Our research areas represent new and exciting directions in Chemical Engineering, centered on the themes of Advanced Materials, Biomolecular Engineering and Novel Environmental Technologies.
In Advanced Materials, there are several opportunities for research in Nanoscale Engineering and Nanotechnology. Nanostructures with critical dimensions less than 100 nm endow materials with unique and often superior mechanical, electronic, magnetic and optical properties, which can open a new avenue to numerous advanced applications. The method of self-assembly that spontaneously assembles and organizes various building blocks into hierarchical structures via non-covalent interactions has emerged as one of the most promising techniques to the efficient fabrication of nanostructured materials. Research covers the fundamentals of self-assembly, and the structure, properties, and applications of self-assembled materials. The following are examples of materials that are made using methods of nanotechnology.
The theme of Advanced Materials Research is also focused on Polymer Engineering and Science (the Tulane Institute of Macromolecular Engineering and Science – TIMES, is centered in the Department). Research is carried out in the areas of environmentally benign polymers, polymers for biomedical and health science applications, and functional polymer nanocomposites. There is a tremendous potential for such research to have an economic impact in the state and the region. We note that Louisiana ranks 2nd in the nation in resin production, but 36th in the production of polymeric parts. Research in polymer processing will tremendously enhance Tulane's national and international status in this important technological area.
In our laboratories for Composite Materials Research, students work on developing and understanding enhanced properties in novel, nanostructured materials. For example, corrosion-resistant metals, ductile ceramics, and electrically-conducting polymers could be made through the compaction and densification of nanoscale powders of appropriate materials. The small particle sizes lead to very high surface areas, and create materials in which interfacial properties, and not the inherent properties of the powder materials, can determine bulk properties such as mechanical strength, electrical conductivity and diffusivity. Current research projects include the production and evaluation of aluminum/mullite composites for chemical process industry applications, polymer/ceramic composites for fuel cell applications, and ceramic/ceramic composites for high temperature turbine applications. In conjunction with this activity, there is research on advanced fiber technology, materials processing, thermal analysis, nucleation and growth phenomena, and high-temperature characterization and processing of ceramics.
Students in the field of Catalytic Materials conduct interdisciplinary research that will lead to a predictive understanding of catalysis and an improved ability to design systems that exploit the novel properties of catalysis. Catalysis is the basic concept underlying the vast majority of chemical and biochemical processes. Developing advanced catalysts has enormous implications in enhancing our quality of life, reaching from environmentally benign chemical processes to pharmaceutical production. Research in this area is organized around interdisciplinary themes of:
Throughout these themes, we integrate aspects of biocatalysis through analogies with biomimetic processes.
The Department also offers opportunities for research in Bioinspired Materials. Through evolution, there are examples of materials in nature with remarkable properties. As a simple example, crystal formation and deposition in the biological world follows principles that lead to the formation of some remarkable materials (shells, bones, teeth, etc.). The elucidation of these principles and the ability to use these concepts in an in vitro context represents a new frontier in materials science and chemical engineering. Our students study the properties of novel biopolymers and bioceramics with the objective of translating the unique functional properties of biological materials to synthetic materials. There is work in this laboratory on biocompatible materials for implant and drug delivery systems, high strength fibers for ballistic protection reflecting the properties of spider silk, nonlinear optical polymers through enzymatic methods.
In Biotechnology and Biomolecular Engineering, the department conducts active research in the field of Gene Delivery and Cellular Engineering. The focus of this research is on the transfer of genetic material into living cells or tissues to control the expression of a particular protein. Current emphasis is placed upon genetic control mechanisms, which will allow only a predetermined subset of cells to express the delivered genes. This concept is harnessed to cause cancer cells to produce apoptotic proteins, which results in the ultimate demise of the cancer cells while leaving untransformed cells intact. (This system is being considered as a possible cancer therapeutic.) Future research directions will include multilevel guidance to control the development of stem cells into differentiated, heterogeneous issue, and a method of communicating with somatic cells within the body. Research in this laboratory addresses some of the most important questions relating to gene transfer into cells.
The theme of Biomolecular Engineering is also prevalent in research into Cell and Tissue Culture. Our faculty develops and utilizes three-dimensional tissue constructs for basic research, drug testing and delivery, as well as implantation. Within this framework, researchers utilize engineering concepts of mathematical modeling, kinetics and mass transport to understand and regulate interstitial and intracellular phenomena. The applications of this research are numerous and far-reaching. Millions suffer tissue and organ loss from disease and physical trauma. The most common medical treatment for this condition is transplantation from donor to patient at a cost exceeding $400 billion per year. There are several complications associated with this form of treatment, including rejection and donor shortage. Regeneration of three-dimensional tissue from cell culture would circumvent these obstacles. In another area of ongoing research, researchers address the failure of anti-cancer therapies as the result of intrinsic or acquired resistance to the toxic action of these agents. Our researchers use spheroids of neoplastic cells as an excellent culture system with which to investigate multidrug resistance.
Our students and faculty also study novel methods of doing Targeted Drug Delivery. Research is conducted on visual imaging of model drug delivery process using video microscopy with micromanipulating devices. Through such experimental techniques, methodologies are developed that optimize cell intake of drugs through controlled delivery. Researchers study double emulsion methods of drug delivery, and work on novel nanohydrogel method to design time-dependent release characteristics. Of particular interest are drug delivery techniques that impact colon cancer treatment and ophthalmologic applications for drug delivery to the back of the eye. Also novel hydrogels for corneal inserts and glaucoma treatments are being developed.
In the field of Environmental Technology, students focus on some of the phenomena that are important in the separation, transport and reaction processes of particulate systems, with emphasis on environmental remediation. In soil bioremediation processes, bacteria metabolize toxic organic compounds. Researchers investigate the transport of such bacteria through capillaries that are models for soil pores. Through sophisticated imaging techniques, researchers visualize the follow of contaminants and bacteria in porous media and will seek to develop new technologies for environmental remediation.