WPI Professor Aims to Create On-Demand Manufacturing Systems to Improve Water Quality, Agriculture, Drug Development
A chemical engineering professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is applying innovative chemical engineering processes to develop tools that could aid farmers in rural areas and developing nations, establish improved water supply chains for municipalities, and spur improved drug development.
Andrew Teixeira, assistant professor of chemical engineering, has received four grants—including a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER award—totaling more than $1.6 million over the past several months. He has received grants from three different agencies to study the issue: the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and Mainstream Engineering Corporation. A common theme across the grants is the focus on chemical manufacturing to support on-demand water and agricultural efforts and domestic pharmaceutical drug manufacturing.
Teixeira’s approach is part of a new wave of manufacturing that aims to create a distributed chemical and energy landscape that transitions from large, centralized refineries to small, on-demand systems that use geographically localized resources.
“I’m very excited to help define a new paradigm in chemical manufacturing by introducing periodic, dynamic operating conditions,” said Teixeira. “There have traditionally been a limited number of tools to use when designing refineries, but now we’re proposing an entirely new strategy that allows us to unlock pathways that were previously unachievable.”
Teixeira’s method centers on using microreaction engineering and continuous flow chemistry, a process that allows for more flexible management of the manufacturing process than traditional batch manufacturing of chemical products. Instead of requiring a constant pressure and temperature throughout the process, his dynamic systems use intermittent ultrafast pressure and temperature switching.
“Because it’s continuous, you don’t need to stop and clean,” he said. “It’s smaller and safer and on-demand.”
Teixeira said he’s looking forward to sparking a significant shift in how water, food, chemicals and pharmaceuticals are manufactured and accessed.
“We’re looking to flip industries on their heads,” he added. “We’re talking about being able to better feed the world. The impact is transformative.”
Teixeira’s four grants are as follows:
- NSF CAREER award: “CAREER: Nitrogen Activation: Splitting Kinetic Cycles and Breaking Energetic Barriers with Pulsed Catalysis.” Teixeira is working to help make it cheaper, easier and safer for farmers around the globe to grow crops by helping them produce their own fertilizer. Ammonia, a critical ingredient in fertilizer, is energy intensive to produce; it consumes about 2 percent of the world’s energy. His research will not only make ammonia more economical to create, but also enable farmers to produce it themselves, eliminating the need for it to be shipped great distances from chemical manufacturers, which is particularly important in rural or developing areas that lack a reliable distribution infrastructure. The NSF CAREER Award is the most prestigious NSF award for faculty members early in their careers as researchers and educators. The award totals $578,000 over five years.
- NSF Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) award: This research, done in collaboration with the University of Virginia and the University of Houston, focuses on making it easier, cheaper, and more efficient to convert distributed resources such as stranded natural gas into useful chemicals. (Stranded natural gas fields are largely unusable because of location or access challenges). The work, which will benefit energy and chemical companies, along with material and power producers, aims to create small-scale reactors that can be easily transported to natural gas or methane sources, to which access would otherwise require costly pipelines and safety infrastructures. Bringing the reactor to the resource “flips the transportation problem,” said Teixeira, “saving money and energy while possibly making the process a lot safer.” Teixeira’s role is to design, build and test the proof-of-concept micro-reactor technology. He will receive $400,000 of the $2 million award over four years.
- Mainstream Engineering Corporation: Florida-based Mainstream Engineering Corp., in cooperation with WPI, is developing a membraneless water purification system to remove colloidal contaminants from water. Membranes and filters used in current water purification systems can become clogged, requiring frequent replacement. Teixeira’s research uses small ionized carbon dioxide molecules to split water in two, creating distinct streams of concentrated waste and clean water – a process that removes particulate matter, bacteria, and other contaminants. Teixeira is the principal investigator; and Elizabeth Stewart, assistant professor of chemical engineering at WPI, is the co-principal investigator. This project will receive $483,000 over three years.
- Department of Energy RAPID EWD Flow Chemistry Course: Teixeira and Robert Dempski, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, are developing a hands-on course for pharmaceutical chemists in WPI’s Biomanufacturing Education & Training Center. The three-day intensive lab course features models for lectures, labs, and augmented reality to allow chemists to design, construct, and test their own reactor systems. This will give them experience in converting from traditional batch chemistry to a flow chemistry process that creates on-demand pharmaceuticals. During the past several years, the pharmaceutical industry has undergone a major shift from traditional batch manufacturing technology to modular flow technology, which offers greater efficiency, purity and safety. As a result, pharmaceutical chemists require updated training that can’t be conducted in a live manufacturing facility. “It’s next generation of workforce training,” said Teixeira, who is partnering with the ACS Green Chemistry Institute on the project. This research will receive $174,000 over two years.