Penn State named latest site for membrane research center

March 20, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The National Science Foundation (NSF) Industry/University Cooperative Research Center has named Penn State as a new site within the Membrane Science, Engineering and Technology (MAST) Center.

The MAST Center focuses on building industry partnerships to develop advanced membrane technology for separation processes important for water treatment, energy production, pharmaceutical purification and chemical processing. It also promotes education in membrane science and engineering.

The University will join the University of Colorado Boulder, the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and the University of Arkansas as MAST Center sites.

The NSF approved support for the Penn State site in the MAST Center via a five-year, $500,000 grant. The next step is finding industry sponsors, which is well underway, according to Andrew Zydney, Bayard D. Kunkle Chair and professor of chemical engineering and the director of the new Penn State site.

“We have six companies who have indicated they'd like to become members of the center,” Zydney said. “We are in the process of negotiating membership agreements with those six companies.”

Once the industry sponsors are onboard, then the research can begin. This is due to the sponsors funding the actual research, while the NSF money covers administrative costs and travel to the center meetings.

“With a center like this, it’s the industry sponsors that make the decisions on the projects,” Zydney said. “It's not that I want to do research on ‘project A,’ it's that the industry sponsors come up with a set of areas that they are interested in sponsoring. The faculty then submit short proposals and the MAST Center Industry Advisory Board selects which projects will be funded. The next proposal review meeting is in May, which is when we will officially get started as a fully operating site.”

Penn State’s expertise in membrane research is spread out across the campus, including efforts in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. The Penn State MAST Center site has a specific focus on bioprocessing for the biopharmaceutical industry. Potential projects could include research on the removal of impurities in the production of monoclonal antibodies for cancer treatment and gene therapy products, or the development of improved processes for the continuous production of vaccines.

“It's great to have the other academic partners in MAST, but having industry people choose the projects ensures that the projects you are working on are truly industrially relevant and that the results will have real impact on commercial processes,” Zydney said.

Along with advancing research, the Penn State MAST Center will also be beneficial for the chemical engineering graduate students who will work on the projects. Every project at the center will have industry representatives directly involved in the research, and graduate students will participate in monthly conference calls with the representatives who will act as de facto mentors for the students.

In addition, graduate students will have in-person interactions with industry representatives at MAST Center meetings that will be held twice a year, rotating between the four academic institutions. As part of these meetings, graduate students will do poster or oral presentations to provide updates on their research.

Zydney said that this offers a two-way benefit for both graduate students and sponsor companies; graduate students will work directly with company representatives during their academic studies, and the companies will be able to more effectively identify future employees.

“Instead of perhaps not knowing anyone in industry, or not knowing what areas of expertise a company is looking for,” Zydney said, “the grad students will get to know the company representatives and learn exactly what they the companies are looking for in new employees. This will open up new job opportunities for them that might not exist otherwise.”

Being an academic site in the MAST Center will also lead to collaborations between Penn State faculty and the other member institutions, Zydney said.

“There may be unique capabilities that exist at Colorado, Arkansas or NJIT that might not exist at Penn State, or may be difficult for us to leverage,” Zydney said. “So we can pursue new collaborations that are ideal for Penn State. In turn, the other institutions can leverage capabilities such as our Materials Characterization Laboratory that they do not have. They may look to us to support projects that they want to do, but currently cannot.”

Along with Zydney, the Penn State MAST Center will involve Manish Kumar, associate professor of chemical engineering; Bruce E. Logan, Evan Pugh Professor and Stan & Flora Kappe Professor of Environmental Engineering; Enrique D. Gomez, professor of chemical engineering; Michael A. Hickner, professor of materials science and engineering, chemical engineering and chemistry; and Xueyi Zhang, John J. and Jean M. Brennan Clean Energy Early Career assistant professor of chemical engineering.

You can learn more information about the MAST Center at https://mastcenter.org/.

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Last Updated March 20, 2019