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!