IMS Faculty Members

A Career Worth Celebrating: Dr. Challa V. Kumar

Colleagues, collaborators, family, friends, and former students gathered to celebrate the career of Dr. Challa V. Kumar
Colleagues, collaborators, family, friends, and former students gathered to celebrate the career of Dr. Challa V. Kumar

By the time registration closed for the Symposium Celebrating the Research and Education Legacy of Professor Challa V. Kumar, more than 60 delegates from around the world had registered.  The event, which also celebrated Dr. Kumar’s retirement as well as his 70th birthday, brought together colleagues, collaborators, friends, and former students of Professor Kumar eager to pay homage to him and to present research on the topic for the day, Chemical Approaches to Biological Materials and Beyond.

The full-day event opened on September 9, 2023, with continental breakfast and a welcome message from Dr. Yao Lin, professor of chemistry and Institute of Materials Science (IMS) resident faculty member. Lin also served as chair for the morning session.  IMS Director Dr. Steven L. Suib opened the symposium with remarks that set the tone for the day’s events.

The morning session commenced with Dr. Kumar’s introduction of his longtime friend, Professor and Chief Editor of Science magazine, Holden Thorp. Dr. Thorp emphasized the importance of scientists getting involved in the discussion of societal issues and policies through evidence-based facts. The discussion included science outreach to children, an important topic for all attendees.

Each presentation was preceded by a short introduction from Dr. Kumar, to which he brought a personal connection between himself and each of the presenters. Speakers for the morning session included Professor D. Ramaiah from Birla Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, India. Dr. Kumar and Dr. Ramaiah overlapped at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur before Dr. Kumar left for the United States.

Morning session speakers
Morning session presenters (l to r) Drs. Yao Lin (session chair); Dr. D. Ramaiah, Michael Purugganan, Leah Croucher, and J.K. Barton

Professor Michael Purugganan from New York University described his collaboration with Professor Kumar on DNA-mediated electron transfer at Columbia University. He presented research on the ways in which rice genes have co-evolved with humans over thousands of years, with 13,000 varieties identified so far.

Professor Leah Croucher from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a former Ph.D. student of Professor Kumar, described her path from the Kumar lab to NIH in reverse chronological order, sharing highlights of her days at UConn along the way.

The last speaker of the morning session was Professor J.K. Barton of California Institute of Technology. Dr. Barton, a recipient of the prestigious Priestly Medal, spoke on electron transfer through DNA. Dr. Barton was also a postdoctoral mentor to Professor Kumar. Her talk led to interesting discussions on the electron transport mechanism and how DNA-mediated electron transport plays an important role in DNA damage, repair, and cancer.

Afternoon session symposium speakers
Afternoon Session Speakers (l to r) Drs. Steven L. Suib, James Rusling, Ashis Basu, Rajeswari Kasi, Akhilesh Bhambhani, Ajith Pattammattel, and Anna Pyle

Following lunch, session chair Dr. Rajeswari Kasi, professor of chemistry and IMS resident faculty member, commenced the afternoon session with an introduction of IMS Director and Professor of Chemistry Dr. Steven L. Suib. Professor Suib analyzed the research trajectory of Dr. Kumar over four decades and recounted how the Kumar research group switched gears and meandered through increasingly interesting research topics, building one over the other.

Professor of Chemistry James Rusling spoke about his interactions with Professor Kumar, elaborating on joint and related projects that they often chatted about. Professor of Chemistry Ashis Basu described his research projects on DNA damage, DNA-covalent adducts of carcinogens, and the mechanisms of carcinogenesis. Professor Kasi described some of her most recent work on protein-conjugated cellulose nanocrystals, demonstrating how her work was inspired by her collaborations with Dr. Kumar.  Professor Akhilesh Bhambhani, a former Ph.D. student of Dr. Kumar, outlined the key factors for successful design, manufacturing, and deployment of biologics with humorous comparison of Dr. Kumar to the Bodha tree, which gave enlightenment to those who rested beneath it. Dr. Ajith Pattammattel, another former Ph.D. student of Dr. Kumar, elaborated on his research at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. He invited students and faculty to visit the lab to conduct collaborative advanced scattering experiments with a personal story of the instrumental role Dr. Kumar played in his success.

The penultimate talk of the symposium was given by Professor Anna Pyle, a contemporary of Dr. Kumar during her days as a graduate student at Columbia

University. Dr. Pyle described how her group is deciphering the exquisite structures of multiple states of RNA using Cryoelectron microscopy.

Dr. Challa Kumar was surrounded by family for the event. (l to r) Dr. Kumar’s wife Anupam, Dr. Kumar, his brother Srinivas, sister-in-law Manjula, nephew Sriram, and his wife Keerti

With the last word, Professor Kumar began his plenary talk by thanking his mentors, hosts, and graduate students. He elaborated on the tortuous path taken by his research group, and lessons learned, along the same lines as Professor Suib’s analysis at the beginning of the afternoon session.

The symposium concluded with a standing ovation from the audience, after Dr. Kumar explained how he came to the United States with only $21 and a Ph.D., with no friends or relatives here, and succeeded in achieving his American dream.  Truly a career worth celebrating!

Watch video of the symposium here.

Dr. Cato T. Laurencin to Receive the Kathryn C. Hach Award for Entrepreneurial Success from the American Chemical Society

From UConn Today

Cato LaurencinThe American Chemical Society (ACS) has selected University of Connecticut’s Dr. Cato T. Laurencin as the 2024 recipient of its Kathryn C. Hach Award for Entrepreneurial Success.

As the national awardee, Laurencin is recognized for his use of the transforming power of chemistry to improve people’s lives. The hallmark of this contribution is impact: positive impact on people’s lives and positive impact on the economy by creating jobs that produce a significant economic benefit.

Laurencin’s innovations in regenerative engineering and his impact on the fields of biomaterials, nanotechnology, and stem cell science have had an immeasurable impact. As the leading international figure in polymeric biomaterials chemistry and engineering, he has made not only extraordinary scientific contributions, but has contributed through innovation and invention.

In Connecticut, Laurencin was the lead faculty architect for Bioscience Connecticut. Start-up companies he has founded have led to products now on the market. He received the Connecticut Medal of Technology in recognition of his work in the state.

Nationally, Laurencin is a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and the first surgeon elected to all 4 of the U.S. National Academies. He serves on the board of directors of the National Academy of Inventors and on the National Academy of Inventors Selection Committee.

He received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, America’ highest recognition for technological achievement, from the President of the United States.  In service to our nation, he serves as Vice-Chair of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation Nomination and Evaluation Committee, appointed by both the Trump and Biden administrations.

Most recently, he received the Inventor of the Year Award presented to the world’s most outstanding recent inventors from the Intellectual Property Owners Education Foundation (IPOEF). The IPOEF’s board of directors voted unanimously for him, recognizing his impact on biomaterials, nanotechnology, stem cell science, and the field of regenerative engineering.

IMS Industrial Affiliates Program Hosts 2023 Annual Meeting

2023 Annual Meeting - Morning Session
The morning session was held in the Science 1 Active Learning Classroom.

On May 25, 2023, the Institute of Materials Science (IMS) Industrial Affiliates Program (IAP) held its first in-person annual meeting since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

The meeting began with a welcome message by Dr. Hatice Bodugoz-Senturk, Associate Director of the IMS Industrial Affiliates Program, followed by remarks by Dr. Steven L. Suib, Director of IMS, and Dr. Paul Nahass, Director of the IMS Industrial Affiliates Program. Dr. Bryan Huey, Department Head of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) gave an overview of the MSE department and its achievements; and Dr. Kelly Burke, Director of the IMS Polymer Program, discussed the latest developments in polymer science.

Dr. George Matheou presents
Dr. Georgios Matheou presents his research at the morning session of the 2003 Annual Meeting

The morning session featured three presentations by IMS faculty members from different departments. Dr. James “Nate” Hohman, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, talked about his research on experimental foundations for next-generation materials and interfaces, and how he uses big science, big data, and big AI to discover new materials for various applications. Dr. Georgios Matheou, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, presented his work on predictive modeling and simulation of multi-physics flows, and how he collaborates with industry partners in renewable energy, aerospace, and health care sectors. Dr. Vahid Morovati, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, explained his theoretical framework to model the long-term mechanical behavior of elastomeric materials considering damage accumulation and degradation.

The luncheon session featured a keynote address by Dr. Anne D’Alleva, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, who shared her vision and goals for UConn’s academic excellence and innovation. She also highlighted the importance and impact of materials science and engineering in addressing the global challenges and opportunities in the 21st century. The luncheon concluded with closing remarks by Dr. Paul Nahass.

2023 Annual Meeting Luncheon 2
IMS Director Dr. Steven L. Suib addresses industry partners, faculty, and students at the 2023 Annual Meeting Luncheon

The meeting was attended by more than 100 participants from industry affiliates and external partners along with IMS faculty, students, and alumni. The meeting also showcased the annual Joint Poster Session by IMS Polymer Program and Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) students, demonstrating their projects and achievements in materials science and engineering.  Industry partners were also given tours of core laboratories in the Science 1 building, the new home to IMS.

The IMS Industrial Affiliates Program provides materials characterization services to its industry partners. The program also facilitates collaborations between IMS faculty and students and industry partners on research projects of mutual interest.

The Institute of Materials Science is an interdisciplinary research institution that supports over 100 faculty members from 15 departments across UConn’s schools and colleges. The institute offers advanced degrees in polymer science and materials science, as well as state-of-the-art research facilities for its students and faculty to conduct research that is changing the future of materials science.

Naba Karan Wins DoD DURIP Funding

Dr. Naba Karan
Dr. Naba Karan

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) awarded four UConn scientists with high-profile grants to fund the acquisition of technology to bolster their research capabilities.

The highly competitive Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (DURIP), offered by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), the Army Research Office (ARO), and the Office of Naval Research (ONR), funds cutting-edge research projects with potential to assist national defense.

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are one of the most common rechargeable energy storage technologies on the market. As a rule, they are quite safe under normal operating conditions, powerful, and scalable, from smartphones to electric cars. But given the number of Li-ion batteries produced around the world, their relatively small failure rate has still resulted in some high-profile stories of Li-ion batteries going into thermal runaway – an event when a battery catches fire, explodes, and releases toxic gases.

IMS member Naba Karan, an assistant research professor at the Center for Clean Energy Engineering (C2E2) in the School of Engineering, isn’t surprised.

“You can think of them as bombs,” he says, noting the high quantity of chemical energy contained within Li-ion batteries. And he’s looking to blow them up—on purpose.

With funds from the Office of Naval Research, Karan is constructing a facility at UConn that will explode the batteries in a controlled environment to determine critical safety parameters needed for designing advanced engineering protocols to mitigate thermal runaway events. In a military context, this information will help operators of machinery that depend on these high-powered batteries, such as submarines, determine when internal battery temperatures are exceeding safety thresholds. Most crucially, it will allow them to avoid catastrophic failure by diverting some of this heat.

The equipment will be able to analyze thermal characteristics of all types of energy storage technologies, not only Li-Ion batteries. Since it will be one of the only such facilities in the northeast region, Karan anticipates a high degree of interest and collaboration from other universities and companies looking into studying the safety characteristics of existing and emerging battery chemistries.

IMS Welcomes Mihai “Mishu” Duduta

Dr. Mihai Duduta
Dr. Mihai Duduta’s research has the potential to change the future of robotics.

Mihai “Mishu” Duduta has joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering with an appointment in the Institute of Materials Science (IMS).  Having earned his B.S. from MIT, he completed his M.S. and Ph.D. at Harvard University.  Following the completion of his Ph.D., Duduta joined the faculty of the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto as an assistant professor.  He is a recipient of the Banting Foundation Discovery Award for 2022 for his research on “Smart Micro-catheters Based on Electro-mechanical Artificial Muscles.”

At the heart of his research “Mishu” (as Duduta prefers to be called) is focused on the science of soft robotics, novel materials, and energy storage.  He seeks to “invent new ways to store energy and deliver power that bring new robotic capabilities.”

IMS News reached out to Dr. Duduta to welcome him and learn more about him and his research.

Your research focus includes novel materials, soft robotics, and energy storage.  All of these are at the cutting edge of future technology.  What led you to pursue this field of science?

I have always been fascinated by energy, and by materials that can act as transducers, effectively transforming one type of energy into another, for example chemical energy stored in covalent bonds of a fuel, to thermal energy, or heat by burning said fuel. I see Robotics as the next area of innovation for energy storage, conversion and harvesting.

You have said that in order for robots to interact more closely with people they must be more compliant, or flexible.  How can the combination of materials, soft robotics, and energy storage achieve this goal and what do you see as the future implications as the science advances?

As machines become smaller or softer, we’ll need to invent new materials and mechanisms for actuation, sensing and computation. The end goal is to replicate nature as closely as possible, in an engineered system. If we have artificial muscles that can effectively replace natural ones, and run as efficiently for long periods of time, we can radically change almost all segments of the economy: from healthcare, to agriculture, manufacturing and beyond.

We are happy to welcome you to UConn IMS.  How did you become interested in UConn and how will you contribute to student success, a key priority for the University?

UConn has a great location, outstanding students, talented faculty, and fantastic infrastructure.  My goal is to train students to be more capable scientists and engineers, but also to develop a strong grasp of how to communicate science effectively, as well as gain an understanding of where their work can bring societal value.

Menka Jain is Co-organizer of 28th IWOE

Menka Jain
Dr. Menka Jain

The International Workshop on Oxide Electronics (IWOE) series has become an important venue to discuss recent advances and emerging trends in this developing field. The aim of the workshop is to provide an interdisciplinary forum for researchers – theorists as well as experimentalists – on understanding the fundamental electronic and structural properties and also on the design, synthesis, processing, characterization, and applications of (epitaxial) functional oxide materials.

Associate Professor of Physics and Institute of Materials Science (IMS) faculty member Menka Jain is co-organizer of the 28th International IWOE LogoWorkshop on Oxide Electronics (IWOE) to be held October 2-5 in Portland, Maine.  Dr. Jain serves on the program committee with Ryan Comes of Auburn University, Charles H. Ahn of Yale University, and Divine Kumah of North Carolina State University.  She is also the designer of the logo for the workshop (pictured).

The workshop will showcase results of critical scientific importance as well as studies revealing the technological potential of functional oxide thin films to create devices with enhanced performance.  Full abstract book of the talks and posters can be found at

Challa Kumar to Give Writing in Science Workshop at BITS

Challa V. Kumar
Dr. Challa V. Kumar

IMS faculty member Challa Vijaya Kumar will give the Writing in Science and Engineering Workshop at Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS).  253 Ph.D. students from various departments around the four  campuses of BITS have enrolled in the 4-day 12-hour workshop which will be held live with virtual attendance available.

Dr. Kumar is currently serving as a Fulbright-Nehru Distinguished Chair and has embarked on a series of seminars across India.  Awards in the Fulbright Distinguished Chairs Program are viewed as among the most prestigious appointments in the Fulbright Scholar Program.

In addition to the upcoming Writing in Science and Engineering workshop, Kumar has presented seminars at the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) Tirupati and Osmania University where he was presented with a certificate of appreciation for his support in organizing the “Current Trends and Futuristic Challenges in Chemistry” seminar in July.

Richard Parnas on FOG, Biofuels, and Wastewater Management

Professor Emeritus of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Richard Parnas, has been working on solutions to the oily waste we humans produce on a daily basis.  He has been on a journey to convert that waste into usable energy.  This quest has led to the patent of proprietary technology and the formation of REA Resources Recovery Services, a company he co-founded.  Along with his partners in the company and in partnership with UConn, Dr. Parnas set about to convert FOG (Fat, Oil, Grease) into biodiesel for the benefit of municipalities in the state.

In 2019, REA contracted with the City of Danbury to build a FOG to biodiesel processing facility at the city’s wastewater treatment plant.  That project has entered the construction phase and Parnas, REA, and UConn are now looking forward to the day the facility converts its first oily waste into usable biodiesel.  IMS News reached out to Dr. Parnas about his research, the Danbury project, and the future of wastewater management.

Richard Parnas
Dr. Richard Parnas

You have been researching and developing methods to convert FOG (Fat, Oil, Grease) into biodiesel fuel since 2006.  When did you first become interested in biofuels and what about biodiesel, in particular, led you down your current path?

I’ve been interested in biofuels, and green processing and green materials in general, for many years before coming to UConn. One of the important motivations for joining UConn was to participate in the development of the green economy. An undergraduate helped get me started working on biodiesel in the summer of 2007 by simply requesting my help to set up a biodiesel synthesis reaction in a fume hood.

When you became Director of the Biofuel Consortium here at UConn, you moved the bar from six gallons of biofuel produced over the course of a year to over 50 gallons continual production daily less than three years later.  When did you realize the scale at which you might be able to convert FOG into biodiesel?  What were the obstacles you faced and how were they overcome?

We used the yellow grease from UConn cafeterias to make biodiesel at that time, and the scale of operations was determined by the yellow grease production rate from the cafeterias. As a Chemical Engineer, my goal is always to maximize the use of available raw materials, and waste as small a fraction of that raw material as possible. Shortly after we started the Biofuel Consortium, we polled the various food service establishments at UConn to determine the yellow grease availability, and found it to be over 100 gallons per week. We then designed, built and installed a 50 gallon batch system, and produced 2 or 3 of the 50 gallon batches each week.

There were a number of obstacles. Production at that scale is not a typical academic activity so we faced skepticism from the facilities folks that ran the fuel depot for the buses. They asked if our fuel would be any good and how we would prove it to them, so we had to set up testing capability. Our testing was developed and run by Prof. James Stuart, an analytical chemist. Prof. Stuart and I received a grant of over $600,000 dollars to set up a biodiesel fuel quality testing facility in the Center for Environmental Science and Engineering (CESE) to test our biodiesel and the biodiesel produced by private companies. We also faced skepticism from the UConn administration since we were operating at a much larger scale than is typical. Safety concerns are important when conducting such operations with students who are just learning how to handle chemicals.

REA Resource Recovery Systems, a company which you co-founded and worked in collaboration with UConn to patent exclusive technology, has entered Phase 4 of itsREA Logo planned development of a 5000 square foot facility in Danbury that will turn FOG into biofuel.  How important is wastewater management for municipalities and what will be the benefits for the City of Danbury once the facility is online.

I joined my two partners, Al Barbarotta and Eric Metz, to found REA at the end of 2017. The UConn patents were already in place for a piece of core technology called a counterflow multi-phase reactor that plays a key role in both the chemical conversion and in the product purification. Prof. Nicholas Leadbeatter from Chemistry is a co-inventor with me on that reactor, along with two undergraduate students. Beginning in 2015, I started working with a very low grade feedstock called brown grease, which is much harder to process than the yellow grease we had been working with earlier. Every single wastewater treatment plant in the world has a brown grease management and disposal problem, and every municipality has a wastewater management problem. In much of the world, wastewater management is required by law and heavily regulated to ensure that effluent meets standards for discharge into rivers and oceans.

Here in CT, the brown grease problem was handled by DEEP many years ago by mandating that certain wastewater treatment plants in the state become FOG receiving stations. Brown grease is the component of FOG that causes all the problems. These FOG receiving stations were given a small set of choices as to how to dispose of the brown grease they received, such as by landfilling or incineration. All the choices cost money and vectored pollution into the air, the land, or the water.

Danbury was mandated to become a FOG receiving facility several years ago, and undertook a general plant upgrade project to build a FOG receiving facility and then dispose of the FOG using biodigesters. When that disposal pathway became too difficult due to high cost they sought alternatives. REA was ready at that time to provide the alternative of converting the brown grease into a salable product, biodiesel. This solution provides two benefits to Danbury, an environmentally excellent disposal method and a source of revenue. REA estimates that the revenue will offset the cost of the project in Danbury in about 7 years, and that the payback period will be significantly shorter in larger facilities.

It has been 15 years since you undertook this journey of making biodiesel a viable alternative energy source.  How does it feel to see your years of work coming to fruition with the Danbury project?

It feels terrifying because we have not yet started up the Danbury plant. When we successfully start Danbury, the relief and satisfaction will be enormous. Until then, for the next few months, everyone associated with the project is working very hard to finish the installation.

Since retiring in 2020, you appear to be just as active in your pursuit of science.  What continues to drive you and is there anything you miss now that you have retired?

I am driven by the desire to see this biodiesel project through to completion and by the desire to play some small role in mitigating the unfolding climate catastrophe. When I started at UConn I was surprised that the academic definition of project completion is a final report. As an engineer, that did not seem to be enough because most reports are ignored and forgotten. Sometimes I miss the teaching aspect of working at UConn, but I think I most miss the camaraderie of my colleagues, with whom I have much less time now than I used to.

Yu Lei Invents Low-Abundance Biomarker Detection Platform for Early Diagnosis

from UConn Today

Dr. Yu Lei
Dr. Yu Lei

Yu Lei, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, has invented a new platform that can perform high-sensitivity readings for a variety of disease biomarkers.

In the 1970s, scientists invented the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). Since then, ELISA has been the standard for detecting biomarkers.

Biomarkers are molecules present in the body that indicate the presence or severity of a disease. For example, autoantibodies can help detect autoimmune diseases, or a peptide known as amyloid-β can indicate Alzheimer’s disease.

One of the major limitations for ELISA is that if there is a low concentration of the molecule of interest, it cannot detect it. Lei’s invention addresses this problem by adding two amplification steps to ELISA’s process.

“We wanted to bridge the need for ultra-sensitivity, and also compatibility with the existing plate-based platform,” Lei says.

ELISA works using a “sandwich” of two antibodies specifically designed to capture/detect the biomarker of interest between them. One of these antibodies has an enzyme attached to it that will produce a readable signal when it encounters the substrate.

Lei introduced a two-step amplification to the ELISA reaction. Lei first added a tyramide signal amplification (TSA) process to amplify the signal of a low abundance biomarker. In Lei’s platform, the TSA step anchors numerous biotins onto the immunocomplexes. Lei then introduced the reporter enzyme alkaline phosphate (ALP) conjugated with streptavidin, which attaches to the biotins through the strong interaction between biotin and streptavidin.

Dr. Lei's Research
Lei’s technology advances traditional ELISA kits through the addition of two novel steps. (Yu Lei Provided image)

Lei added an ELFA-saturated ELFP substrate that ALP breaks down to produce a fluorescent signal. These molecules that precipitate through the system to form a readable layer consisting of fluorescent needles that a microscope captures as a series of images and counts. This fluorescent microneedle count corresponds to how much of the biomarker is in the sample.

“That’s the beauty of the system using ELFA-saturated ELFP substrate and counting-based method, we achieved rapid detection and at the same time no matter your initial number of target molecules their precipitating time is starting from the same point,” Lei says.

Lei successfully demonstrated that his process was able to achieve a resolution of 50 to 60 picograms per milliliter. This is about 20 times more sensitive than traditional ELISA using the same commercial ELISA kit.

Lei published his findings in the March issue of Analytica Chimica Acta.

This advancement could be extremely useful for early-stage detection of diseases and treatment.

“A lot of disease detection occurs when symptoms are already onset,” Lei says. “That biomarker concentration is already very high. So then, if we can detect at a very low concentration, we can capture the earliest stage and treatment may be more effective.”

Lei says the next step for this technology is to smoothly integrate it into conventional plate-based ELISA systems. This would allow the process, which currently takes about four hours for low-abundance biomarker detection, to be much faster by using advanced imaging systems.

Designing a Lighter, Denser Fuel Cell

from UConn Today

Fuel Cells
Fuel cells are a promising direction for cleaner energy, and a team of UConn researchers is working to improve their design (Adobe Stock).

Fuel cell technology is continuously evolving as renewable energy and alternate energy sources become an increasingly important means of reducing global dependence on fossil fuels. Planar fuel cells, a prevalent design, can be bulky, have compression issues, and uneven current distribution. Other drawbacks include problems with reactant gas transport, excess water removal, and fabrication challenges associated with their design.

A team of UConn researchers led by Jasna Jankovic, an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the School of Engineering, has devised a novel design for a tubular polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell that addresses those shortcomings and improves on existing tubular PEM fuel cell designs, most of which take a planar PEM fuel cell and curl it into a cylinder.

Jankovic and two grad students, Sara Pedram and Sean Small, took a more holistic approach that rethinks tubular fuel cell design from the ground up. Their disruptive, patent-pending concept could potentially have nearly twice the energy density of other tubular PEM fuel cells, be 50 percent lighter, have a replaceable inner electrode and electrolyte (if liquid), a leak-proof configuration, and require fewer precious metals.

That’s a big deal, says Michael Invernale, a senior licensing manager at UConn’s Technology Commercialization Services (TCS) working with Jankovic to bring the concept to market. Much of the effort to improve fuel cell design, he says, has focused on the end user instead of the greater good.

“A fuel cell with refillable components is a kind of solution that does that,” says Invernale.  “An airline relying on this technology would have more incentive to rebuild a component. Right now, it might be cheaper to replace the whole unit. That’s really where this design shines. The features of the design are green and sustainable and renewable.”

Fuel cells are essentially refuelable electrochemical power generation devices that combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, heat, and water. Each type is classified primarily by the kind of electrolyte it uses. Planar fuel cells are constructed using sandwich-like stacks of large, rectangular flow field plates made of graphite or metal, which account for about 80 percent of their weight and 40 percent of their cost. UConn’s design uses a single tube-shaped flow field that reduces its weight by half.

Jasna Jankovic
Dr. Jasna Jankovic

The concept is still in discovery and has I-Corps and Partnership for Innovation (PFI) funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The program was created to spur the translation of fundamental research to the marketplace, encourage collaboration between academia and industry, and train NSF-funded faculty, students, and other researchers in innovation and entrepreneurship skills.

Participating research teams have the opportunity to interview potential customers to learn more about their needs. Jankovic and her team conducted some 60 interviews during a UConn Accelerator program in early 2022 that helped them size up the market and answer important questions about whether or not to start a longer process, make the product themselves, or license the technology to another company.

“It was very useful to get feedback and guidance from people in industry” Jankovic says.

Jankovic led the team as PI, with Pedram and Small, acting as Entrepreneurial Lead and Co-Lead respectively. Lenard Bonville, the team’s industrial mentor, will support the team with his decades of industrial experience. The team will conduct another set of 100 interviews with industry to discover the market for their product and get guidance on its final design. NSF-Partnership for Innovation (PFI) funding will then be used to develop a prototype and pursue commercialization.

Fuel cells have a wide range of applications, from powering  homes and businesses, to keeping critical facilities like hospitals, grocery stores, and data centers up and running, and moving a variety of vehicles, including cars, buses, trucks, forklifts, trains, and more. Jankovic’s team is working toward obtaining a full patent on their design and thoroughly testing the concept. In the short term, they are focused on commercializing the technology and attracting potential partners.

Jankovic envisions creating a fuel cell roughly the size of a AA battery however, as a scalable and modular technology, it could be scaled-up to any practical size. The cylindrical shape would allow for more fuel cells to occupy the same amount of space as those in use now and be cheaper to manufacture, Invernale said. Jankovic views her fuel cell design as a replacement for Lithium-Ion batteries.

Jankovic said her seven years in industry before coming to UConn convinced her there was a need in the market for a new and better fuel cell design.

“From that experience, I knew that planar fuel cells had a few issues,” she says. “I kept asking around, and I said, ‘let’s do it and find out yes or no.”