UND graduates its first doctorate in chemical engineering

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UND graduates its first doctorate in chemical engineering

Hai Wang walked across the stage for winter commencement 2012 with something really special: UND's first doctorate degree in chemical engineering.

"This is a really big day for me," said Wang, a native of Dalian, a large peninsular city by the sea, east of Beijing. "I was very excited to come to UND because of its reputation in chemical engineering, and I found exactly what I was looking for in my area of interest: polymer materials science, that is, plastics derived from bio-materials."

Wang, who plays a lot of soccer during the warm season, says it was UND's academic and research reputation that attracted him to the program.

"And it's still very true that the United State leads the world in research, and you have very attractive programs, such as UND's chemical engineering (part of the College of Engineering and Mines)," said Wang, who got his first degree in polymer materials science in China after studying a lot of math in high school.

Wang's advisor, UND chemical engineering faculty member Edward Kolodka, a polymer expert, helped him focus on extracting polymers – or plastics – from bio sources, such as the process used at UND to crack crop oils. Wang's work was funded by a USDA grant as part of the North Dakota SUNRISE program's renewable fuels, chemicals, and materials focus area.

"This is pioneering research – there is very little literature about it, so we know no one else has done this before. We're blazing a new trail," Wang said. "We want to turn these plastics into useful materials – such as foam cups or hockey gloves – but right now it's still all experimental."

Wang's work is part of a larger, overall patented UND process that takes short chain fatty acids produced from crop oils, converts the acids into vinyl ester compounds, then uses these vinyl ester compounds Hai's portion focused on using some of the less common vinyl esters that can be produced to generate polymers. Then he tested these polymers to examine their properties.

"Some of these novel polymers improve the properties of existing products," said SUNRISE project director Wayne Seames, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering. "For example, Hai was able to transform a useful, but brittle, polymer product into one that has a lot more flexibility, reducing the chances that the product will break when it is used."

Wang – whose doctoral dissertation is titled "Study of vinyl ester copolymers derived from bio-source fatty acids" – said chemical engineering research could take him anywhere in the world as he applies for post-doctoral programs.

"But I got a U.S. State Department permit – the Optional Practical Training, or OPT program – to stay here," said Wang, who plays football indoors at the Wellness Center when the weather gets cold.

The UND Chemical Engineering Department's research priorities include renewable and sustainable energy and renewable materials and chemicals. Wang's advisor, Edward Kolodka, specialized in polymer engineering, including polymeric solar cells.

Juan Miguel Pedraza

University Relations Writer/Editor

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