career to attracting young girls to the engineering field and to help them succeed. I have planned some activities to outreach to young girls as part of my NSF grant, although there has been some delay due to the pandemic.

Developing Entirely New Ways to Generate, Store, and Use Energy

Dr. Julian Norato
Dr. Julian Norato

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) advances high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment. In 2019, ARPA-E announced an ongoing funding opportunity for a range of the most innovative and unconventional ideas across the energy technology spectrum, exploring high-risk R&D that could lead to the development of disruptive technologies. The topics explored under this opportunity are not part of existing ARPA-E programs, but if successful could establish new program areas for ARPA-E to further explore.

Dr. Julian Norato has been selected as a recipient of ARPA-E’s Topology Optimization and Additive Manufacturing for Performance Enhancement of High Temperature and High Pressure Heat Exchangers (Topology) funding. He was generous to answer a few questions for IMS News.

Talk a bit about your specific project and its potential effects in materials science and possible real-world implications.
In our project we will use a computational design technique called topology optimization to design heat exchangers that operate at high temperature and high pressure. As their name indicates, heat exchangers are mechanical devices that transfer heat, typically from one fluid to another. They are used in a wide range of applications, including aircraft, power stations and chemical processing plants.

High-temperature, high-pressure heat exchangers can substantially increase heat transfer efficiency and reduce the size and weight of the heat exchangers. In this project, we consider counterflow plate heat exchangers, in which the cold and hot fluids flow in between alternate parallel plates and in opposite directions. The plates have flow structures (such as fins) that increase turbulence in the flow and improve mixing, which in turn improves the heat transfer rate.

The computational topology optimization techniques that will be advanced by this project will find highly optimal designs of these fin structures to maximize the heat transfer efficiency while guaranteeing the structural integrity of the plates at the high operating temperatures. The designs obtained by this project will be additively manufactured and tested by Michigan State University’s (MSU) Scalable and Expeditious Additive Manufacturing (SEAM) process, which can efficiently 3D-print parts that are fully dense and free of residual stresses. These characteristics substantially increase the strength of the 3D-printed metal plates at high temperatures.

The topology optimization framework will be coupled with the computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and finite element analysis (FEA) solvers by Altair Engineering, the leading vendor in topology optimization software and one of the leading makers of simulation tools.

What was your reaction to finding out your research had been selected for funding?
I was thrilled to hear of the news and grateful for the opportunity given to us by ARPA-E to pursue this exciting work.

Are you working with a team? Students? If so, how will the team assist in the research?
The team that won the award is formed by UConn, MSU and Altair Engineering. UConn is the lead institution. UConn will conduct the research on the topology optimization techniques. MSU will optimize the SEAM process to manufacture the plates and will build and test functional prototypes of the heat exchangers.

What is your hope for the outcome of the research?
We hope that the computational design techniques advanced by this project lead to heat exchanger designs with improved efficiency and reduced size, which could ultimately result in significant energy savings in applications of heat exchangers

In Memoriam: Dr. Harris Marcus

Dr. Harris Marcus

Former IMS Director, Dr. Harris Marcus. passed away on January 14, 2020. Dr. Marcus earned his B.S. from Purdue University and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University. He served as Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin from 1975 to 1995 after a career in industry that included positions at Texas Instruments and Rockwell Science Center. He joined the UConn faculty in 1995 as Director of IMS.

During his tenure as Director of IMS, Dr. Marcus dramatically increased the infrastructure for research within IMS through the acquisition of major instrumentation for both soft and hard materials, and by rigorously recruiting excellent faculty members and graduate students to the University. His efforts led to significantly greater partnerships with industry and federal/state agencies for extramural support for research and development

Dr. Marcus’s career was marked by numerous awards for excellence including the Von Karman Memorial Special Award for Outstanding Contributions to Aerospace and Structural Materials Technology in Past Decade, the Purdue University Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award, Northwestern University Alumni Association Award of Merit, and induction in the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering. He had well over 300 peer-reviewed publications.

Current IMS Director, Dr. Steven L. Suib, said in his remembrance of Dr. Marcus, “Dr. Harris Marcus was Director of IMS for 18 years. He was always interested in research and enthusiastically discussed his ideas with everyone. He made people laugh and was fun to be around. We will miss him dearly.”

Dr. Marcus was preceded in death by his wife, Leona Marcus. He is survived by his son, Leland Marcus, his daughter, Dr. M’Risa
Mendelsohn, his son-in-law Michael Mendelsohn, and his granddaughter, Samantha Mendelsohn.

Dr. Thanh Nguyen Invents Reusable Biodegradable Facemask

The biodegradable facemask invented by UConn engineer Thanh Nguyen and three Ph.D. students. (photo courtesy of Thanh Nguyen)

Facemasks have become a ubiquitous necessity as one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The pandemic has dramatically increased demand for masks and created an environmental problem. Many people do not dispose of their masks properly, leaving them littering the ground where they can seriously harm wildlife as they pollute the land and seas.

UConn assistant professor of mechanical engineering and IMS faculty member, Dr. Thanh Nguyen, along with Ph.D. students Eli Curry, Thinh Le, and Tra Nguyen, have filed a patent application for a biodegradable, reusable mask to address these concerns.

Most masks are made of polypropylene, a non-biodegradable compound. Since these masks are usually only used once, they are soon thrown into landfills, where they will take years to decompose or end up in the ocean.

Nguyen’s mask resembles the familiar blue surgical masks, but has several key advantages. This innovation is believed to be the first reusable, biodegradable surgical mask.

Dr. Thanh Nguyen

Nguyen’s invention uses piezoelectric electrospun nanofibers. Piezoelectricity, literally “pressure-induced electricity,” is the electric charge that accumulates in certain solid objects in response to mechanical stress. Certain smart materials can convert mechanical force into electric charge without the application of external voltage.

Traditional masks use the inherent surface charge of their filtering material to attract and trap droplets which can spread airborne pathogens. Harnessing the power of the piezoelectric phenomenon makes the mask a more effective filtration device.

Nguyen has demonstrated his mask is more effective than non-medical masks, and nearly as effective as N95 masks under both normal and exerted breathing rates for trapping efficiency.

Read the full story from UConn Today

UConn Startup Co-founded by Dr. Gregory Sotzing is Unlocking the Promise of Hemp

Dr. Gregory Sotzing
Dr. Gregory Sotzing

A lawyer and a chemist get on a plane. This isn’t the start of a corny joke, but of a successful startup.

IMS faculty member and University of Connecticut chemistry professor Dr. Greg Sotzing met attorney Peter Belsito on an airplane coming back to Connecticut from Atlanta. They soon realized they had a common interest: cannabis. During their flight, they discussed Sotzing’s innovative research related to cannabis and its business potential. With the help of several UConn programs focused on innovation and entrepreneurship, Sotzing, Belsito, and their partners launched 3BC, a startup using pharma-grade processes to isolate THC-free batches of cannabis compounds.

The Science of Turning Plant to Profit Cannabis contains more than 100 individual compounds known as cannabinoids, including the increasingly popular cannabidiol, or CBD. CBD is different than tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in cannabis that gives users a “high” feeling.

Sotzing and the 3BC team, which also includes Belsito; Brian Thompson, who received his Ph.D. in cell biology from UConn’s School of Medicine; and Rosanne (Vlandis) Leake ’82 (CLAS), a UConn alumna and Storrs native, are focusing on a lesser-known compound: CBN, or cannabinol.

While there is limited clinical research on CBN at present, it has potential applications to aid sleep, regrow bone, stimulate appetite, and even prevent sepsis through its antimicrobial properties.  Read the full story from UConn Today

Dr. Richard Parnas Retires

Dr. Richard Parnas
Dr. Richard Parnas

After 19 years as a faculty member of the Institute of Materials Science Polymer Program and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department, Professor Richard Parnas retired in August 2020 from the University of Connecticut.

Dr. Parnas summarized his career choices over the past 30 years stating, “My career was shaped by my desire to create environmentally responsible materials and energy solutions”.  His words and resume both reflect his passion to helping the environment. Since completing his bachelor’s degree, Dr. Parnas has worked for big industry, government, and academia on a variety of projects relating to environmental issues.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at MIT, Dr. Parnas joined Exxon Research & Engineering in Florham Park, NJ. There he worked on his first environmentally friendly project, coal gasification. He helped engineer a proposed plant for Europe that would convert coal into methane at the rate of 30,000 tons per day. Although the project never came to fruition, this was the first of many environmental projects. Exxon’s abandonment of the project led Dr. Parnas to return to school. He completed his master’s degree, and later his Ph.D., at U.C.L.A.

Upon completion of graduate school, he spent 10 years in the polymers division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, first as a chemical engineer, then as a composites group leader. His research was based around manufacturing technology. The main focus was to create new lighter weight materials for cars in an effort to increase gas mileage and reduce CO2 production. While at NIST, Dr. Parnas met Prof. Anthony DiBenedetto of the IMS Polymer Program while hosting an international meeting on composites processing, initiating his association with and eventual move to join IMS.

In 2001, Dr. Parnas was hired by IMS as a faculty member of the Polymer Program. His initial research interest was polymer composites and renewable polymers created from plant protein. Starting in 2005, Dr. Parnas became involved with a number of aspects of the world of biofuels. This changed his research direction and ultimately his career path. He ran the annual Biofuels and Sustainable Energy Symposiums at UConn from 2005 to 2010. These events were key to opening communications between state representatives, local industry professionals, and scientists from the university. It enabled discussions regarding the technical components, policies, and financial aspects of energy. The conference included as many as 300 participants, including 25 state and federal representatives such as Rosa DeLauro and John Larson.

In 2007, an undergraduate asked Dr. Parnas for help with a biofuels project. This simple question led Dr. Parnas down a path to three patents, the creation of a business, and eventually a new career. The original project led the student to a Ph.D. and a faculty position at Oregon State.

A collaboration with IMS Director Steven Suib and other University faculty landed a 1.2 million dollar Department of Energy grant to support biofuels research at UConn. This was a stepping stone to Dr. Parnas’ s research. The funding increased the research staff, enabling publications and further supporting his reputation in the field. He was elected to the Connecticut Academy of Science & Engineering in 2013. After seven patents, he was also inducted into the UConn chapter of the National Academy of Inventors in 2019. During this time, he developed a novel transesterification reactor for the efficient conversion of triglycerides to biodiesel. The reactor was patent worthy and a key component to his future company.  In 2018, after 11 years of research and three U.S. patents, Dr. Parnas created REA Resource Recovery Systems, LLC. The company processes brown grease, sourced from wastewater treatment plants, into biodiesel. The end result is less waste and reduced carbon emissions. This benefits the company, local government, and our mother earth.

In addition to education and research, Dr. Parnas spent five years as the faculty director for UConn’s EcoHouse, one of the learning communities on the Storrs campus. Participating students dedicate their time to a variety of environmental issues, such as sustainable energy, farming, and government policies. At the UConn Spring Valley Student Farm, students grow food for dining services at the Storrs campus. They learn about both farming and selling their products.  A team of engineering students also worked on solar energy, both photovoltaic and thermal, to support the farm. As faculty director, Dr. Parnas was able to help students bring their specific set of skills and interests to the learning community.

Dr. Parnas’s lasting contributions to the University are tremendous, setting a tone for engaging students and inspiring interest in the ways that modern science interfaces with our ecological footprint.  Helping to educate hundreds of students and introducing dozens to the wonderful world of scientific research, many UConn undergraduate engineers and chemists received their first experience in a scientific setting under the advisement of Dr. Parnas. This experience helped pave their paths to a career or graduate school. This August, Dr. Parnas retired from his faculty position at UConn to focus his time and efforts on his growing company, REA Resource Recovery Systems, LLC. For more details about the company, founders, and contracts, visit the REA website: https://rea-systems.com/

IMS thanks Richard for his many years of service, and wishes him well as he transitions into retirement!