Environmental Innovations Initiative Faculty Spotlight: Chinedum Osuji

Chinedum Osuji
Chinedum Osuji

Chinedum Osuji, a faculty fellow of the Environmental Innovations Initiative (EII), is the Eduardo D. Glandt Chair and a professor in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering department of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. In his role, he’s responsible for faculty affairs and the CBE undergraduate and graduate programs.

His research focuses on the dynamics of soft materials, including, in part, a concern with how the design and structure of materials such as membranes could affect water filtration, separation of metals, and more. In a Q&A with EII, Osuji describes his research and its connections to sustainability and the environment, explores how industry and researchers could work better together, and shares what excites him most about teaching the next generation of chemical engineers.

Can you share a bit about your research, how you became interested in the field, and what drew you to the Penn?

My lab in general works on the structure and dynamics of soft materials. So, we care about structure, meaning how atoms and molecules are arranged, and how that structure gives rise to properties. For example, the structure of a material can impact a property we care about, like ion permeation, the speed at which ions move through a material.

We also study the dynamics of soft materials. That mostly takes the form of experimental investigations of rheology of complex fluids. Rheology refers to how things flow. And complex fluids are systems that result from interactions among components in fluids. For example, if you take just water, we call that a simple fluid. But if you start adding things like colloidal particles, or polymers, or surfactants, then it becomes more complex in its behavior. And so things that we encounter everyday like toothpaste, or mayonnaise, or the ink in your laser printer, or paint, those would be examples of complex fluids. My lab does research on understanding how the components in a complex fluid change the flow behavior of that fluid.

Going back to the study of structure, properties, and soft materials, a big topic for us there is looking at the self-assembly of polymers and liquid crystals. We study structures that are formed spontaneously by these materials, in response to changes in temperature or concentration, and then how these spontaneously formed structures impact the material’s properties.

Ion transport is one of these properties of interest. We care about making polymer membranes for controlling ion transport. We also care about making polymer membranes for water purification by nanofiltration. How well can the polymer reject contaminants from water? That depends on certain aspects of the of the structure of the material. The ability of the membrane to transport one ion over another is also very important for separation of metals; for example in the recovery of valuable metals from consumer electronic waste, or tailings from mining operations.

I got interested in all of this many years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Cornell. I did research there on polymers and that interest took me through to graduate school, a postdoc, starting my career at Yale University, and then here to Penn in 2018. The reason I came is that we have a lot of strength in soft materials research here. There are lots of people here in not only engineering, but also physics and chemistry, and even in the medical school. We certainly have critical mass.

This story was written by Yamila Frej. To read the full article, please visit the Environmental Innovations Initiative website.