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Research Themes and the Grand Challenges

As we entered the 21th century, the society is facing three major problems that persistently haunt us and threaten the progress of our economy and civilization.  These are 1) energy, 2) environment, and 3) healthcare.  At UCLA, the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering faculty addresses these problems using various approaches based on fundamental principles of chemistry, physics, and biology, and aided by advanced mathematical modeling and computational tools.  Although immediate project goals for each individual faculty may vary, we all address these grand challenges in one way or another.  For detailed description of projects, please visit individual faculty’s web site.

1) Energy

More than 85% of our energy comes from fossil sources, including petroleum, coal, and natural gas.  However, relying on fossil resources is not desirable nor sustainable. Oil production peaked a few years ago, but the demand continues to increase rapidly because of the growth of population and the development in third-world countries. Meanwhile, the carbon dioxide released because of the use of fossil fuel has caused increasing concerns and possible climate changes. It is the responsibility of the chemical engineer to develop alternatives to replace fossil resources as raw material for fuels and chemicals, and to utilize available resources more effectively.

Faculty in UCLA CBE department are investigating methods to harvest sunlight, store electricity more efficiently, generate hydrogen, and reduce CO2 using biological and physic-chemical means.  Projects such as artificial photosynthesis, synthetic CO2 fixation, microbial synthesis of fuels and chemicals, hydrogen production, fuel cells, battery improvement, and more efficient process design and catalyst discovery for chemical synthesis are currently under way.  Chemical methods as well as genetic and biochemical approaches are used by faculty and graduate students to achieve these goals. Nanotechnology is used to create new materials for energy applications. In addition, mathematical modeling creates better design and control schemes. Participating faculty include Chang, Davis, Hicks, Liao, Lu, Manouseothakis, and Senkan.

“UCLA researchers developed the first integrated electro-bioreactor system to convert electrical energy to chemical energy. This system can be used to store intermittent electricity as liquid fuel ready to use in regular cars, and represents the first non-photosynthetic biofuel. See Li et al. Science 2012”



2) The Environment

The growing public concern about environmental protection is having a significant impact on the political and economic activities in the U.S. and around the world. Consequently, there is an increasing pressure on the scientific and engineering communities for the development of clean, environmentally friendly technologies, while maintaining our high living standards. The Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at UCLA has had a long and distinguished record of making pioneering contributions to Environmental Chemical Engineering and has been the hub of environmental research for over a decade. 

 At UCLA, a new class of ceramic-supported polymer membranes is being developed for the decontamination of aqueous systems and for the separation of organic liquid mixtures and purification of water. Fundamental research on polymer brush layers has also led to the recent development of a new class of low-fouling ultrafiltration membranes for colloidal and protein separations and novel pervaporation membranes.  Methodologies that can aid engineers in designing plants that are using their material and energy resources efficiently so as to be both economically viable and environmentally friendly are being developed. Participating faculty include Cohen, Christofides, Davis, Orkulous, and Manouseothakis.

3) Healthcare

Chemical Engineering has a long but less recognized tradition in its contribution to healthcare.  In 1950’s, the scale up of penicillin fermentation made this important antibiotic affordable, and effectively controlled many life-threatening infections and diseases.  Today, faculty and students in the UCLA CBE Department are combining engineering principles with life sciences technologies to solve long-standing problems and unmet needs in healthcare, with a particular emphasis on the chemical, molecular, and genomic aspects.  For example, we strive to discover new genes and mechanisms for synthesizing novel drugs that fight against pathogens and cancer cells.   We develop biomaterials with nanoscale precision for delivery of therapeutics to patients. We fabricate probes that can be used to follow how brains function in real time. We re-engineer cells to fight obesity and autoimmune diseases.  We also benefit from our interaction with Nobel Laureate Lou Ignarro on our faculty, who discovered nitric oxide as an important signaling molecule in cardiovascular, neuronal, and immune systems. Participating faculty include Chen, Liao, Lu, Monbouquette,  Segura, and Tang.