Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering: Under the Microscope

From nanotechnology to fuel cells, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Penn is taking on new life.

Ten years ago, the senior undergraduate class in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE) numbered fewer than 15 students. Today, the count is at 45, says John Vohs, the Carl V. S. Patterson Professor. Vohs has taught at Penn since 1989. “

One factor that contributed to the increase,” Vohs says, “is the department’s name change in 2002—from Chemical Engineering to Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. The change prompted students to consider the biological aspects of chemical engineering.”

Along with petrochemicals and other traditional subjects came new areas of study for CBE, including cell engineering, drug delivery, and biopharmaceutical and biological processes.

Another force driving the heightened interest is concern about the environment: How do we manufacture fuel-efficient cars? How do industrial processes lead to global warming? Students and faculty members pursue topics such as bioenvironmental engineering, environmental systems modeling, the involvement of homogeneous reactions in catalytic systems, and the design of heat exchangers.

“Within individual courses,” Vohs says, “the subject matter has widened. We’re expanding our focus to look further at biological systems. How you process materials is much different in the biomolecular area than in the petrochemical. It’s smaller scale, with differences in both length and time.”

Laboratory investments are upping the voltage of department research. CBE opened a new biochemistry lab for Professor Dennis Discher, and dedicated the Chemical Engineering Unit Operations Laboratory. Located in the Towne Building, the laboratory is computer-controlled and highly automated. Students are able to log in remotely and conduct experiments, giving them virtual controls over real processes—such as monitoring how changes in temperatures affect reaction rates. The new lab breaks the standard four-hour limit for laboratory work, giving students the ability to conduct much longer term experiments.

Credit: Penn Engineering Magazine, “Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering: Under the Microscope,” by Michael J. Schwager.

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