An Alliance of Innovation
Pitt, Lubrizol Corporation Look Back at Past Decade of Research Collaboration to Envision What May Lie Ahead
When the partnership between the University of Pittsburgh and The Lubrizol Corporation first formed in 2013, a $1.2 million agreement planted the seed for what would become a commitment to fostering a new future of chemistry and engineering science.
Flash forward a decade when earlier this month, Lubrizol executives including President and CEO Dr. Rebecca Liebert, visited Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering and School of Medicine to learn about the fruits of that initial alliance, and what future opportunities may appear as the Wickliffe, Ohio-headquartered company continues to expand its industry footprint.
“When we began this partnership, our faculty saw it as an opportunity to apply their expertise to industry and find solutions for projects that were relatively small but impactful,” explains Steven R. Little, Distinguished Professor and Department Chair of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at Pitt. “Additionally, it presented an opportunity to engage students in industry research and ideation. As our alliance strengthened, however, this synergy and excitement expanded to where we were able to help Lubrizol create game-changing industry processes and innovations.”
“We greatly value our university partnerships at Lubrizol,” said Liebert. “Our University of Pittsburgh relationship provides us with a healthy pipeline of talent, as well as. valuable research and insights that help us progress forward in the markets we serve. It also gives future chemical engineers real-world experience and challenges to solve.”
“Over the past decade our relationship with the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering has become a shining example of University-Industrial partnership,” said Glenn Cormack, Lubrizol Process Innovation Manager and Technical Fellow. “Our partnership has been instrumental in helping Lubrizol reshape the way we innovate processes, provide more sustainable product solutions and think about how we decarbonize our manufacturing footprint.”
One of the first investigators to join the Pitt side of the alliance was Götz Veser, the Swanson School's Nicholas DeCecco professor of Chemical Engineering. In his lab he targeted Lubrizol’s production of additives and dispersants for industry. Like most chemical companies in the U.S., Lubrizol manufactured these products in very large batches because of ease, cost, and an industry reluctance to change.
Veser, however, knew European competitors were focused on “process intensification” – making more diversified products with a smaller manufacturing footprint. Veser and his graduate students developed a methodological pathway for process intensification, including a prototype reactor that would later become the genesis of new production skids at Lubrizol.
One of the graduate students who worked on this project, Nasser Al Azri, would not only earn his master’s and PhD from Pitt but would begin a new career as a Lubrizol Process Innovation Engineer.
Today, Veser and his students are investigating decarbonization, emissions mitigation and creating an efficient process for circular re-use of polyurethane materials by separating them into their constituent components post-use.
“The idea of a circular economy is at last gaining momentum in the United States and is encouraging companies like Lubrizol to create a more sustainable approach to manufacturing, one that streamlines processes, reduces waste, and enables a product to find a new life after its initial use,” Veser says. “This is no longer optional for industry because clients and the public at large are demanding that companies find solutions that have a positive impact on the planet. It’s exciting to work with a company like Lubrizol to bring these ideas to life.”
Meanwhile, Robert Enick, professor and assistant chair of research, utilizes a unique cell which allows him to test working fluid conditions at temperatures as extreme as 200˚C and pressures up to 10,000 psi. What’s distinctive about this equipment is that its large window and transparent polymer testing tubes allow for real-time visualization of the phase behavior. Enick’s system for example can be used to determine if polymers dissolve in CO2, or the stability of foams composed of CO2 bubbles separated by films of surfactant-brine.
“When you test a fluid for undissolved solids in a typical metal container, you might get positive results over time, but they might be impacted by undissolved solids impeding the flow that you can’t see between the surfaces,” Enick explains. “Being able to see viscosity is an incredible benefit when testing fluids in extreme environments.”
Another long-time Pitt researcher involved in the Lubrizol Alliance is Professor Lei Li, an expert in coatings who is studying liquid separation techniques utilizing 3-D printed membranes to separate liquid mixtures such as oily wastewater. Recently Li received a $542,751 award from the National Science Foundation to develop a more efficient lubricant to coat the latest devices in HDD technology.
“My students and I are proud of our research with Lubrizol because we are engaging in a holistic approach to sustainable applications,” Li said. “Greater efficiency and waste reduction are sometimes at odds in traditional manufacturing settings, but Lubrizol is committed to improving the entire production process and advancing U.S. industry.”
From Lab to the Classroom and Back
Glenn Cormack, Lubrizol’s Global Process Innovation Manager and Technical Fellow, noted that the faculty lab research is only one critical part of the alliance. The other is translating what is learned in the lab to teach the next generation of chemical engineers.
“Industries often evolve through innovation or attrition, and at Lubrizol we believe innovation is most successful when fostering the future of chemistry and science and creating healthy talent pathways,” he said. “By using the knowledge gained in labs and creating new courses that give students new paths into research, we help to develop a more holistic chemical engineer."
One of the cornerstones of the alliance has been the healthy pipeline of co-op and interns students from Pitt who have gone on to participate in multi-semester rotational assignments throughout Lubrizol. Lubrizol’s co-op program is a critical part of the hiring process of Chemical Engineering talent within the company. Furthermore, many students who end up in Lubrizol’s co-op program end up also performing fundamental research on Lubrizol projects when they return to school for subsequent semesters.
Two courses were developed through the alliance: “Introduction to Chemical Product Design” (ChE 0214) is open to sophomores who learn how to design products specific to a customer’s needs. Traditionally, most engineering students don’t work on design projects until senior year. The follow-up course, “Taking Products to Market: The Next Step in Chemical Product Design” (ChE 0314), focuses on entrepreneurship and the skills necessary to successfully turn student ideas into products or companies.
And to create a bridge between undergraduate and graduate programs, the “Physical Property Internship” is a nine-month program for chemical engineering students who graduate in December and are intending to go to graduate school in the fall.
From Quality of Chemistry to Quality of Life
Steve Little, the chemical engineering department chair, is nationally recognized for his research in drug delivery systems and particle design. What excites him even more about the alliance with Lubrizol is the company’s research and growth in medical polymers, medical devices, and pharmaceuticals.
"Both chemistry and pharmacology are evolving from an “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to manufacturing and treatment to a more “quality by design” ethos,” Little explains. “Today, we have a greater understanding of particle design and function as well as microfluidic systems. For example, rather than treating conditions from tooth decay to eye diseases and cancer by flooding the body with medication, we can design particles that are stimulus responsive and go into the body and treat one area or organ.”
Little’s research is now expanding into agriculture, where similar systems could be designed for more efficient delivery of fertilizers that are often washed into water systems, creating algae blooms and other dangers that threaten aquatic life.
The potential for novel life science applications between Lubrizol and Pitt extends beyond the Swanson School of Engineering. The university is one of the country’s research powerhouses and attracts more than $1 billion in external research funding, much of which is from the National Institutes of Health. The Lubrizol tour enabled Scott Morley, director of Pitt’s Office of Industry and Economy Partnerships, and Brian Vidic, director of industry partnerships, to provide a look at how the Schools of the Health Sciences could further extend the alliance in pharmaceutical sciences as well as dental medicine, plastic surgery, and regenerative medicine.
“The past ten years have provided a viable manual to show how we can create similar pathways between industry and medicine, just as we have in engineering,” Morley explained. “While we’re still in just the idea phase, it shows how universities and industry can partner to take innovative research to the next level.”
Strategic Alliance 2.0
Lubrizol President and CEO Dr. Rebecca Liebert had the opportunity to see how the Lubrizol/Pitt Alliance transformed over the past decade and what potential may lie ahead. Her visit also included a meeting with Pitt’s new Chancellor, Joan Gabel, who began her tenure this past July and is also engaged in understanding Pitt’s potential with collaborations such as Lubrizol. What comes next between the two entities is more ideation and discussion.
For now, however, the Swanson School continues to focus on how this strategic alliance can both advance research and open new pathways for students.
“One of the greatest attributes that has grown out of this alliance is the excitement between our faculty and Lubrizol scientists when they discover that solving a relatively small problem results in a greater innovation,” noted Sanjeev Shroff, Interim U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering. “The other benefit is that it has provided the template for the Swanson School and Pitt to develop similar partnerships in other departments which are also bearing fruit. I look forward to seeing what the next decade may bring.”