Research Focus Areas
WPI’s Chemical Engineering Department has a rich history of innovative research in the areas of membrane science, materials science, catalysis and reaction engineering. During the past decade we have hired new faculty and expanded our efforts to become a leader in the fields of bioengineering and energy.
From discovering new sources of renewable energy to finding solutions to critical health issues, the fundamental and applied research of the Chemical Engineering Department at WPI, done in a collaborative, supportive interdisciplinary environment, touches on some of the most important issues and problems of our time.
Although our collective research spans a number of disciplines and applications, we are strategically focused and building our programs in the following four areas:
Advanced Functional Materials
- Medical diagnostics: We design and implement nano-scale sensors to detect dilute solute concentrations and enable differentiated binding of biomolecules.
- Zeolites: We study synthesis, use, and stability of zeolites for applications in gas separations and catalysis.
- Solar and electrochemical materials: We use computational techniques to understand the performance of solar and electrochemical materials for photocatalysis and power generation. A particular emphasis is on understanding the roles of defects.
- Sustainable carbon materials: We synthesize inexpensive adsorbents from waste, renewable resources, and study their application to point-of-use drinking water purification.
- Layer-by-layer assembly, including additive manufacturing: We investigate processing-structure-property relationships for materials assembled in a layer-by-layer fashion using experimental and computational techniques, with a focus on interfacial phenomena, both within the materials and between materials and their operating environments.
Organism and Biomaterials Engineering
Engineering of biological systems is rapidly accelerating in scope and scale. Further innovation can shape the economy of the future. To this end, our faculty are investigating key problems related to biotechnology and biomedicine. Faculty work across multiple scales and disciplines. This includes unique capabilities in organism engineering, such as the genetic modification of plants and microbes to make cell factories, biophysics, investigating the emergent properties of cells and cell consortia such as biofilms and adhesion, and materials, such as the encapsulation of biological molecules in polymer structures. Methods are used from bioprocessing, cell culture, metabolic and protein engineering, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and materials science. Our work aims to impact chemicals synthesis, pharmaceuticals production, personalized medicine, and medical devices.
WPI is a recognized leader in innovative engineering education as evidenced by the 2016 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education for the WPI Plan, the university’s revolutionary project-based approach to education. The WPI Plan includes a global projects program that sends students to complete undergraduate projects in over 25 countries worldwide. Faculty in the Chemical Engineering Department contribute to these and other engineering education innovations through:
- Advising global projects: Along with sending junior students around the globe to conduct societal impact projects, we send senior chemical engineering students to conduct research and development projects in China, France, California and Brazil.
- Developing an entrepreneurial mindset: In collaboration with the Kern Family Foundation, we are developing, implementing, and evaluating ways to instill curiosity, idea connection, and value creation in engineering students through innovative problem- and project- based learning in coursework as well as project work.
- Implementing and assessing innovations in teaching and learning: We have a process for continuous improvement to our curriculum that often has application beyond WPI. This process has resulted in an innovative “spiral” curriculum for our sophomore year, novel courses that link humanities and engineering, additions and improvements to our laboratory courses, and use of computer simulations for improved learning in laboratory and other coursework.
Sustainable Energy Engineering
Production of sustainable energy is one of the key challenges of the 21st century. Our faculty are engaged in research on many aspects of sustainable energy, with specific emphasis on hydrogen production, fuel cells, bioenergy, and solar energy. For example, our faculty are working to develop membrane processes to recover high purity hydrogen, a potential fuel which releases only water when combusted. In other work, we are developing next generation fuel cells for power generation. In bioenergy, our faculty are studying new ways to convert waste biomass and organic feeds into biodiesel fuels and small molecules that can be fermented to produce biofuels or upgraded to produce commodity chemicals. We are developing innovative high-pressure fermenter capabilities for improved biofuel production technologies. Our unique capabilities include modeling that extends from the molecular scale to the system level and microreactor and in situ reaction monitoring techniques. Many of our faculty are members of the WPI Energy Research Group. Our work is funded by DOE, NSF, and industry.