Month: May 2012

Gov. Malloy Announces New Bioscience Connecticut Initiative

The Health Center is part of a new economic revitalization plan being proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. The Bioscience Connecticut initiative aims to make the state a leader in bioscience research and in turn, jumpstart the state’s economy by creating jobs and generating long-term economic growth.

<p>A press conference held at the UConn Health Center to announce Bioscience Connecticut on May 17, 2011. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>

“This proposal represents a new way of thinking about the UConn Health Center and the way in which it can be leveraged to create new jobs now, sustain economic growth and innovation, and improve public health,” said Malloy. “More than just a medical and dental school or just a hospital – we have to think about the UConn Health Center in its entirety, as an asset that can make Connecticut become a national leader in a bioscience economy.”

Highlights of Malloy’s proposal include:

  • Creating 3,000 construction jobs annually through 2018.
  • Generating $4.6 billion increase in personal income by 2037, including the creation of 16,400 jobs.
  • Doubling federal and industry research grants to drive discovery, innovation, and commercialization.
  • Increasing access to high quality health care.
  • Graduating and retaining more physicians and dentists to meet forecasted workforce needs resulting from health care reform and the state’s aging population.
  • Strengthening and stabilizing the Health Center’s finances.

<p>President designate Susan Herbst is introduced at a press conference held at the UConn Health Center to announce Bioscience Connecticut on May 17, 2011. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>

President designate Susan Herbst is introduced at the press conference. Photo by Peter Morenus

“Bioscience Connecticut is different from prior proposals that involved the Health Center,” said UConn President-designate Susan Herbst. “While they were principally intended to secure the Health Center’s financial footing, this initiative is primarily focused on using the Health Center to achieve state economic and health care objectives.”

The initiative also seeks to address the growing shortage of physicians and dentists being predicted in the years ahead.

“By training more physicians and dentists, the Governor’s plan responds to these dire trends,” said Dr. Cato T. Laurencin, vice president for health affairs and medical school dean. “The increased enrollment, combined with other elements of Bioscience Connecticut, is expected to raise our schools into top tier, national status. In turn, this will spur economic growth and lasting public health benefits for our state.”

For the Health Center, key components of the plan include:

<p>Cato Laurencin, dean of the school of medicine, speaks at a press conference held at the UConn Health Center to announce Bioscience Connecticut on May 17, 2011. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>

Dr. Cato Laurencin, vice president for health affairs, speaks at the press conference. Photo by Peter Morenus

  • Renovating existing Health Center facilities to increase bioscience research capacity and productivity, increasing the number of basic and clinical/translational scientists, and expanding small business incubator facilities to foster new business start-ups.
  • Increasing the Health Center’s medical and dental schools’ enrollment by 30 percent, and establish a loan forgiveness program to attract more graduates to practice primary care medicine and dentistry in Connecticut.
  • Constructing the new patient tower and a new ambulatory care facility, and increasing the number of Health Center primary and specialty care clinicians.

The $864 million proposal will be paid for by a combination of new and previously approved bonding, private financing, and Health Center resources.

<p>President designate Susan Herbst speaks at a press conference held at the UConn Health Center to announce Bioscience Connecticut on May 17, 2011. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>

President-designate Susan Herbst speaks at the press conference held at the UConn Health Center to announce Bioscience Connecticut. Photo by Peter Morenus

<p>House Majority Leader Christopher Donovan, (D-Meriden) speaks at a press conference held at the UConn Health Center to announce Bioscience Connecticut on May 17, 2011. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>

House Majority Leader Christopher Donovan (D-Meriden) speaks as, from left, President Philip Austin, Senate President Don Williams, and Dr. Cato Laurencin, seated, look on. Photo by Peter Morenus

<p>State Rep. Bill Wadsworth (R- Farmington), center, and State Senator Terry Gerratana (D-New Britain), right, speak at a press conference held at the UConn Health Center to announce Bioscience Connecticut on May 17, 2011. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>

State Sen. Terry Gerratana (D-New Britain) speaks, as State Rep. Bill Wadsworth (R- Farmington), center, looks on. Photo by Peter Morenus

<p>President designate Susan Herbst speaks with legislators after a a press conference held at the UConn Health Center to announce Bioscience Connecticut on May 17, 2011. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>

President-designate Susan Herbst meets with legislators after the press conference. Photo by Peter Morenus

CPTV Films in Dr. Parnas’ Biodiesel Lab

  • Republished with permission of emagination, a School of Engineering electronic publication

Dr. Richard Parnas, director of the University’s Biofuel Consortium, hosted a film crew from Connecticut Public Television (CPTV) in April.  The CPTV crew interviewed Dr. Parnas and filmed the production of biodiesel from waste vegetable oil as part of a segment on green technologies to be aired during the summer.  It’s just one of many recent “tech props” Dr. Parnas has received for his innovative biofuels research.

Dr. Parnas and his team garnered significant press coverage in 2010 for a limited study showing that industrial grade hemp-based biodiesel has superior cold flow properties versus those of many biodiesel mixtures. Cold temperature is the major issue requiring caution when using biodiesel.  Dr. Parnas, a professor in the Chemical, Materials & Biomolecular Engineering Department (CMBE) and the Institute of Materials Science (IMS) at UConn, has championed biofuels as a green energy source for years.  Biofuels are extremely attractive as an alternative transportation fuel because they produce very little in the way of ozone-depleting emissions, in contrast with fossil fuels.

Within the warren of interconnected spaces that make up his basement laboratory in the Engineering II building on the main Storrs campus, Dr. Parnas has spent four years improving upon a basic biodiesel reactor design with the objectives of increasing production capacity and enhancing efficiency.  The lab features two reactors: the oldest, smaller of the two units is used in the ongoing waste cooking oil-to-biodiesel production operation; the second, which features unique design enhancements developed by Dr. Parnas, is used for research and testing.  A YouTube video of the reactor may be viewed here.

Since 2005, Dr. Parnas estimates 25 undergraduate students have worked in the laboratory, processing waste cooking oil collected from UConn’s dining facilities and from Pratt & Whitney’s food service into clean biodiesel that is used to help fuel UConn’s bus fleet.  The students do more than merely combine oil and chemicals, however; working with Dr. Parnas and his graduate students, they have also contributed to a numerical model that accurately mirrors the entire process on a computer screen, using data collected in real time. The model enables the team to monitor each step of the process and to make adjustments as needed for optimal performance.

Dr. Parnas and two partners, Fred Robson and Rich Madrak, recently formed a startup company called RPM Sustainable Technologies.  It will commercially market a novel, patented reactor system designed by Dr. Parnas, which features a number of unique process improvements over the traditional reactor design and reduces production costs. The partners have commissioned an industrial equipment manufacturer to build the systems, which will be scaled-up versions capable of serving communities and processing between 250,000 and 5 million gallons of biodiesel yearly. The first unit will be delivered this summer to UConn.

In most traditional reactors, the process is conducted in a batch mode.  The biodiesel is separated in one stream while waste products left over from processing – glycerol, methanol and potassium hydroxide – are removed in a second stream that must be further separated and processed for re-use.  In Dr. Parnas’ patented design, biodiesel is processed continuously and the glycerol settles out naturally during processing.  Continuous processing is more efficient, requires less energy than conventional reactors, and lowers production and material costs.  Furthermore, Dr. Parnas’ reactor design efficiently captures the byproducts so they may be further processed for secondary markets.  He notes that the glycerin will be sold to the personal care products market or converted to high value specialty chemicals, and the potassium hydroxide may be blended with phosphoric acid to produce fertilizer.

While biodiesel holds promise for replacing fossil fuels in applications such as transportation and home heating, the mixtures suffer from several drawbacks.  For one thing, biodiesels generally perform poorly in cold weather, becoming thick and clogging fuel systems.  For this reason, biodiesel is currently blended with conventional diesel fuel – commonly at 20 percent biodiesel to 80 percent conventional (so-called B20) for automotive use.  Because biodiesel requires feedstocks that are fundamentally plant matter, abundance and growing conditions are a factor. Furthermore, to be approved for vehicular use, biodiesel must meet ASTM International’s rigorous industry standards. Samples of the UConn biodiesel are subjected to a battery of 16-18 validation tests conducted in a CESE laboratory building.

Research into alternative feedstocks is an important aspect of the team’s work.  With his faculty colleagues and graduate students, in addition to exploring industrial hemp, Dr. Parnas is studying cotton seed oils and Jatropha oil, among other possibilities.  Jatropha, he explains, is a waste cover crop native to India that produces the second highest oil yield, at approximately 34 percent oil, of any land plant and grows readily in even unfavorable conditions. Already, the handsome succulent is being commercially processed into biodiesel in India, Myanmar and Brazil.  According to Dr. Parnas, palm seeds offer the highest oil yield, but palms grow in a very narrow geographic band around the equator, so large-scale production is currently infeasible.

Dr. Parnas is also collaborating with Dr. Ranjan Srivastava, a colleague in CMBE, on the development of biobutanol as an alternative to gasoline. The project is in its earliest stages and entails more fundamental research.  Whatever the outcome, in the years ahead it is clear that biofuels and biodiesel will gain even greater importance as the nation looks for ways to reduce its reliance on diminishing fossil fuel reserves.

Former Medical Dean Laurencin Lauded by Legislators, Friends and Colleagues

Dr. Cato T. Laurencin's official portrait was unveiled during a reception held at the State Capitol on May 9. (Sarah Turker/UConn Health Center Photo)

Dr. Cato T. Laurencin’s official portrait was unveiled during a reception held at the State Capitol on May 9. (Sarah Turker/UConn Health Center Photo)

During a reception hosted by The Black and Puerto Rican Caucus of the General Assembly, the Health Center’s Dr. Cato T. Laurencin was honored not only for his service as vice president for health affairs and dean of the UConn School of Medicine, but also for being an outstanding role model and inspiration to many.

Comedian Bill Cosby, a long time friend of Dr. Laurencin, attended the reception held at the State Capitol. (Sarah Turker/UConn Health Center Photo)

Comedian Bill Cosby, a long time friend of Dr. Laurencin, attended the reception held at the State Capitol. (Sarah Turker/UConn Health Center Photo)

“How proud I am to be here,” said Laurencin’s longtime friend, comedian and activist, Bill Cosby. Though they graduated many years apart, their common bond is Central High School in Philadelphia.

Cosby stressed that it is important for students in their high school today — “our kids” — to see what can be achieved. Further, he urged all in attendance to reach out to children and teens to help them understand career choices and follow in the steps of leaders like Laurencin.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, State Sen. Toni Harp, and Dr. Frank Torti, the Health Center’s executive vice president for health affairs and medical school dean, were among those who expressed their gratitude for Laurencin’s leadership and achievements.

Also during the reception, Laurencin’s official portrait was unveiled. It will soon hang in the hallway outside the Health Center’s administrative offices, along with the previous deans and leaders of the Health Center.

The portrait of Dr. Cato T. Laurencin will hang in the hallway outside the Health Center's administrative offices. (Sarah Turker/UConn Health Center Photo)

The portrait of Dr. Cato T. Laurencin will hang in the hallway outside the Health Center’s administrative offices. (Sarah Turker/UConn Health Center Photo)

Laurencin stepped down as vice president and dean last summer, following the final passage of Bioscience Connecticut, and has continued to focus on his roles as executive director of the Connecticut Institute for Clinical and Translational Science; director of the Institute for Regenerative Engineering; and clinically, as an orthopaedic surgeon with the New England Musculoskeletal Institute and holder of the Van Dusen Chair in Orthopaedic Surgery.

Among his many accolades, Laurencin’s research in the field of ACL regeneration was recently recognized by National Geographic magazine.

Improving the Detection of Landmines

Each year, as many as 25,000 people are maimed or killed by landmines around the world, including large numbers of civilians.

While landmines are inexpensive to produce – about $3-$30 each, depending on the model – finding and clearing them can cost as much as $1,000 per mine. It is a slow and deliberative process. Specially trained dogs are the gold standard, but they can be distracted by larger mine fields and eventually tire. Metal detectors are good, but they are often too sensitive, causing lengthy and expensive delays for the removal of an object that may turn out to be merely a buried tin can.

Ying Wang '12 Ph.D. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Ying Wang ’12 Ph.D. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

A UConn chemical engineering doctoral student hopes to help. Ying Wang, working in conjunction with her advisor, associate professor Yu Lei, has developed a prototype portable sensing system that can be used to detect hidden explosives like landmines accurately, efficiently, and at little cost.

The key to the sensing system is an advanced chemically-treated film that, when applied to the ground and viewed under ultraviolet light, can detect even the slightest traces of explosive chemical vapor. If there is no explosive, the film retains a bright fluorescent color. If a landmine or other explosive device is present, a dark circle identifying the threat forms within minutes.

One of the world’s top private landmine clearing companies, located in South Sudan, is currently working with Lei and Wang in arranging a large-scale field test. The results of the field test could be of interest to the United Nations, which has worked to make war zones plagued by old landmines safer through its United Nations Mine Action Service. It is estimated that there are about 110 million active landmines lurking underground in 64 countries across the globe. The mines not only threaten people’s lives, they can paralyze communities by limiting the use of land for farming and roads for trade.

Buried Explosives

Detection of buried explosives. (Image courtesy of Ying Wang)

“Our initial results have been very promising,” says Wang, who receives her UConn Ph.D. May 5. “If the field test goes well, that is a real world application. I’m very excited about it.”

Doing work that has real world applications and that will help improve people’s lives is an important part of what drives Wang in her research.

“When I started working with landmines, I was thrilled,” says Wang, who received her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Xiamen University in China in 2004 and her master’s degree in biochemical engineering from Xiamen University in 2007. “I knew this would be a really good application of our work. It can save lives.”

Wang and Lei are currently working with UConn’s Center for Science and Technology Commercialization (CSTC) in obtaining a U.S. patent for their explosive detection systems.

TNT detection in water.

TNT detection in water. (Image courtesy of Ying Wang)

Besides the sensing method for explosives vapor, the pair has also developed a novel test for detecting TNT and other explosives in water. They recently presented their results at the 243rdNational Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in San Diego, Calif. That research is also the subject of a U.S. provisional patent.

The latter application can be used to detect potential groundwater contamination in areas where explosives were used in construction. It can also be used in airports to help thwart possible terrorist threats.

Most airlines currently limit passengers to about 3 ounces of liquids or gels when boarding a plane because of the potential threat of carry-on explosives. That may change if Wang and Lei’s new sensing system is adopted. The pair have developed an ultrasensitive real-time sensor system that quickly detects both minute and large amounts of 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene or TNT. When searching for trace amounts of explosives, a paper test strip with the sensing chemicals on it can be dipped into liquid samples to test for small molecules of explosive. Wang and Lei’s sensor can detect TNT concentrations ranging from about 33 parts per trillion (the equivalent of one drop in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools) to 225 parts per million.

“Our new sensor based on a recently developed fluorescent polymer for explosives in aqueous samples has two sensing mechanisms in one sensing material, which is very unique,” says Lei. “The sensor can easily be incorporated into a paper test strip similar to those used for pregnancy tests, which means it can be produced and used at a very low cost.”

Wang has authored 17 papers, two patents, and one book chapter during her time at UConn and her research has been supported by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Homeland Security.