Engineering professor wins research award
Henry Gens | Friday, April 4, 2014
The North American Membrane Society (NAMS) recently awarded assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering William A. Phillip with its Young Scientist Award, according to a College of Engineering press release.
The award, which annually recognizes outstanding individuals starting their professional careers in membrane science and technology, will be presented at the 24th annual NAMS meeting at the end of May.
Phillip’s recognition could be considered an auspicious start to a career that has already, in a sense, come full circle. Phillip first discovered his passion for membrane science as a chemical engineering undergraduate here at Notre Dame.
“One of the things that started this interest was that I worked as an undergrad in the lab of Arvind Varma, a faculty member here at the time and who’s now the department head over at Purdue,” Phillip said. “I did membrane-related research with him starting sophomore year and that sort of catalyzed the whole thing — studying reaction engineering and transport in lab, which I enjoyed immensely.”
Phillip now leads a lab of his own, named the Water Purification and Advanced Transport Engineering Research Laboratory, aptly abbreviated as WATER.
“We make membranes for water purification out of advanced materials, new materials using polymer-based chemistry,” Phillip said.
To that end, Phillip leverages collaborations with teams working in basic chemistry to incorporate their novel syntheses in an important engineering application.
“There are very smart people out there doing innovative chemistry, and because of their efforts, a lot of it happens to be fairly modular these days,” Phillip said. “So we can collaborate with synthetic polymer chemists who come up with new materials that we then figure out how to process into useful products on larger length and mass scales relevant to society’s needs.”
In particular, the research for which Phillip earned recognition from the NAMS Young Membrane Scientist Award largely involves refining current state-of-the-art membrane technology, which is a surprisingly disordered affair on the nanometer scale.
“The research that I submitted as an abstract specifically for the award involves producing membranes consisting of self-assembled block polymers,” Phillip said. “Membrane filtration is used in a variety of important applications, like removing viruses and particulate matter from water and other fluids. But if you look closely at most of the membranes currently used for this, they would look like over-cooked spaghetti — just a jumbled distribution of pore sizes.”
Phillip’s novel approach to this problem makes use of basic research from synthetic-polymer chemists to engineer far higher-quality filtration meshes in useful quantities.
“Our approach with these self-assembled block polymers allows for us to have a single uniform pore size at a high density, 10 to the 14th pores per meter squared, which is ‘a whole lot’ in non-technical terms,” Phillip said. “We’ll also have far greater control over the pore sizes themselves, which can range from five to 100 nanometers.”
Phillip said his investigation revolves around an exciting research question for which he was grateful to be recognized. He said he also especially excited to research at the place where and alongside individuals with whom he first delved into chemical engineering.
“The NAMS award is an honor, and it’s cool to come back to ND and work as a colleague with some of the people that were mentors to me early on,” he said.