Chem Eng name change reflects new plan

Chem Eng name change reflects new plan

BY JADE BOYD
Rice News staff

A bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering was among the first degrees offered when Rice opened its doors in 1912, and the degree is still a ticket to some of today’s best-paying careers in industry, including petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and microprocessor manufacturing.

In an effort to stay ahead of industry trends and provide students with the skills they need to succeed, the Department of Chemical Engineering has developed a new strategic plan that puts equal emphasis on molecular biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics as fundamental sciences of the discipline.

The new plan, which calls for the department to change its name to “chemical and biomolecular engineering,” has approval from the provost and the department’s advisory and development board.

The strategic plan reaffirms Rice’s commitment to core skills —quantitative, systems-based approaches that have made chemical engineering successful. It calls for new research directions, faculty hires in the biosystems area, new or revised courses and additional subject requirements in biology at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Finally, the plan calls for continued investment of resources to further develop the traditionally strong areas of materials, complex fluids and energy systems.

“Over the past century, our profession has consistently been called on to take molecular-level discoveries from the lab and scale them up for the marketplace,” said department chair Kyriacos Zygourakis, the A.J. Hartsook Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

For example, although penicillin was discovered in 1928, it wasn’t tested in animals until 1939, and even then, researchers couldn’t produce enough of the drug to conduct human trials. After the United States’ entry into World War II, drugmakers worked together to scale up production to treat secondary infections from battlefield wounds. In a research-and-development undertaking rivaling the Manhattan Project, chemical engineers created entirely new systems for fermentation, mixing, cooling, eliminating foam, separating penicillin from the fermentation broth and freeze-drying it into a powder.

Today, revolutionary advances in molecular biology are opening new avenues for the development of materials, biological products and medical therapeutics. At the same time, economic and social forces are driving a transition toward more sustainable energy sources and environment-friendly production methods.

“With their proven ability to translate molecular-level discoveries into new and cost-effective products, chemical engineers are uniquely qualified to play leading roles in these revolutions,” Zygourakis said. “To meet these new challenges, we must integrate molecular biology into the scientific foundation of our discipline, something we have already done with chemistry, physics and mathematics. This expanded knowledge base will enable us to engineer new products by scaling up processes from the molecular to the system level.”

Chemical engineers are increasingly turning to systems-based approaches in their efforts to understand biological processes and develop bio-based products. For example, CargillDow, DuPont and others have begun to use “green” production methods to make commodity chemicals. The new processes use genetically modified bacteria to convert sugars into biodegradable polymers that eventually find their way into a multitude of consumer goods, from fibers for apparel or carpets to plastic containers and packaging materials.

“Progress in this area has been hindered by our inability to understand the complexity of biological function and structure,” said Nikos Mantzaris, assistant professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering. “This complexity is the result of interactions among the numerous components of cells, cell populations and their environment. The challenge now is to integrate systems-based engineering approaches with modern experimental tools in order to elucidate biological function and guide the rational design of biological processes.”

“We are not becoming bioengineers or biologists,” Zygourakis said. “Our goal is to integrate molecular biology into our core in order to equip a new generation of chemical engineers with the theoretical, computational and experimental skills necessary to design products and processes that are sustainable and friendly to our environment.”

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.