By Giorgina Paiella
When the BASF 150th Anniversary North American Competition challenge theme was announced early February, Kan Fu—a 4th year UConn MSE Ph.D. candidate—remembers feeling excited, enthusiastic, and a little bit daunted by the magnitude of the task.
The global competition, sponsored by the largest chemical company in the world, encourages young researchers and Ph.D. students to submit team proposals that respond to global challenges relating to food, smart energy, or urban living. This year’s theme posed the following question to students: “Cradle-to-cradle, what chemistries can be used to create lightweight solutions with improved end-of-life management?” Material solutions that reduce weight, minimize waste, and reduce environmental impact are increasingly sought-after as our rising global population presents new challenges to finite resources.
Kan is currently completing his doctoral dissertation under the advisement of Professor Brian Willis. His project focuses on interfacing a biopolymer (DNA) with inorganic materials (gold nanoparticles and electrodes) to form a functional composite. Inspired by his research, Kan realized that an exploration of cellulose, the most abundant natural polymer on earth, could result in the creation of a new structural composite material. With this idea in mind, Kan reached out to his colleagues Xiangcheng Sun (UConn CBE) and Wenxiao Huang (Department of Physics at Wake Forest University), and the three formed a team they coined “CM2.” CM2 submitted a twenty-page, independently developed written proposal titled “Reinforced Cellulose for Sustainable Structures,” which detailed the design of their material, manufacturing, market analysis, recycling process, life cycle analysis, related intellectual properties, and schematic diagrams.
CM2’s proposal was well received by a panel of academic and industrial reviewers. A month later, in late April, they were notified of their selection as one of the four finalist teams across North America. The team was invited to a three-day final idea pitch event to be held in early June at BASF North American headquarters in Florham Park, New Jersey. To prepare for the competition finals, BASF also provided the team with an experienced coach, Open Innovation manager Yoong Kim, to assist and supervise their project progress. Immediately following their selection as a finalist team, CM2 began the more demanding second stage of their project development. They started to create the first samples of their proposed composite material, utilizing resources and seeking advice from faculty and peers in IMS, the UConn School of Engineering, and the Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials at Wake Forest University.
The team derived its strength from its exceptional collaborative work, with each member contributing his unique, specialized knowledge to the process. Kan focused on team and resource management, preparation of materials, and testing the mechanical properties of materials. Xiangcheng performed magnetic particle synthesis and conducted life-cycle analysis of their proposed material. Although hundreds of miles away in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wenxiao worked diligently synthesizing magnetically functionalized fibers for material reinforcements.
After an intense six-week preparation, Kan and his team finally made their trip to Florham Park. During this three-day event, they learned about BASF operations, management, products, innovation efforts, and employees. “We gained a profound understanding of how innovative ideas and technologies developed by BASF would transform the lives of billions of people on earth,” Kan reflects. The event culminated in CM2’s presentation pitch on June 5, where the team delivered a presentation highlighting their proposal and shared lab samples of their material with the judges, who were comprised of a panel of BASF executives. Although CM2 did not win the competition (the “Sustainable Minnesotans” from the University of Minnesota were selected as the champions), the team delivered a compelling pitch, answered questions from the judges, and received valuable feedback on how to bring their ideas to the next level.
Xiangcheng, who is graduating in August and will be pursuing a postdoctoral position at Cornell University, states, “My experience in the BASF science competition is an absolutely unforgettable one. Additionally, through this experience, I know more about the proposal writing process and the industrial world. I believe that I will be able to make a more informed and appropriate decision between academic and industrial positions after a few years of postdoctoral research.”
Wenxiao reflects, “We all knew that BASF is the largest chemical company in the world, but this experience really opened my eyes to what the company is doing and how much it advocates for sustainability. I believe our proposal will help BASF create a greener future.”
Kan reflects that his competition experience was made even more special because of the individuals he was able to work with. Teammate Wenxiao was Kan’s high school classmate, Xiangcheng is his graduate school peer, and both Kan and the team’s coach from BASF, Yoong Kim, received their undergraduate degrees from the National University of Singapore. Kan states, “To have the opportunity to work with three generations of schoolmates or alumni couldn’t have been a more delightful and honorable experience. I really enjoyed the teamwork and coaching process, and I am proud of our team’s accomplishments.”
Now back home from New Jersey, Kan, Wenxiao, and Xiangcheng extend their gratitude to the UConn students, faculty, and staff that provided them with support and feedback throughout their competition journey. The team wishes to thank advisors Dr. Brian Willis and Dr. Yu Lei, in addition to Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education Dr. Mei Wei, who helped them to acquire necessary resources. The team received generous assistance and technical support in materials molding from Dr. Richard Parnas and Ph.D. student Cheng Diao. Dr. Anson Ma and Ph.D. students Yang Guo and Huseini Patanwala provided CM2 with lab space and instruments, and Dr. Montgomery T. Shaw consulted with the team on multiple occasions during the idea development stage. MSE lab manager Adam Wentworth and Dr. Laura Pinatti of the Thermal Analysis Lab helped the team with their lengthy testing and training sessions, while Mark Drobney and Peter Galude from UConn’s machine shop facilities provided generous sample preparation assistance. Dr. David Carroll—Wenxiao’s advisor from Wake Forest University—and his colleagues provided continuous support for their research endeavor. Dr. Zhenhua Cu, Susan Soucy, and Dr. Jing Li from the University of New Haven, Dr. Douglas Gardner, Pros Bennett, Roger Phillips, Silvia Chan, Tai Xu, and staff members from the University of Maine are also among the non-exhaustive list of individuals that made CM2’s project possible.