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!

IMS Welcomes New Faculty Members

Drs. Qin, Wang, and Zhang
(l-r) Drs. Yang Qin, Xueju “Sophie” Wang, and Yi Zhang

IMS welcomes three new faculty members beginning with the Fall Semester.

Dr. Yang Qin earned his Ph.D. from Rutgers University. His home department will the Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering. Dr. Yang’s research interests focus on design and synthesis of conjugated organic and polymeric materials, organic/inorganic hybrid materials, and their applications in energy and environment.

Dr. Sophie Wang holds a Ph.D. from Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research interests include soft/active/smart materials, Nanomechanics and micromechanics of advanced materials, Energy storage and conversion, Flexible/stretchable/bio-integrated electronics, and In-situ/environmental operando experimental techniques. The Department of Biomedical Engineering will be Dr. Wang’s home department.

Dr. Yi Zhang received his Ph.D. from Georgia Institute of Technology and will also call the Department of Biomedical Engineering home. His research interest include soft materials, bioelectronics and biosensors, and colloids and interfacial science.

Dr. Luyi Sun Named a 2020 Presidential M1 Mentor by CCI

Dr. Luyi Sun
Dr. Luyi Sun

The Presidential M1 Mentorship Award Program was established to create a national model for best practices in mentorship and formalize mentorship as an academic discipline. The award seeks to establish a cadre of accomplished UConn faculty who will deliver mentorship to racially and ethnically underrepresented individuals along the biomedical science pipeline.

Dr. Luyi Sun, Director of the IMS Polymer Program, and Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering was named a 2020 recipient of the M1 Mentorship Award.

Dr. Sun joined the UConn faculty as an associate professor in 2013 and by 2018 had been promoted to full professor. His research focuses on the design and synthesis of nanostructured materials for various applications. He has served as major advisor to numerous Ph.D. graduates. His group currently includes graduate students, visiting scholars, and a postdoctoral researcher.

Funding for the Presidential M1 Mentorship Award Program covers up to 25% of protected time for mentoring activities, including mentorship of individual students as well as participation in the development and execution of various mentorship initiatives. In addition, up to $5,000 will be allocated to the development of new and innovative initiatives focused on student-related activities that promote their academic growth and increase the number of students in the pipeline.

UConn Course Focuses on the Chemistry of Wine

Dr. Thomas Seery
Dr. Thomas Seery

It’s a big world out there when it comes to wine, the libation made from fruit of the vine.

Enter Dr. Thomas Seery, IMS faculty member and Associate Professor of Chemistry, who teaches a class on “Understand-ing Wine Chemis-try.”

Seery lands in the right place at the right time when he makes his connections. He’s been teaching this class in Shanghai in the summers. Through a series of fortunate events, including passport control, meeting wives of professors and a group of scholars coming to UConn, Seery brings his interests in wine to the college community and beyond.

Throughout my Zoom interview, I heard words like tannins, retronasal, terpene and umami. Umami is a category of taste in food. I thought there were only four basic tastes, but there are more. It’s related to the flavor of glutamates.

Read the full story at The Chronicle

UConn Researcher Invents Nanoparticle for Overcoming Leukemia Treatment Resistance

Dr. Xiuling Lu (left) and Dr. Rajeswari Kasi
Dr. Xiuling Lu (left) and Dr. Rajeswari Kasi

UConn associate professor of pharmaceutics Xiuling Lu, along with professor of chemistry Rajeswari M. Kasi, was part of a team that recently published a paper in Nature Cell Biology finding a commonly used chemotherapy drug may be repurposed as a treatment for resurgent or chemotherapy-resistant leukemia.

One of the largest problems with cancer treatment is the development of resistance to anticancer therapies. Few FDA-approved products directly target leukemia stem cells, which cause treatment-resistant relapses. The only known method to combat their presence is stem cell transplantation.

Leukemia presents unique treatment challenges due to the nature of this form of cancer. The disease affects bone marrow, which produces blood cells. Leukemia is a cancer of the early blood-forming cells, or stem cells. Most often, leukemia is a cancer of the white blood cells. The first step of treatment is to use chemotherapy to kill the cancerous white blood cells, but if the leukemia stem cells in the bone marrow persist, the cancer may relapse in a therapy-resistant form.

Fifteen to 20% of child and up to two thirds of adult leukemia patients experience relapse. Adults who relapse face a less-than 30% five-year survival rate. For children the five-year survival rate after relapse is around two thirds. When relapse occurs, chemotherapy does not improve the prognosis for these patients. There is a critical need for scientists to develop a therapy that can more effectively target chemotherapy-resistant cells.  Read the full UConn Today story.

Dr. Chris Monteleone: Reflections on an IMS Ph.D. Graduate

by Osker Dahabsu, Institute of Materials Science

Dr. Chris Monteleone
Dr. Chris Monteleone

Dr. Christopher Monteleone completed his final defense and Ph.D. in Materials Science in May 2020. Chris began his education in UConn’s Chemical Engineering undergraduate program in 2010. During his sophomore year he was offered a research position in the ceramic’s laboratory of Dr. Steven L. Suib. The lab’s focus is coatings deposited by chemical vapor deposition for composites. Interest in these materials and processing led Chris to pursue minor degrees in both Chemistry and Materials Science & Engineering.

Chris was encouraged to leave UConn for graduate school, however after some investigating, he realized his current lab was conducting cutting edge research that was unmatched and could lead him to a career. He remained at UConn to complete his Ph.D. in Materials Science. Chris’s thesis title was, “Design of Materials and Processing Methods for High Temperature Composites.”

Chris said he’s “grateful for the support he received at both IMS and Chemistry.” The open collaborative attitude helped him grow as a scientist and make achievements that might otherwise be impossible. Outside of research, Chris was offered an opportunity helping the mechanical testing and microscopy labs at IMS. This gave him experience in both professional communications and writing technical reports, excellent preparation for an industrial position.

Chris recently began his career as a Materials Engineer at the Rolls Royce High Temperature Composites lab in Cypress, California.

UConn, Army Research Lab Collaborate on New Portable, Renewable Energy Technology

scanning electron microscope image of the nanostructured Iridium oxide
A scanning electron microscope image of the nanostructured Iridium oxide, colored to represent the catalytic combustion studied by UConn and the Army researchers. (Courtesy of the Army Research Lab)

UConn’s Associate Dean for Research and Industrial Partnerships, S. Pamir Alpay, and Yomery Espinal ’18 Ph.D. (ENGR) have published a paper on a novel portable pyroelectric technology in Cell Reports Physical Science with support from the Army Research Laboratory.

Pyroelectric energy research is focused on how to generate energy from heat that would otherwise be wasted in a catalytic chemical reaction.

When pyroelectric materials are heated, their polarization changes, leading to an electron flow that generates energy. These materials are commonly used in household devices like motion sensor lights, which detect body heat to determine when someone is near.

nytime there is a catalytic reaction, heat is generated. These devices harness that heat and use it as energy. For example, a combustion engine in a car produces heat that, with this kind of technology, could be used to power the electrical functions of the car that otherwise rely on battery power.

The Army Research Lab (ARL) is particularly interested in this technology because it can provide more power with less weight, which is important for soldiers carrying heavy bags.

While scientists have been experimenting with pyroelectric power for decades, the technology proposed in this paper is completely novel.

“Something like that doesn’t exist,” Alpay says. “It would give you the opportunity to recover some things that just go to waste.”

Read the full UConn Today Story

IMS Welcomes Dennis Ndaya as Manager of Thermal Analysis Lab

Dr. Dennis Ndaya
Dr. Dennis Ndaya

On June 5, Dr. Dennis Ndaya became the new manager of the Thermal Analysis Laboratory, replacing Dr. Laura Pinatti who retired in May.

Dr. Ndaya earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from UConn in December 2019 under the advisemnt of Dr. Rajeswari Kasi. He received his M.Sc. in environmental chemistry from the University of Nairobi, Kenya.

His research has been published in such journals as International Journal of Pharmaceutics and Polymer Chemistry. Additionally, he has presented his research at the American Chemical Society where he received the Distinguished Poster Award in August 2015.

Dr. Ndaya’s research interests include synthetic methods, structural characterization, and thermal-mechanical analysis and microscopy. He has served on the IMS Safety Committee, and has served as a student mentor to high school, undergraduate, and graduate students on a variety of research projects, as well as serving as Head of the Department of Physical and Biological Sciences for the Pumwani Girls High School in Kenya.

IMS is proud to welcome Dr. Ndaya.