The University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science, more commonly known as Penn Engineering or SEAS, offers programs that emphasize hands-on study of engineering fundamentals while encouraging students to leverage the educational offerings of the broader University. Penn Engineering offers bachelors, masters, and Ph.D. degree programs in contemporary fields of engineering study.

An Ivy League university located in the city of Philadelphia, Penn was the first of its kind, a university created for the purpose of building knowledge that would benefit the future of our country and mankind. Established in 1852 as the School of Mines, Arts and Manufactures, Penn Engineering is among the oldest engineering programs in the United States.

Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science is organized into six departments including Bioengineering; Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; Computer and Information Science; Electrical and Systems Engineering; Materials Science and Engineering; and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics.

Bioengineering Breakthroughs

COVID-19 vaccines are just the beginning for mRNA-based therapies. However, because mRNA molecules are very fragile, they require extremely low temperatures for storage and transportation. The logistical challenges and expense of maintaining these temperatures must be overcome before mRNA therapies can become truly widespread.

With these challenges in mind, Penn Engineering researchers are developing a new manufacturing technique that would be able to produce mRNA sequences on demand and on-site, isolating them in a way that removes the need for cryogenic temperatures. The concept at the heart of the DReAM technique is a continuous enzymatic reaction and separation process, enabled by a complex form of liquid media known as a “bijel.”

Bijels, or bicontinuous interfacially jammed emulsion gels, are structured emulsions of oil and water that are kept separated by a layer of nanoparticles. This highly intertwined but unbroken arrangement allows for continuous chemical reactions and isolation of products, as reactant molecules can be fed into one of the phases while the reaction’s products are extracted from the other.

A suspension of particles of different sizes during shearing experiments conducted in the lab of Paulo Arratia, with arrows indicating particle “flow” and trajectories. In a new study published in Nature Physics, researchers detail the relationship between a disordered material’s individual particle arrangement and how it reacts to external stressors. (Image: Arratia lab)

The DReAM technology enables continuous synthesis and isolation of mRNA, overcoming the challenges posed by the conventional technique that relies on multi-step complex separation processes that are performed one batch at a time. Moreover, by enabling mRNA’s isolation into the oil phase of the bijel, the sequences would be stabilized and protected from the degradation that readily occurs in water. In addition to circumventing transportation logistics, this extra protection would significantly reduce the need for cryogenic storage.

In the fight against diseases, mRNA-based approaches are a promising tool. These treatments all depend on providing a patient’s cells with genetic instructions for custom proteins and other small molecules, meaning that getting those instructions inside the target cells is of critical importance. The current delivery method of choice uses lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) but figuring out how to design the most effective LNP is a fundamental challenge.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and Perelman School of Medicine have now shown how to computationally optimize the design of these delivery vehicles. Their study shows how potent LNPs can be designed more rapidly for use in the immune cell space and potential use of this method to further optimize LNPs for other mRNA therapeutic applications.

With Vivodyne, Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering Dan Huh is translating the organs-on-chips technology into a promising industry venture. Using microfluidic structures that mimic aspects of human physiology, organs-on-chips allow scientists to test therapies on lab-grown human cells. Vivodyne specifically focuses on designing organs-on-chips to create a scalable alternative for pharmaceutical drug testing on animals.

Vivodyne, launched in 2021, has created a platform that allows fully automated, complex studies at a far larger scale and lower cost than would be possible with manual experimentation, so pharmaceutical companies can actually test lab-made organs instead of animals in their drug-development processes.

Materials and Photonics Research

A major research challenge in the field of nanotechnology is finding efficient ways to control light, an ability essential for high-resolution imaging, biosensors, and cell phones. Because light is an electromagnetic wave that carries no charge itself, it is difficult to manipulate with voltage or an external magnetic field. To solve this challenge, engineers have found indirect ways to manipulate light using properties of the materials from which light reflects. However, the challenge becomes even more difficult on the nanoscale, as materials behave differently in atomically thin states.

A research team at Penn Engineering has discovered a magnetic property in antiferromagnetic materials that allows for the manipulation of light on the nanoscale, and simultaneously links the semiconductor material to magnetism, a gap that scientists have been trying to bridge for decades. The research focuses on finding new materials for electronics, computers, information storage and energy harvesting and conversion.

The researchers developed a way of alternating between “blocks” of two types of polymer with precise lengths. These “multiblock copolymers” spontaneously form layered and cylindrical structures (left), which could be used for nanopatterning, a way of manufacturing microscopic components. The researchers also demonstrated a “double gyroid” structure (right), which could be used for more complicated nanopatterning templates. (Image: Penn Engineering)

Another research team is trying to understand the relationship between a disordered material’s individual particle arrangement and how it reacts to external stressors. Their study found that these materials have “memory” that can be used to predict how and when they will flow.

A disordered material is randomly arranged at the particle-scale, e.g., atoms or grains, instead of being systematically distributed. Researchers in the Arratia lab are studying this class of materials as part of Penn’s Materials Research Science & Engineering Center, where one of the program’s focuses is on understanding the organization and proliferation of particle-scale rearrangements in disordered, amorphous materials.

Penn Engineering has opened the door for a new class of polymers that can improve nanopatterning. The microscopic components that make up computer chips must be made at staggering scales. With billions of transistors in a single processor, each made of multiple materials carefully arranged in patterns as thin as a strand of DNA, their manufacturing tools must also operate at a molecular level.

So-called “two-dimensional” materials have unique electrical and photonic properties, but their ultra-thin form factors present practical challenges when incorporated into devices. Penn Engineering researchers have now demonstrated a method for making large-area “superlattices” — layered structures containing 2D lattices of sulfur and tungsten — that can achieve light-matter coupling. (Image: Penn Engineering)

Typically, these tools involve using stencils to selectively pattern or remove materials with high fidelity, layer after layer, to form nanoscale electronic devices. But as chips must fit more and more components to keep up with the digital world’s growing computational demands, these nanopatterning stencils must also become smaller and more precise.

Now, a team of Penn Engineers has demonstrated how a new class of polymers could do just that. In a new study, the researchers demonstrated how “multiblock” copolymers can produce exceptionally ordered patterns in thin films, achieving spacings smaller than three nanometers.

The researchers are now investigating how to best convert these thin film structures into functional nanopatterning stencils, as well as developing a library of different multiblock copolymer chemistries that can form double gyroid structures.

Manufacturing uniform, extremely thin, high quality photonic semiconductor films of material other than silicon would make semiconductor chips more efficient, applicable, and scalable. A team of engineers at Penn Engineering have developed a new atomically thin material that could improve the efficiency of light-based tech. Their work describes a new method of manufacturing atomically thin superlattices, or semiconductor films, that are highly light emissive.

The team at Penn Engineering made a superlattice, five atoms thick, of tungsten and sulfur. They grew monolayers of atoms, or lattices, on a two-inch wafer and then dissolved the substrate, which allows the lattice to be transferred to any desired material, in their case, sapphire. Additionally, their lattice was created with repeating units of atoms aligned in one direction to make the superlattice two-dimensional, compact, and efficient.

Their superlattice design is not only extremely thin, making it lightweight and cost effective, but it can also emit light, not just detect it. Applications for this new technology are diverse and will likely include high-tech robotics, rockets, and lasers.

Technology Transfer

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