Author: College of Engineering

Letter from the Chair

An aerial drone image of campus in the snow with pink sunlight at sunrise.
Happy Holidays and a Wonderful New Year to All, from the Department of Chemical Engineering at Michigan Tech!

Dear Alumni and Friends,

Michael Mullins standing outside in campus near the Husky Statue
Michael Mullins, Professor and Chair

As you may have heard, with Dr. Agrawal’s retirement in June, I have stepped in to fill the department chair role until a national search for a new chair is completed.  When I was asked to return as chair this summer, I was happy to come back to the department I have spent over 35 years helping to build. I was able to come back up to speed quickly and help get the department ready for fall semester. Many major department changes have happened since then and I’d like to take this opportunity to bring you up to date on a few of those.

I am not exaggerating to say this is a pivotal time in the history of Michigan Tech’s Department of Chemical Engineering. In addition to Pradeep’s retirement, our long-time colleague Tony Rogers decided to retire this summer after leading our nationally recognized senior capstone design course for over 30 year and serving as mentor and advisor for our Consumer Product Manufacturing (CPM) Enterprise for more than 25 years. Professor of Practice Kurt Rickard retired after helping to rebuild our process control course and co-teaching our UO lab over the past 4 years. (He has now taken the job as mayor of Hancock!). In the previous year, Drs. Tom Co, Faith Morrison and Komar Kawatra, who had over 100 years of dedicated service to MTU between them, also retired!  We are now faced with a multi-year faculty rebuilding phase. Professor of Practice Jon Herlevich and Assistant Teaching Professor Kyle Griffin are great new additions to our department, and we’ve begun the search for additional rising stars to join our faculty over the next 2 years.

Our longtime academic advisor, Katie Torrey, has moved to another position in the university. I originally hired Katie when I was chair 18 years ago, and she has been an invaluable resource for a generation of students and our entire department. Katie will be greatly missed, but we have lured Judy Burl out of retirement to serve as academic advisor until we find a permanent replacement.  We are also lucky to have Tyson Kauppinen join our lab manager Stefan Wiesnewski to help keep our chemical engineering laboratories the best in the USA.

There have been many transformational changes to our facilities over the past few months!  Due to the generosity of our alumni, we have a wonderful new Student Learning Center and Department Conference Room, which are heavily used by students and faculty. This summer we finished a complete renovation of all the classrooms and public areas of our building, and the new $53M HSTEM addition to our building will be ready for move-in by late March 2024.

Just today, it was announced that Michigan Tech has received a $5 million grant – with a potential $2 million matching grant – from The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation for addition renovations to the Chemical Sciences and Engineering Building. In 2024 we are initiating 2 projects that will have a huge impact on our students: a new Senior Capstone Design Lab and a Maker’s Space for the Enterprise Programs centered in our department, which could be eligible for these matching gifts.

Chem Sci Building on Campus with newly constructed HSTEM addition attached. The new addition hard dark slate and lots of green tinted plate glass windows.
Michigan Tech’s new HSTEM addition is now mostly complete.

As a former (and now current) department chair, I know how important our alumni supporters and friends like you are to the success of our program.  The resources we receive from the state and from tuition dollars are just enough to cover the basic salaries of the chemical engineering program, and little else. It is the generosity of our alumni and industry friends that allows our program to truly excel. If you would like to be a part of this exciting time for our department, be sure to reach out to me anytime to learn more.

Warmest wishes for the new year,

Michael Mullins
Professor and Chair, Department of Chemical Engineering
memullin@mtu.edu

My Story: Katherine Baker, MTUengineer

Katherine Baker ‘26, chemical engineering

Katherine holds a helmet and stands in front of the Billerud company entrance sign.
Katherine Baker ‘26, chemical engineering

I’m originally from Austin, Texas and grew up in that area, then eventually moved up to McAlester, Oklahoma. I decided on Michigan Tech because of its strong engineering program. I also wanted to experience living in a new area and see some snow, which I’ve definitely been able to do. I started out in the general engineering program and settled on chemical engineering towards the end of my first year because I enjoy math and chemistry and really like learning how different processes work.

“My time at Tech has shaped my life in incredible ways.”

Katherine Baker

I attended the fall career fair last month and had a great experience, both personally and professionally. I learned about companies I am interested in and connected with recruiters, and many are Tech alumni. I ended up accepting a hybrid co-op offer from Kimberly-Clark. I’ll work onsite at their facility in Neenah, Wisconsin over the summer, then part-time remotely from campus next year.

In August I completed an eight-month co-op with Billerud at their paper mill in nearby Iron Mountain, Michigan. Most of my projects revolved around chemical savings and energy optimization. I worked in a process engineering role on their pulp mill team, and was able to learn from both engineers and operators. I learned a ton about trial planning, technical communication, and the paper industry.

Huskies Pep band members holding flutes and wearing funny hats
Katherine plays flute in the Huskies Pep Band, with a Shrek hat.

I have a few other jobs on campus. I work as an RA in the dorms at Michigan Tech. I also work as a peer mentor in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Both roles give me opportunities to connect with new students and help them navigate their first few years at Tech, which is really fulfilling for me. I also serve as the treasurer of the Chemical Engineering Student Advisory Board, and flute section leader in the Huskies Pep Band.

I’m an active member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). It’s given me so many opportunities to connect with other women on campus and figure out my career path. I recently completed the SWE 2022-2023 Collegiate Leadership Institute, a professional development program. I attended seminars put on by successful women in industry, met with a professional mentor, and grew in my leadership skills.

Lauren stands at the shore of Lake Superior at night with Northern Lights in the background.
Katherine came to Michigan Tech all the way from Austin, Texas. She wanted to see some snow, and also got to see the Northern Lights!

This month I will be attending the national SWE conference, WE23, in Los Angeles with other members of the Michigan Tech SWE section. I’m super excited for all the opportunities at WE23—to hear from more women in engineering and broaden my professional network.

My time at Tech has shaped my life in incredible ways. I’m so grateful for the strong, tight-knit community up here and feel super supported in my goals by both faculty and other students. As an RA and peer mentor, I try to give back to the community by supporting incoming students, just like I was supported my first few years. Being in the engineering program has given me so many opportunities to grow professionally.

After college, I plan to work as a process engineer, hopefully at a plant where I can really get hands-on with my projects. I’m not yet sure which industry I want to be in long-term, but I’ve learned about so many different ones through my co-op and networking with company recruiters. I’m excited to continue learning and choose one that turns out to be the best fit for me.

“Be confident in yourself and learn as much as you can.”

Advice to incoming students, from Lauren Spahn

My advice to incoming students? Chemical engineering classes can be challenging and there might be points when you think you’re not cut out for it and should choose an easier major (I know I’ve had those moments). Be confident in yourself and learn as much as you can. Keep your head up and try to develop a support system early on with fellow students.

Sustainable Foam: Coming Soon to a Cushion Near You

Chemical engineering major Lauren Spahn presented her research at the Michigan Tech Undergraduate Research Symposium. Her lignin project was supported by Portage Health Foundation, the DeVlieg Foundation, and Michigan Tech’s Pavlis Honors College.

Most polyurethane foam, found in cushions, couches, mattress, insulation, shoes, and more, is made from petroleum. What if it could be environmentally-friendly, sustainable, and made from renewable biomass? It’s entirely possible, thanks to the work of chemical engineer Lauren Spahn ’22 (now an alumna) and her fellow researchers at Michigan Tech. It all happens in the Biofuels & Bio-based Products Lab at Michigan Tech, where researchers put plants—and their lignin—to good use. The lab is directed by Dr. Rebecca Ong, an associate professor of chemical engineering.

Q&A with Lauren Spahn

Please tell us a little about your work in the lab.

Our goal in working with Dr. Ong is to develop sustainable industries using renewable lignocellulosic biomass⁠—the material derived from plant cell walls. There are five of us working on Dr. Ong’s team. We develop novel co-products from the side streams of biofuel production, and pulp and paper production. We’re trying to make good use of the leftover materials.

 

Lignocellulose, aka biomass, is the dry matter of plants. Energy crops like this Elephant Grass, are grown as a raw material for the production of biofuels.

What kind of research are you doing?

My particular research project involves plant-based polyurethane foams. Unlike conventional poly foams, bio-based foams are generated from lignin, a renewable material. Lignin is like a glue that holds wood fibers together. It has the potential to replace petroleum-derived polymers in many applications. In the lab, we purify the lignin from something called “black liquor”⁠. It’s not what sounds like. Black liquor is a by-product from the kraft process when pulpwood is made into paper. Lignin is collected by forcing dissolved lignin to precipitate or fall out of the solution (this is the opposite of the process of dissolving, which brings a solid into solution). By adjusting the functional properties of lignin during the precipitation process, we hope to be able to tailor the characteristics of resulting foams. It’s called functionalization.

Typically in the lab process, functionalization occurs on lignin that has already been purified. What we hope to do is integrate functionalization into the purification process, to reduce energy and raw material inputs, and improve the economics and sustainability of the process, too.

Purified lignin, used to make bio-foam. The resulting foam will likely be light or dark brown in color because of the color of the lignin. It would probably be used in applications where color does not matter (such as the interior of cushions/equipment).

How did you get started in undergraduate research?

I came to Michigan Tech knowing I wanted to get involved in research. As a first-year student, I was accepted into the Undergraduate Research Internship Program (URSIP), through the Pavlis Honors College here at Tech. Through this program I received funding, mentorship, and guidance as I looked to identify a research mentor. 

How did you find Dr. Ong, or how did she find you?

I wanted to work with Dr. Ong because I found the work in her lab to be very interesting and relevant to the world we live in, in terms of sustainability. She was more than willing to welcome me into the lab and assist me in my research when I needed it. I am very thankful for all her help and guidance. 

What is the most challenging and difficult part of the work and the experience?

Not everything always goes according to plan. Achieving the desired result often takes many iterations, adjustments, and even restructuring the experiment itself. After a while, it can even become discouraging.

What do you do when you get discouraged? How do you persevere?

I start thinking about my goals. I enjoy my research—it’s fun! Once I remind myself why I like it, I am able to get back to work. 


Lignin at the nanoscale, imaged with transmission electron microscopy (TEM). Raisa Carmen Andeme Ela, a PhD candidate working in Dr. Ong’s lab, generated this image to examine the fundamental mechanisms driving lignin precipitation.

What do you enjoy most about research?

I enjoy being able to run experiments in the lab that directly lead to new designs, processes, or products in the world around me. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to think up new product ideas, then go through the steps needed to implement them in the real world. 

What are your career goals and plans?

I plan to work in R&D for industry. I am very passionate about research—I want to continue participating in research in my professional career.

Why did you choose engineering as your major?

The field is so large. Chemical engineers can work in industry in numerous areas. I liked the wide variety of work that I could enter into as a career. 

Editor’s note: Lauren graduated with a BS in Chemical Engineering in April 2022, and started work at Hemlock Semiconductor in Saginaw, Michigan soon after.

Did you know?

  • Michigan Tech has more than 35 research centers and institutes
  • 20 percent of all Michigan Tech patent applications involve undergraduate students
  • Students in any engineering discipline are welcome to give research a try
  • Research expenditures at Michigan Tech—over $44 million-—have increased by 33% over the last decade, despite increased competition for research funding. 
  • Michigan Tech research leads to more invention disclosures—the first notification that an invention has been created—than any other research institution in Michigan.


Alberto Mejía: New Faculty Spotlight

Portrait photo of Alberto Mejia
Bienvenido, Dr. Alberto Mejía!

Luis Alberto Mejía Manzano comes to Michigan Tech from Monterrey, Mexico, where he earned his MS and PhD in Biotechnology at the Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM). He earned his undergraduate degree in Biotechnology Engineering, Universidad Politécnica de Pachuca. Welcome, Dr. Mejía!

What drew you to Michigan Tech?

I am here at Michigan Tech for a research stay in bioprocessing and virus purification. I will also be contributing my own expertise in the field.

What is your primary area of research and what led you to it?

I am focused on the design of green bioprocessing for the recovery of high value biomolecules and bioparticles.

Can you share a little more about your research and what you like about it?

I have worked in the purification of PEG-modified proteins/enzymes (PEGylated). They are used as biopharmaceuticals in the treatment of several diseases. They’re also of interest in the recovery and purification of anticancer, low-molecular weight compounds such as flavonoids. The purpose is to design more adequate, efficient and sustainable bioprocesses.

What do you consider an important long-term goal for your research?

I want to generate new knowledge and new practical applications of our research. These offer solutions to current and future human needs in food safety, as well as health care and treatment.

“Realize your dreams, contribute in your profession to humanity in a positive way.”

Advice for incoming students from Dr. Alberto Mejía, Chemical Engineering Adjunct Assistant Professor and Research Assistant Professor

What do you hope to accomplish, as an educator and as a researcher, over the next few years?

One goal is to discover a novel bioprocess for obtaining these bioproducts, all the while teaching through my experience in research. I hope to inspire a new generation of professionals.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I like to spend time with my family, friends, reading thriller/science fiction novels and hiking.

What’s your favorite book, movie, or piece of art?

In general, I like suspense books and movies.

Dr. Mejía, Michigan Tech’s Mont Ripley is a great place to hike and enjoy the fall colors!

Any favorite sports on campus, in Houghton, or in the UP?

Hiking is also considered for me a sport.

Any advice for incoming students?

Realize your dreams, contribute in your profession to humanity in a positive way. Be sure to enjoy the diverse options you have available right here on the MTU campus.

Tyson Kauppinen: New Staff Spotlight

Tyson Kauppinen

In his role as Laboratory Technician, Tyson Kauppinen assists with construction, installation and repair of lab equipment. This is no small feat, considering the number and size of labs in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Michigan Tech.

Kauppinen comes to Michigan Tech from Carey Design Build in Iron Mountain. He earned an Associate’s degree in Mechanical Engineering Technology from Gogebic Community College.

What drew you to Michigan Tech?

I grew up in Calumet, Michigan. Being local to the area, of course I love the beautiful views the Upper Peninsula has to offer. But mainly I came to Michigan Tech in order to be able to put everything I’ve learned at school together with my work experience, in order to help others with their various projects and research.

“Be involved in something.”

Tyson Kauppinen’s advice for incoming students.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I like to spend time outdoors, as well as doing some woodworking, making furniture.

What’s your favorite book, movie, or piece of art?

My favorite movie is Miracle.

Houghton, Michigan is the birthplace of professional hockey.

Any favorite spots on campus, in Houghton, or in the UP?

My favorite sport is hockey. It’s a great sport to be interested in when you get to work and live in the city where professional hockey was born.

Any advice for incoming students?

Be involved in something. That is my piece of advice. To be involved with a group or organization builds connections and friendships, and makes coming to school/work every day much more enjoyable.

Kaiwu Huang: New Faculty Spotlight

Kaiwu Huang, Research Assistant Professor, Chemical Engineering

Kaiwu Huang comes to Michigan Tech from Virginia Tech, where he worked as a research associate in the Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering. He earned his BS in Mining and Minerals Engineering at China University of Mining and Technology in Beijing, and his MS and PhD in Mining and Minerals Engineering at Virginia Tech. Welcome, Dr. Huang!

What drew you to Michigan Tech?

First, my background and training in mineral processing drew me here—they’re a great fit for my current position. Second, the Department of Chemical Engineering has a strong program in mineral processing, especially in battery recycling, fine particle processing, and CO2 capture. The faculty members who interviewed me were very energetic and passionate about their work in this area. As a passionate person myself, I knew I would enjoy working with a group of passionate colleagues. Finally, I like snow sports. I’m looking forward to winter in Houghton already!

What is your primary area of research and what led you to it?

My primary area of research is mineral processing. I was a big fan of minerals and rocks as a child. The shapes and colors of these minerals built by Mother Nature are wonderful. More importantly, mineral processing is closely related to our daily life. Almost all raw materials we use today come from different minerals. Using these minerals in an efficient way is extremely important for the environment and sustainability.

More specifically, my research interests include mineral flotation, solid/liquid separation (dewatering), carbon ore beneficiation, rare earth extraction, and copper concentration. With my mineral processing research I seek to help the mining industry increase sustainability, increase profit, and reduce environmental impact.

Dr. Huang attended ACS Spring 2023: Crossroads of Chemistry, last March in Indianapolis.

What do you consider an important long-term goal for your research?

I want to contribute ways to efficiently use natural mineral resources and improve sustainability. I would also like to dedicate myself to developing the domestic supply chain of critical minerals.

What do you hope to accomplish, as an educator and as a researcher, over the next few years?

My goals are to publish high-quality papers in top-ranked journals, give presentations in national and international conferences, like SME and ACS annual conferences, and write winning proposals to different funding agencies and companies.

“Stay hungry, stay foolish.”

Dr. Kaiwu Huang’s advice for advice for incoming students at Michigan Tech? His favorite quote from Steve Jobs.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Fishing and skiing

What’s your favorite book, movie, or piece of art?

Titanic

Any favorite spots on campus, in Houghton, or in the UP?

Bridgeview Park

Lift Bridge and green trees across Portage Waterway
Dr. Huang’s favorite spot, Bridgeview Park, runs along the waterfront in downtown Houghton.