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:
Molecular Bioengineering (Camesano, Peterson, Roberts, Young, Zhou)
We use the techniques in molecular biology, nanotechnology, cell culture, materials characterization, protein engineering and bioinformatics to address key problems related to biotechnology and biomedicine, highlighted below:
- Cellular consortia: How do cells work together to solve nature’s most difficult challenges? How does cell aggregation affect metabolism and performance in culture environments? How can we exploit cellular interactions to improve bioprocessing, discover new chemistries and develop new industrial organisms?
- Biomaterials: How can we identify the key components in complex mixtures that influence material behavior and cell adhesion? How can we build materials layer-by-layer to tune physical, mechanical and transport properties? How can we design nano-scale sensors with precision and multi-functional capabilities? How can we design surfaces to be antimicrobial and/or resist bacterial adhesion?
- Metabolic and cellular engineering: How can plant cells be genetically modified to synthesize complex natural products? How can we use synthetic biology to understand and control yeast gene expression? How can we understand and engineer the unique metabolic capabilities of non-model organisms?
Advanced Functional Materials (Deskins, Peterson, Teixeira, Timko, Zhou)
Advanced materials have potential in many fields, ranging from medical diagnostics to sustainability. Specific interests of WPI faculty include:
- 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.
Sustainable Energy Engineering (Datta, Deskins, Dixon, Kazantzis, Teixeria, Timko)
Meeting the energy and chemical needs of the 21st century requires development of new technology and scientific understanding of energy conversion, power generation and storage, and chemical production. To meet these challenges, WPI faculty use a range of tools to understand the important chemical and physical phenomena at all relevant length scales, from the molecular to process. Some of our techniques include:
- Computational modeling: We use mathematical models to predict the performance of new and existing energy and chemicals technologies at the molecular and reactor level, the interaction of energy technologies with external factors (including market forces), and the robustness of models in the face of known uncertainty.
- Microreactor engineering: Microreactor techniques are used to improve process intensity and study chemical reactions under precisely controlled conditions.
- Spectroscopy: We use conventional and on-line spectroscopy to follow chemical reactions at the molecular scale. Examples include on-line Raman spectroscopy of cellulose reactivity.
- Electrochemical engineering: Through the Fuel Cell Center, WPI studies the operation of many different fuel cell platforms, including solid oxide fuel cells and fuel cells based on novel electrolytes.
Engineering Education (DiBiasio, Clark, Kmiotek, Zurawsky)
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.