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Research Groups

Abrams Research Group

The Abrams group uses molecular simulations to address questions in biological and materials sciences primarily centered on structure/function relationships. The group has made efforts to develop and implement new molecular simulation methods for statistically accurate prediction of energetics and rates of molecular-level processes. Current research in the Abrams group (2013) focuses on understanding the structure/function relationships underlying HIV entry and the design of entry inhibitors and microbicides against AIDS, on predicting transport rates of small molecules through proteins, such as CO in myoglobin, and on understanding how control of void growth in epoxies under tension can lead to better toughening mechanisms, which would be advantageous in military protective applications.

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Alvarez Research Group

Details coming soon...

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Baxter Research Group

Dr. Jason Baxter’s research focuses on investigating materials, interfaces, processing, and physical and chemical phenomena related to photovoltaics. His group uses a variety of strategies including materials discovery to find new materials with better properties for photovoltaics, designing nanostructured architectures that enable high efficiency with lower quality materials, and developing detailed understanding of electronic and optical processes that affect solar cell performance. His work primarily utilizes low cost, scalable processing methods, usually involving solution deposition. The Baxter group focuses on understanding relationships between processing, material properties, and device performance for solar energy conversion. Their efforts to understand the processing, chemistry, and physics of materials and interfaces have wide-ranging impact on a variety of nanostructured and thin film solar cells. Baxter has reported extensively on nanostructured solar cells including dye sensitized solar cells, organic solar cells, and extremely thin absorber solar cells. These solar cells have architectures designed on 1-100 nm length scales to enable efficient light absorption and charge collection with low-cost materials and processing. Solar cell performance depends on electron transfer processes that occur on picosecond to nanosecond time scales. Baxter employs ultrafast pump-probe terahertz spectroscopy and visible transient absorption spectroscopy to probe intraband and interband transitions in semiconductors. His group is working to understand photophysics and carrier transport in systems, such as core-shell nanowires, nanocrystal arrays, and perovskite thin films, to provide insight into the architecture design and materials selection for nanostructured and thin film solar cells.

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Cairncross Research Group

The Cairncross research group is working on topics related to renewable polymers and renewable fuels. In addition, Professor Cairncross teaches courses on renewable energy, sustainable engineering and design, and is involved with several groups on campus promoting sustainability.

Bio-fuels are a small but growing part of the U.S. energy portfolio. However, availability of renewable feedstocks that can be efficiently converted into fuels is a major limitation on the potential for bio-fuels. The Cairncross research group has developed a novel bubble column reactor for the conversion of waste greases into biodiesel. The bubble column reactor is more robust to impurities than other process alternatives. The research involves a combination of reaction experiments, using transport principles to improve reactor design, evaluation of process design, and estimation of environmental impacts. Current projects are evaluating the life cycle environmental impacts of producing biodiesel from waste greases, improving processes for separating lipids from waste sources, improved purification techniques for crude biodiesel, and growing algae to produce biofuels.

Plastics are a ubiquitous part of modern life. The Cairncross group has been researching the transport of small molecules within polymers and polymer composites to understand and improve the performance of polymers for commodity and infrastructure applications. Current projects include evaluating factors that affect moisture transport through polylactide – a bio-based polymer that is produced from corn – and developing mathematical models of antioxidant diffusion and degradation in polyethylene nanocomposites that are used for water infrastructure.

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Dan Research Group

Dr. Dan’s research focuses on the properties of complex materials composed of polymers, surfactants, lipids, proteins and/or colloidal particles, so as to enable the design of materials with pre-determined interactions with, or response to, environmental triggers. Current topics include:

  1. The design of colloidal shells (colloidosomes) to prevent transport of reactive oxidative agents. Oxidative agents, such as free radicals, are prevalent both in-vitro and in-vivo, causing degradation of bio-active materials. The goal of this project is to design novel, colloidal-based shells that effectively exclude oxidative agent transport, thereby enhancing the stability of encapsulants, such as drugs, proteins or cells.
  2. Lipid and polymer-based ultrasound contrast agents for in-vivo imaging and drug delivery. Recent research has demonstrated that lipid bilayers (vesicles) and lipid-polymer bilayers (‘stealth’ liposomes) are sensitive to low frequency ultrasound. The goal of this project is to determine the mechanism and conditions under which ultrasound can be used to activate lipid-based bilayers, thereby enabling their utilization as in-vivo imaging contrast agents or drug delivery vehicles without the complications associated with the use of current, gas-based systems.
  3. Peptide-mimetic molecules and anti-microbial agents. The increased resistance of pathogens to antibiotic compounds is a serious challenge to healthcare. Peptide-mimetic molecules, such as oligo-acyl-lysines (OAKs), enhance the activity of otherwise ineffective antibiotics against gram-negative, multidrug-resistant strains of Escherichia coli. This study examines the mechanisms by which OAKs and OAK/antibiotic complexes disrupt the structure of model membranes. The results will allow determination of the effects of OAK dosage, and OAK-antibiotic complex properties, on their anti-microbial efficacy.
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Fafarman Research Group

The Fafarman lab is developing new chemistries and new processes for the fabrication of high-performance optoelectronic materials from colloidal nanocrystalline building blocks. The group introduced a class of compact, inorganic capping groups (or ligands) for the nanocrystal surface that promote the dispersibility of semiconducting and metallic particles in polar solvents. This allows us to assemble all-inorganic nanocrystal-solids with exceptionally short interparticle spacing, directly from solution. These colloids exhibit highly charged surfaces, a phenomenon we are currently exploiting by using electric fields to direct their assembly in to solid-state materials, allowing for a dramatic increase in the atom economy of the process. The sparse surface coverage of these compact ligands allows us to manipulate and measure the chemical composition at the nanocrystal surface, in order to optimize the electrical and optical properties of the solid, particularly for photovoltaics. To understand the interplay between the chemical processes the group develops and the photophysics and electrical behavior of the resulting all-inorganic nanocrystal arrays, the group uses spectroscopy and electrical measurement, often in tandem. Measuring the absorption spectrum of a compact array of semiconducting nanocrystals under an applied field (Stark spectroscopy) helps the group understand the electronic coupling between nanocrystals. Vibrational spectroscopy provides a handle for understanding the composition of the nanocrystal surface, and the action of charge carriers under illumination or under bias. Steady-state spectroscopies are performed in the lab, while time-resolved experiments are done in collaboration with groups at Drexel and Brookhaven National Lab.

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Kalra Research Group

The Kalra group combines experiments and meso-scale simulations to study structure-property-performance correlation in nanofiber-based novel materials for energy storage and conversion devices, including fuel cells, super-capacitors, batteries and solar cells. The key focus is on tailoring material architecture from sub-nanometer to macroscopic length scales for synergistic effects of properties and performances in energy devices. Nanofibers are fabricated via a process called electrospinning, where a droplet of polymer, organic/inorganic hybrid or ceramic sol-gel precursor liquid is elongated by the action of a strong electrical field. The resulting nanofibers with diameters in the range of 50-500 nm are collected as non-woven mats. These mats provide a flexible, light-weight, free-standing platform with an interconnected pore structure (for efficient mass transport) and high surface area, necessary to develop efficient electrodes for various energy devices. Depending on the specific target application, Kalra lab synthesizes nanofibers composed of one or more of the following class of materials; polymers, organic/inorganic hybrids, carbon and ceramics. Nanofiber synthesis is accompanied by a comprehensive set of structural and electrochemical characterization techniques including scanning/transmission electron microscopy, x-ray diffraction, x-ray scattering, x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, nitrogen physisorption, cyclic voltammetry, impedance spectroscopy, and charge-discharge measurements. In addition, to fundamentally understand process-structure correlation, Kalra lab conducts molecular and meso-scale simulations using molecular dynamics and dissipative particle dynamics approaches. Within the scope of these overall research interests, the current active research projects include 1) Understanding the self assembly of rod-rod block copolymers within nanofibers for organic solar cells; 2) Understanding the structure-property-performance correlation in nanofiber-based electrodes for lithium-air batteries; 3) highly-ordered electrode/catalyst assembly in proton exchange membrane fuel cells for enhanced catalyst utilization; 4) Superporous electrospun carbon nanofibers for supercapacitors. In addition to energy applications, the ongoing research in Kalra lab on nanofibers can potentially impact several other fields including sensing, catalysis, smart textiles, drug delivery and tissue engineering.

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Lau Research Group

The Lau research group is centered on the study of polymer thin films and devices. Currently, we are investigating the synthesis and integration of polymer electrolytes and semiconducting/conducting polymers in porous nanostructured electrodes of energy devices, including solar cells, batteries, and supercapacitors, that are relevant for achieving a sustainable energy future. Novel synthesis techniques, such as initiated and oxidative chemical vapor deposition (iCVD, oCVD), are utilized to enable the conformal coating and pore filling within extremely high aspect ratio porous nanoarchitectures. This ability allows good interfacial contact between the device electrodes and polymer electronic materials, leading to significantly enhanced device performance in terms of energy efficiency and capacity. Fundamentally, the ability to confine polymer materials inside three-dimensional porous nanostructures leads to unique, novel material behavior and properties that are previously not accessible or possible in bulk or planar two-dimensional systems.

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Mutharasan Research Group

Past work - Biosensors - Measuring extremely small number of pathogens or a parasite in the order of a few in one mL of liquid or quantifying the presence of 10,000 protein or DNA molecules in body fluids are enabling technologies in health care, drug discovery and biosecurity. Mutharasan’s lab has developed several sensor platforms, of which the current focus is on piezoelectric-excited millimeter-sized cantilever sensors, which exhibit high sensitivity, and are robust for field applications. For example, the group is able to observe in real time binding of 28kD toxin, Staphylococcus enterotoxin B (SEB) to an antibody-immobilized sensor at a concentration of 1 femtogram/mL. The group has invented several easily-fabricated sensor designs that exhibit exquisite sensitivity of a few attomoles for microRNA, an emerging regulator and a potential biomarker.

Future Direction - Bioseparation- Recent NSF funding will enable the group to examine the role of surface vibration intensity on surface binding energetics. The sensor research over the last decade has lead to the development of a device in which one can “at will” change harmonically surface velocity and acceleration. It is hypothesized that such a capability will enable detachment of a bound antigen and “melt” hybridized ssDNA. The former phenomena can yield a new process for separating recombinant proteins in a single step, a significant improvement over the current practice of multiple steps, lending to improved recovery and reduced cost. The melting of DNA via vibration, when combined with polymerases can potentially yield a new label-free molecular technique with high throughput capability that would be comparable to the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method, the current workhorse of molecular biology. Unlike the PCR, the sensor-based method can be applied to hundreds of targets simultaneously, enabling discovery research.

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Palmese Research Group

The Palmese research group on polymers and composites focuses on processing-structure-property relationships of crosslinked polymer systems. A major class of such polymer systems is thermosetting polymers formed from liquid monomers that react to form crosslinked networks. The behavioral characteristics of these materials depend strongly on chemical and physical processes that occur during their manufacture. Understanding the cure phenomena enables the design of improved polymers with unique functionality. The work in this group relies on the ability to synthesize new monomers, to understand the reaction behavior, to characterize the network structure on multiple scales, and to evaluate performance. Several research areas are active: (1) Synthesis of networks with controlled network topology for enhancing fracture behavior; (2) Design and synthesis of monomers from renewable sources; (3) Design and understanding of self-healing polymers and composite interfaces based on reversible chemical linkages; (4) Understanding the influence of covalent bonding on interfacial strength in composites; and (5) Soft fiber reinforced composites based on hydrogels for biomedical applications.

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Snyder Research Group

The Snyder group strives to fully understand the nature of the electrocatalytic site and how its properties may be adjusted to optimize interaction with reactants/intermediates yielding improved catalyst activity and selectivity. Through the use of fundamental investigations of idealized, single crystal metal/alloy electrodes we can gain insight into reaction mechanisms and how they may be influenced by structural, compositional and electronic properties. These insights will provide the basis for development of unique nanostructured catalysts that are more suited for integration into real-world electrochemical devices. The group’s focus is divided into four areas: (1) Dealloying/nanoporous metals and the kinetics of electrochemical reactions within nanoconfined environments, emphasis on organic synthesis of nanoporous nanoparticles for aqueous electrochemical reactions, such as oxygen reduction with relevance to fuel cells, nitrate reduction for water purification and water splitting for hydrogen/oxygen evolution; (2) Nonaqueous electrochemistry, understanding the kinetic advantages of organic and ionic liquid electrolytes for the oxygen reduction and carbon dioxide reduction/fuel conversion reactions; (3) Electrochemistry in unique/extreme environments, developing testing apparatuses and procedures for studying the effects of extreme reaction conditions, such as high temperature and pressure, and how they may be used to tailor kinetics and selectivity; (4) Gas phase catalysis, understanding the influence of catalyst nanostructure and the interaction of metal/metal oxide interfaces on reaction mechanisms of the water-gas-shift and methanol production reactions (the group is also interested in finding the link between gas phase methanol production and electrochemical carbon dioxide reduction where a mechanistic understanding of the gas phase reaction may help to improve the methanol selectivity of the electrochemical reaction).

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Soroush Research Group

The Soroush group is currently conducting research in Polymer Reaction Engineering, Process Risk Assessment and Fault Detection, and Solar Cell Modeling and Optimization.

In Polymer Reaction Engineering, the Soroush group conducts experimental and theoretical/computational studies to understand mechanisms of high-temperature polymerization reactions of acrylates and methacrylates. Reactions are modeled and simulated at quantum level, and then the knowledge gained on the reaction mechanisms is used in macroscopic modeling of polymerization reactors. Their ultimate aim is to design novel processes for the production of higher quality, environmentally friendlier resins and coatings at lower operating costs. In this area, the Soroush group collaborates with University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Chemistry and DuPont.

In Process Risk Assessment and Fault Detection, the group uses historical process data to probabilistically assess risks and identify faults. Their methods provide online estimates that alert operators about potentially serious safety problems. The methods identify the root cause(s) of triggered alarms in a short period of time so that the process personnel with help from control and safety systems can return the process operation to normal, or steer the process to safer conditions. The group has tested their methods on a plant at Air Liquide. In this area, the group collaborates with University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Wharton School of Business, and Air Liquide.

In Solar Cell Modeling and Optimization, the group employs an integrated research strategy involving first-principles mathematical modeling and simulation, synthesis and characterization to design solid-state dye sensitized solar cells with optimal performance, and optimally operate and integrate the cells. Central to this research is the hypothesis that higher power conversion efficiencies will be obtained by reducing major losses in electrical conduction within the photoanode and electrolyte of the cell. In this project the group collaborates with Dr. Ken Lau and University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Chemical Engineering.

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Tang Research Group

The Tang lab's research mission is to advance the fundamental understanding of physical and chemical phenomena in ways that improve the lifetime, performance, and cost of electrochemical energy systems. Broadly, we improve device performance by first diagnosing and understanding fundamental obstacles, then developing new materials, architectures, and system-level solutions to these problems. To this end, we employ a variety of theoretical and experimental methods to integrate materials development with diagnostics and theory at the molecular and system level. Current topics of interest in the group are: a) understanding and controlling the decomposition reactions of nonaqueous electrolytes, with an emphasis on corrosion and passivation; b) alloy electrocatalysts for hydrogen fuel cells and electrolysis; and c) hydrogen peroxide electrochemistry.

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Wrenn Research Group

Dr. Wrenn oversees the Biological Colloids Lab, where he and his students apply principles of colloid science to the study of human disease. The work can be classified into two broad categories: 1) Native Colloidal Phenomena – This means attempting to understand those colloidal phenomena which give rise to, or play an important role in, a particular disease. For example, cholesterol nucleation from aggregated vesicles and low density liproproteins is important in formation of cholesterol gallstones and atherosclerotic plaques, respectively. A fundamental understanding of cholesterol nucleation from these biological colloids could lead to strategies aimed at prevention or mitigation of the harmful effects of cholesterol crystal formation in the body. Additionally, cholesterol nucleation is preceded by aggregation of liposomes and lipoproteins, and we investigate the means by which various enzymes influence aggregation. 2) Designed Systems – This involves development of colloid-based systems for treatment of disease. For example, nanoparticles can be used for targeted drug delivery within the body. A third research category involves a hybrid of the first two; that is, development of colloidal systems to interact with native biological colloids. For example, we are investigating interactions between ultrasound and surfactant mono- and bi-layers so as to improve ultrasound-assisted delivery involving microbubbles, cells, and a variety of drug-carrying vehicles. Current efforts involve identifying the mechanisms of ultrasound-induced sonoporation of cell membranes, correlating leakage kinetics with liposome phase behavior and material properties, studying the impact of monolayer stiffness on microbubble acoustic properties and inertial cavitation, and development of a “theranostic” vehicle in which microbubbles are nested inside polymeric microcapsules or giant vesicles.

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